Josh Joplin didn’t feel like he had a choice.
While his peers were getting their first taste of teenage freedom behind the wheel of Mom and Pop’s old Olds, roaring recklessly with radios wide open past Amish horse-drawn buggies on rural Lancaster County, Pa., roads, Joplin, 16, was dropping out of school to follow the great American highway west in search of ghosts.
Joplin went to Okema, Okla., on the dusty trail of long-gone road veteran Woody Guthrie. And on to El Paso, Texas, in search of fragments of the late Phil Ochs’ broken soul. And then to Hibbing, Minn., seeking echoes of Bob Dylan — another teenager who left his hometown, packing an inscrutable smile.
Joplin’s heroes were once lifeless posters on his bedroom walls. But he needed to see and feel where those enigmatic troubadours had come from — to make them tangible, more real.
The budding songwriter also visited other places — San Francisco, Denver — rich in Kerouac-ian road-trip mystique.
His travels were “half a beatnik adventure and half a folk-troubadour adventure,” Joplin, now 27, said by cell phone from a car on the outskirts of Waco, Texas, bound for a gig in Austin.
“Honestly, I didn’t think there was anything else I could have done,” he continued. “I had to, ultimately, quit school and get out and write songs. I didn’t know there was an alternative.”
Joplin’s newest batch of songs, titled Useful Music — smart pop heavily imprinted with American folk traditions and finessed with light-hearted, surprisingly successful urban textures — will be released nationally by Artemis Records on Jan. 24. It’s credited to the Atlanta-based Josh Joplin Group, or JJG, whose core members include bassist/violist Geoff Melkonnian, former Kelly Hogan keyboardist Allen Broyles, and guitarist Deb Davis, a recent transplant to Asheville.
Useful Music’s first single, the hook-heavy “Camera One,” was produced by ex-Talking Head Jerry Harrison (Live, No Doubt, Verve Pipe) and remixed by heavy-hitter knob-twiddler Tom Lord-Alge.
Joplin’s first two self-released albums, Boxing Nostalgic and Projecter Head (both predating the current band lineup) are now out of print. Useful Music, originally produced entirely by old friend Shawn Mullins, was first released last year (on Atlanta-based SMG Records) with different cover art and earlier versions of a couple songs.
At times, Joplin’s voice is, as on “Camera One,” a dead ringer for that of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.
“We both sing through our noses,” Joplin quips.
But where Stipe’s bursts of melancholy tend toward the ponderously oblique and unnavigable, Joplin’s dark emotional crescendos leave a trail of bread crumbs winding back out of the forest — however hard it may be to get home again.
“I’m going home despite that Thomas Wolfe is right,” Joplin sings on the wryly titled “Who’s Afraid of Thomas Wolfe?” And the self-analysis casualty in “I’ve Changed,” whose dreams have come up short, insists he’s “fine now,” back from the brink of tasting the barrel of a loaded gun.
Joplin’s songs run the other direction, too — away from comfort and cheery outcomes to where “the sandy-haired son of Hollywood” in “Camera One” loses his faith “in all that’s good” — and hangs himself from the shower rod in his bathroom.
“It’s funny how life turns out,” goes part of the chorus. “The odds of faith in the face of doubt.”
“I think we all try to strike a balance between our struggle to achieve faith and our struggle to achieve a place in this world,” Joplin muses, his cell-phone signal flickering periodically.
“Happiness is a struggle in itself,” he adds. “It’s a fleeting thing. And I write a lot about that.
“But utimately — and maybe because I do purge this stuff in my writing — I’m a pretty happy person.”
Joplin’s writing is rooted in places left behind, a litany of maps and New Deal murals, Trailways buses and desert skies. The lovely “Dutch Wonderland” paints an idyllic picture of snowy childhood days — “a Christmas colored neighborhood … with a plastic baby Jesus in the yard” — which come to an abrupt end in an icy car wreck.
The title refers to a real place back in Joplin’s native Lancaster, the Dutch Wonderland amusement park, which is dedicated, Joplin says, “to the tourist industry.”
He fondly remembers the park’s Pennsylvania Dutch theme and a bit of unintended irony: its centerpiece is a Bavarian castle.
“That’s so brilliant, because it has nothing to do with the Amish people,” Joplin notes with a laugh.
The real Dutch Wonderland struck him as a metaphor for childhood in rural Pennsylvania.
“Here we were in this county with the Amish around us,” Joplin explains, “and it was always a kind of surreal place to grow up and want fast cars and fast music, and enjoy those things, yet have this simplicity of fields and agriculture all around you.”
Despite maintaining that “true irony” rarely exists, Joplin has a pretty strong sense of it. Or maybe it’s just a pronounced affinity for the perverse.