For JD McPherson, making old-school rock is a labor of love

ROCK STEADY: JD McPherson separates himself from other genre-nerd retro-rockers, actively taking ownership of a sound instead of just mimicking one. Photo by Jimmy Sutton

The Fats Domino reference aside, Let the Good Times Roll — the second record from Oklahoma rocker JD McPherson — doesn’t sound as if it should come from the 21st century. In the same way that Signs and Signifiers, McPherson’s 2012 slicked-back and switchblade-brandishing debut, did, Good Times evokes the first bursts of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s populated with twist-ready rave-ups in “All Over” and the title track, swaying Sam Cooke-esque ballads in “Precious” and “Bridge Builder.” Twelve-bar blues progressions jump with Little Richard’s verve; guitar lines slice as if emanating from Link Wray’s slashed speakers or resonate with a deep twang that recalls Duane Eddy’s Gretsch.

McPherson — who plays The Grey Eagle on Saturday, Feb. 21 — instills his music with the same visceral danger that marked the earliest rock music cuts. And he honors those midcentury sounds with impeccable precision. Just don’t call it retro. “Early rock ‘n’ roll is the most glowing example of rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “I don’t care how weird the music gets, you’re still going to get the interviews wanting to talk about poodle skirts and, you know, black leather jackets. And it’s like, man, you’re missing the coolest thing that ever happened.”

If McPherson occasionally looks like an extra from The Outsiders, he insists it’s because he’s an Oklahoman, as his dedication to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll is unwavering. Indeed, the musician is a walking compendium of rock’s dustiest annals. There wasn’t much to do in rural southeast Oklahoma, where he grew up on a 160-acre cattle ranch, and when a girl at a record store turned him on to Buddy Holly’s Decca recordings, McPherson dove headlong not just into the catalogs of Holly and his contemporaries, but the building blocks — pre-war blues, ’40s R&B and country, ’50s doo-wop and rockabilly.

“It’s probably the same thing for everybody,” McPherson says. “It’s the same thing that causes people to, all of a sudden one day [paint] Civil War figurines in their basement. It creeps up on you. … You find a record that you really like, and you like it so much that you start to read a book about it and every magazine article you can find, and you find out that these people were influenced by those people and this record, and then before you know it, you’re hoarding away 78s and cataloging them.”

In sculpting his music from the same elementary units that made up rock ‘n’ roll, McPherson separates himself from other genre-nerd retro-rockers, actively taking ownership of a sound instead of just mimicking one. And he doesn’t limit his influences to pre-Beatlemania greasers: tremolos pulse at the speed of The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now”; looping piano trills bring to mind dusty hip-hop samples. Mark Neill’s production on Good Times suggests a hi-fi Buddy Holly, and the Dan Auerbach co-write credit on “Bridge Builder” roots McPherson firmly in the new millennium.

For McPherson, ultimately, there’s something intrinsically valuable about the dangerous vibe of early rock and in the belief that there are avenues to the art form that haven’t yet been fully explored. Listening to Let the Good Times Roll isn’t a history lesson — it’s rock ‘n’ roll evangelism.

“Going back to the guy in his basement painting Civil War figures, it’s completely important to him,” McPherson says. And while no one else might care about the mission, “it’s important to me that rock ‘n’ roll be sort of all included under one umbrella, where Chuck Berry sits proudly next to Stiff Little Fingers. It’s all the same thing.

“It’s fun,” he adds. “It’s fun music. It’s fun to play, and it’s fun to listen to. It’s the best thing ever.”

WHO: JD McPherson
WHERE: The Grey Eagle,
WHEN: Saturday, Feb. 21, 8 p.m. $15 advance/$18 day of show


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About Patrick Wall
Patrick Wall lives and writes in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is carbon-based.

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