We’ve all heard of guitar gods whose rock careers took off when they dropped out of school, formed a band and hit the road. But JD McPherson’s “school dropout” story has a twist: the Oklahoma native was a dedicated art teacher—until his contract wasn’t renewed.
“I was a really good teacher, I was great with the kids, but I’m really, truly a terrible employee,” says McPherson, who’s been in bands since he was 16. “I can’t wallow in the mire of administrivia, can’t keep paperwork, can’t keep up with the political game. It was gonna happen sooner or later.”
But McPherson—who’s now based in happenin’ East Nashville, Tennessee—isn’t complaining. With his old day job safely out of the picture, he’s become one of the true stars of a burgeoning international rock and roll scene. And yes, that’s rock with the “and roll” still attached—as in vintage-leaning, uber-rootsy, lean, mean and damn fun.
His third album, Undivided Heart & Soul (out October 6 via New West Records), shows that the singer-guitarist-songwriter draws from a much larger pool of influences than the Buddy Holly/Sonny Curtis recordings that turned him on to vintage rock and fueled his earlier work.
“People might be surprised at my perception of what rock and roll is, the fact that it didn’t end after three years of its inception,” McPherson says. “I love rock and roll all the way through Rockpile, through T. Rex and the Stooges. All those things are fair game to soak up into what we do.”
Undivided Heart & Soul shows those influences and more, including Link Wray’s greasy chords, Dave Davies’ spasmodic crunch and a touch of the Creation. The 11-song set was produced by McPherson and Dan Molad and recorded at Nashville’s Historic RCA Studio B, home of the Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins and countless other Music City legends.
Highlights include the ethereal, Radiohead-meets-Duane-Eddy shimmy of “On the Lips,” the angular “Lucky Penny” (which features punchy bass by former Four Charms main man Jimmy Sutton and thunderous drums by Jason Smay) and the simply brilliant “Hunting for Sugar”—but the entire album is full of surprises and is a joy to behold.
“The new album is 97 percent TK Smith Custom,” McPherson says. “It gets so many different sounds. Just the difference between the bridge and neck pickups is huge.”
Below, you'll find our bonus Q&A with McPherson. For more information, visit jdmcpherson.com.
How'd you get started in this biz?
It started professionally about seven years ago. I’ve never not had a band since I was 16; if one felt like it was starting to go south, I always had one sort of coming up on the back burner. But the majority of my life, I sort of shifted my perception of what the priorities and responsibilities should be so that I could play music. I would take off on two- or three-week tours during college, and when I was working a steady job I would play every weekend, so it was always a thing I made a priority for, and sometimes other things suffered.
But the crazy thing that happened was I was playing a festival in Spain while I was teaching school. I met Jimmy Sutton there. He had a band [at the festival], and he was telling me he had a studio he was working on, and he wanted to do something. I was a fan of everything Jimmy had done up to that point. He had some really incredible bands, including the Four Charms.
So we made that record, but it was made under sort of under the notion that I have a family, I’m a school teacher, this is something I’m going to pour every bit of my industry into, but that’s just what it’s gonna be: I’m gonna make a record. And I thought maybe in the summer we can go back to Spain and play a rock-and-roll weekend or something—because those things exist over there. That was sort of all it was gonna be.
Then the inevitable rapping at the chamber door came when my [teaching] contract was not renewed. Frankly, I was a really good teacher, I was great with kids, but I’m really, truly a terrible employee. I just can’t wallow in the mire of administrivia; I can’t keep paperwork, I can’t keep up with the political game. So it was gonna happen sooner or later.
But the crazy thing that happened was we had this record and this video and people were passing it around, and I just remember getting a call at work one day, and it was a couple of guys who were like, hey, we’re band managers and we’re wondering if you have a representative. I had no idea any of this existed.
That was one thing about living where I live. There are a lot of great bands, a lot of great musicians in Tulsa, but nobody seems to know how to get out of Tulsa or really showed any ambition to do so. It’s like, what’s a booking agent? What does a manager do?
Basically, I made a deal with my wife, like, hey, while I’m looking for another job, why don’t you let me tour a bit this summer and make a little extra money? Things started to click, and I said, well, why don’t we give it a year? I think I played 230, 240 shows that first year, and it almost broke me in half. I’d never toured before, and I’d never been away from my family before. So it was a really big leap of faith, but basically it worked out because I was able to do something for a living that I had done for free since I was 16.
You seem to have a less-is-more approach, guitar wise. Is this something you’re conscious of?
