My favorite album of 2012 was Signs & Signifiers by JD McPherson from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. The young singer-songwriter evoked the sound of Chess Records in the Fifties (Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, etc.) with vibrancy. McPherson, playing Antone’s Saturday, admits that’s what he and producer/bassist Jimmy Sutton wanted.
“It was a pretty intense labor of love for Jimmy and I,” he explains. “We made the record as an experiment for Jimmy’s new studio. It turned into this magical experience. One hundred percent fun the whole time. Maybe that had something to do with it.
“We didn’t want it to be a Fifties record. Jimmy and I were on the same page about making a record that was everything we liked about rock & roll without keeping it in a time capsule. I’d made a record that was kind of rockabilly before that, but I decided I didn’t want to write like that anymore.
“Lyrically, songs like ‘Signs & Signifiers’ and ‘A Gentle Awakening’ are way outside the box.”
The original disc came out on their own Hi-Style label. Then life took an unexpected turn for McPherson. The album was picked up for national distribution by famed roots music label Rounder Records. Now, there’s no looking back.
“I was working full time as a school teacher,” he recalls. “I assumed I’d always be a school teacher and this would just be something that we did as a project. Then I lost my job just as the record was coming out. So we hit the road and kept on it, which is how we met some of the record folks, especially Rounder.
“It a just a strange, fortuitous series of events.”
Also on the bill at Antone’s, local rockabillies the Bellfuries, who were hand picked by McPherson to join him. Joey Simone of the Bellfuries wrote “Your Love (All That I’m Missing),” which appears on Signs & Signifiers.
“They’re one of my favorite bands,” McPherson says. “We’ve already done two shows with them. Joey’s really one of my biggest influences in trying to write outside the box. They’re incredible and they’ve decided to branch out too.”
I wasn’t the only one picking up on the joys of Signs & Signifiers. It appeared on many a 2012 Top 10. Surprisingly, this is McPherson’s first appearance in Austin since its release. He can’t explain that except to say that he’s unexpectedly and happily very busy and will remain that way for the immediate future.
“The crowds are getting bigger and it seems like we just keep on chugging along. We’re writing for a new record and anxious to make it, but there always seems to be a new tour that pops up – some place we haven’t played these songs yet. We’re headed to Australia at the end of March, we barely played anywhere in Canada yet, and we only got to play the UK once.
“To a lot of folks it’s still a new record.”