There was a time when being labeled a revivalist might have gotten under the creative skin of JD McPherson.
Admittedly, it’s hard not to soak in the load of roots-friendly accents that help the Oklahoma native’s 2015 sophomore album, “Let the Good Times Roll,” live up to its title. But the thrill of McPherson’s music has always been its ability to rewire those inspirations for a sound as organically modern as it is effortlessly vital.
“There probably was a time when the musicologist in me wanted to say, ‘Well, we’re not doing this or doing that.’ But that really doesn’t matter to me too much as long as people are talking about what we’re doing,” McPherson said.
There is something about swinging and rhythm that’s always going to be cooler than playing it straight.
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In recent years, there has been considerable talk about his roots-conscious songs. It could be sparked by the sleek after-hours feel of “Bridge Builder,” which balances a blues variation of Coasters-style crooning until riffs of Link Wray-friendly twang detonate the tune. Then again, the fuss might be stemming from “It’s All Over but the Shouting,” a party piece full of brassy cool that sounds like The Blasters, had they worked out of Kansas City juke joints during the 1950s instead of Los Angeles punk clubs in the ’70s. But when McPherson whipped all those inspirations together during a downtown Lexington concert held outdoors as part of the Breeders’ Cup Festival in 2015, labels didn’t matter. What emerged was a full-blown block party.
“I still get really excited by early expressions of rock ’n’ roll,” said McPherson, who returns this weekend to Lexington for a performance at Willie’s Locally Known. (The show was initially booked for the new Cosmic Charlie’s on National Avenue, but its reopening has been rescheduled for later this month or December.)
“That stuff still rings true to me. There is something about swinging and rhythm that’s always going to be cooler than playing it straight. But how do you juxtapose something against it that makes it all swing? These weird push-and-pull things are fascinating to me. There are a lot of realms to be explored with that stuff.”
Taken equally by punk and roots music in his teens, McPherson grew up without any exposure to live music. In the cattle-ranching terrain of Southwestern Oklahoma, there wasn’t much of it to be found.
“When I became a teenager and was able to drive, I made trips to go see shows because there was literally nothing within a 2 1/2 -hour drive from where I grew up. So it was all about being in my room and just reading, listening and playing. It really was a kind of insular, sort of hermetic approach to music up until a certain point.
“There wasn’t any internet then. Instead, I would hear something from a radio station in Dallas on a rainy day, write the title down and call the music store in Fort Smith, Ark., to order it. Two weeks later, when my family would go to Fort Smith, I would pick it up and grab magazines to read all I could about the music. I mean, that was all I cared about. That was all I did.”
I learned that a young person’s mind is lot more voracious and a lot more open than those of most adults. Kids are always trying to figure things out.
JD McPherson on his years as a teacher
Just before his debut album, “Signs and Signifiers,” was re-released by Rounder Records in 2012, McPherson had been working as an arts and technology teacher. Through that came an insight to the eagerness of young minds and the necessity of encouraging whatever artistic pursuits they called out for.
“I learned that a young person’s mind is lot more voracious and a lot more open than those of most adults. Kids are always trying to figure things out,” McPherson says. “That’s the thing I remember from being that age. You want to be more comfortable. You want to find something that helps you figure out who and what you are. Any kid with any talent for something, … you should really nurture that and help bring that out, whether that kid is a mathematician or painter or anything. It’s really important they are around supportive people.
“I didn’t have art or music classes as a kid. I went to a rural school that didn’t have the budget for that. I wonder what it would have been like if I could have learned to read music or had a band instrument to play or piano lessons. So it’s very important for me to make sure a young person is being helped to become a more fully realized adult.’
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.