I think it’s pragmatism. I’m never going to be Richie Kotzen. I love Richie Kotzen, but if I stand in the mirror with a Richie Kotzen record playing, it’s just gonna be a joke. I’m not gonna be able to do it. I’m a huge fan of guitar. I love guitars, I love guitar music, but I do tend to gravitate more toward things that fall on the side of musical or stylish or sparse. I love Bo Diddley. There’s nobody cooler than that. That style of guitar playing isn’t about big arpeggio sweeps and things. It’s about this primitive, crazy [thing].
I love Chuck Berry’s guitar playing. Is he out of tune sometimes? Yes. Is he bending too far sometimes? Yes. It’s awesome. I love it. It sounds like fun. It sounds like teenager music. So I tend to be into that kind of stuff.
But then there’s also Django Reinhardt. I could listen to him all day. It’s all about balance. It’s songwriting and guitar playing and production; it’s a balance, juxtaposing things. Sometimes a cool guitar sound is good enough. Solos should be like compositions—you should be able to sing it back.
You wouldn't have heard songs like “Lucky Penny” and “Style (Is a Losing Game)” on your first album, Signs & Signifiers. How do you evolve, stretch out and even get a bit experimental while staying true to your genre?
If anyone asks what kind of music we play, we say rock and roll. We’re a rock and roll band. A lot of people might be surprised at my perception of what rock and roll is, the fact that it didn’t end after three years of its inception. I love rock and roll all the way through Rockpile, through T-Rex, through the Stooges. To me, all of those things are fair game to soak up into what we do. It also has a lot to do with what you’re listening to at the time or where your head is.
And, I gotta tell ya, fear can be a real impediment to the creative process; it also can be an incredible aid to the creative process, because making this record was, like, these songs were just falling out, and I was having a really hard time wrestling with the fact that some people might be bummed out that it didn’t feel like the first record. There was a point where I literally couldn’t worry anymore. It was like, these are the songs I’m writing, this is what we’re doing. We did it, and so far so good. We’ve gotten a very positive response to it.
I think it shows evolution but certainly sticks to the vintage vibe. My favorite of the bunch is “Hunting for Sugar.”
Man, that’s my wife’s favorite. It’s also one I actually enjoy listening to. I sometimes have kind of a "cringe" reaction to my own music—like if it comes on in TGI Fridays, I wanna run to the bathroom. But I love listening to “Hunting for Sugar.”
What gear did you use on the new album?
The new album is 97 percent TK Smith Custom. It gets so many different sounds. Just the difference between the bridge and neck pickups is so great. TK installed an out-of-phase switch, so I use that a lot. With the right amp, it can change into a completely different thing, but most of the record was that guitar through an amp made from an old PA head that’s been stuffed with the guts of a Fender Tweed Pro and an old Gibson amp and through a Supro 15-inch speaker. That’s pretty much the whole thing.
I also used my Fender Teles. I have a white one—they call it the Lacquer Series or something [Classic Series '50s Telecaster Lacquer]—and it’s got TK Smith’s pickups in it. I also picked up this early Sixties Supro Dual Tone guitar in Austin; I’m sure everybody’s had this experience where you walk into a guitar store and there’s this one instrument that has light coming out of it. You can’t keep your hands off of it. There were two that day for me.
One was an old Gibson J-45 that some gospel singer had, and it had chord names scratched into the side of the guitar so you could remember the songs. I just fell in love with that thing. But that Supro, man, I plugged that into a little Champ and just started playing “Rumble,” and I had to have it. It was like it had been under somebody’s bed since 1961. It had the original strap that had never been worn, the original guitar cable, the original case.
Honestly, I would say buying that guitar had more to do with the direction of the new record than anything else. Once I got that guitar, I started playing those Link Wray chords, it was like, ah, this is what I want to do now.
When you were younger, you listened to the Cure, the Flaming Lips, a lot of Sub Pop stuff, etc. What was the album or song that set you in the direction of vintage rock?
My older brother John Aaron taught me how to play guitar, and he grew up in the Seventies. He was 16 when I was born. I was a surprise. So my brothers listened to the Allman Brothers Band, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd—guitar rock from the Sixties and Seventies. And that’s what I was into, plus Van Halen. The first thing I learned to play on guitar was “Over the Hills and Far Away.” That was my favorite Led Zeppelin song, and my brother taught me how to play it.
But I grew up in the country, so it was impossible to get music. I had to read a lot of magazines and books—everything I could get my hands on. I still have Guitar World magazines from high school.
This summer you tweeted that you fondly remembered our semi-classic Ritchie Blackmore interview from 1991.
I just remember that cover, with the white Strat, talking about dumping flour bags on people from up above, and doing magic tricks and stuff. Half the time I can’t remember my brothers’ birthdays, but I can remember a piece of dialog from an interview from a guitar magazine from high school. I suffer the curse of my dad; when he’s interested in something, he goes 100 percent into it. Otherwise, he’s like ehhhhhhhh. It falls by the wayside.
So I was into that guitar stuff—then I got my hands on a guitar magazine where one of the little bottom corner things was an off-the-beaten-path section of record reviews, and it was the Stooges' Raw Power and Black Flag and the first Ramones record. I remember reading in the Black Flag thing, "When I listen to Black Flag, nothing in this world can hurt me," and I’m 15 thinking, oh yeah, I want to check that out.
So, I would call the record store in Fort Smith, Arkansas; there was a Hastings [record store] at the mall. That’s where I got my music. I’d call and order stuff and the next time we went there to go grocery shopping or whatever, because we were an hour and a half away from the nearest grocery store, I’d pick up music and magazines.
So once I got into punk rock, I became filled with this sort of righteous rage of "I can do this myself, I can create a life for myself"; these guys are doing this stuff with total philosophical and economic freedom, and I said that’s what I want to do. I remember going to my brother and saying, "Hey, you grew up in the Seventies. Were you into punk rock at all?" He just looked at me and said, “Nooooo.” [laughs] So we kind of split there.
I became more and more interested in punk rock, and that led me to bands like the Pixies and the burgeoning alternative music and New Wave music that was happening in the Nineties. Then I had a crush on a girl in a record store in Oklahoma, and she gave me a Buddy Holly box set that they were gonna throw out because that record store catered to people who had bass systems in their mini-trucks, so they didn’t have much use for Buddy Holly. And there it went.
It was like everything I loved about the Ramones—fast tempos, exuberance and fun music but with really great guitar playing by Sonny Curtis. It clicked for me. Oh man, this is what rock and roll is. This is awesome. Because I had only heard Buddy’s pop stuff, but his early stuff with Sonny Curtis on guitar, it’s incredible. It was attitude plus guitar know-how, and I just soaked up everything I could find.
I was like, well, this is Buddy Holly; there must be some good Elvis stuff too. So I found the Sun Sessions and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, and then I found Gene Vincent and, holy smokes, Cliff Gallup—and I just became a complete nut for early rock and roll after that. I’ve always had a pretty open mind for any kind of music, but the early rock and roll and R&B stuff has been the love of my life.
What was your first guitar?
I had a guitar called a Memphis; it was a student-size guitar, and it was a turquoise blue sparkle with one pickup. I played it every day for three hours a day until one Christmas, we were opening presents, and we were all done. Everyone was picking up the trash, and my brother walked in with a guitar case and said Santa Claus forgot something. It was a white Stratocaster; there’s a video tape of me somewhere of me completely losing my shit [laughs]. It was a Wayne’s World Strat, too. It had ‘Wayne’s World’ stamped in the back of the neck. It’s the “Oh yes, it will be mine” guitar.
Speaking of students, do any of your former students ever show up at your shows?
Yeah, quite often, actually. A lot of the cool kids who had an aptitude for art and music, I stayed in touch with them. One kid went on to go to screenwriting school; one kid has a great radio station at the University of Austin. So yeah, I see some familiar faces all the time, especially when I’m in Tulsa. A lot of the kids are grown up now.
Were there any new or different influences that found their way into the new album?
Yes. I think a lot about lyrics, but I also tend to think a lot about sounds beforehand, and I’ve been listening to a lot of this band called the Creation; they were like a mod-rock band.
I love Jason [Smay]’s drumming. He's like Gene Krupa mixed with Robo from Black Flag. He hits so hard—and he’s got all these jazz chops. We were playing, and I was like, man, how do we get this drum sound? And he’s like, well those are Sixties drums with plastic heads, because up to that point we had … he was touring with a vintage Fifties kit. These Sixties mod bands had this sorta plunky sound on the drums, so that was just another thing that started to creep in on the record. On “Lucky Penny,” the drums are such a big part of that song.
And being in RCA Studio B was a huge influence in making that record because there’s so much of the original gear there, like the vibraphone you hear on Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” That’s still there. We put that thing on everything! “Lucky Penny,” that bell sound, that’s the vibraphone.
The piano is the same piano Floyd Cramer played on “Last Date.” All the Everly Brothers stuff that has piano—that’s the piano. There’s an old celeste there, and that started creeping in, and then—of course—the echo chamber at RCA Studio B; we would spend half a day on drums, getting the drums through a bunch of compressors and through the echo chamber. On “Jubilee,” god, we agonized over the drums.
So RCA had a huge influence on the record, plus I was listening to a ton of garage and Link Wray, the first Stooges record, John Cale.
I hear a lot of Dave Davies and the Sonics on “Style (Is a Losing Game).”
Well, that’s exactly right. And then the claps on that—the claps were too quiet, and I kept saying, we have to turn up the claps, and the producer said they were too loud, so I played him the Stooges' “No Fun” and said the claps have to be this loud at least [laughs].