Musical roots run deep in Oklahoma. From Depression-era folk and Western Swing to modern urban-inflected pop, seemingly unrelated genres and subgenres assume the shape of strands on one giant geographical genome of artistic expression
Case in point: JD McPherson, the Broken Arrow-based singer-songwriter whose sophomore album, Let the Good Times Roll, has garnered much in the way of national recognition this year. He performed the title track on David Letterman’s show in February. Meanwhile, the video for an earlier single, “North Side Gal,” approaches 2 million views on YouTube.
Either song serves as a fine entry point to McPherson’s no-nonsense, unapologetically upbeat style, which might best be described as pure rock ‘n’ roll. His sound is characterized by a sincerity – a refreshing absence of irony or condescension – that is mirrored in his polite and down-to-earth manner of speaking.
The state has produced so many brilliant musicians, and it’s got such a nice stew of different folks making music.”
His humility extends to a conscious awareness of his place in a long line of musical icons with origins in Oklahoma, including luminaries like Big Al Downing, Wanda Jackson and Chet Baker.
“The state has produced so many brilliant musicians, and it’s got such a nice stew of different folks making music,” he says. “I’m very proud to be operating in that field with these folks.”
Surprising connections emerge within that field. McPherson recalls learning that his aunt’s piano was tuned by Eldon Shamblin, who made his name as a guitarist for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Supplementing his income in later years by tuning pianos and teaching music – “all part of the gig” for a working musician, McPherson adds – Shamblin nevertheless continued practicing his craft.
“I saw him play a few times,” McPherson says. “It was incredible.”
Given the heavy influence of early, pre-British Invasion rock on McPherson’s sound – and of the earlier genres that fed into it – his awareness of musicians like Shamblin is hardly surprising. But his sources of inspiration are by no means limited to the state or even the country. He recently experienced a surreal moment when one of his heroes, the English singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, sat in with his band onstage at the Islington Assembly Hall in London.
“I looked over at him, and it just dawned on me that I’m onstage playing with Nick Lowe,” he says. “Those moments are strange because you’re comparing an experience that’s happening right now with something that you’ve been building up in your brain since you were 15 years old. All of a sudden those memories come flooding back.”
Flooding back from a not inconsiderable distance: McPherson grew up in southeastern Oklahoma under fairly isolated rural circumstances that allowed him a great deal of time to learn about music, he says – a career trajectory that begins on a 160-acre cattle ranch.
Surely this plays into a popular image of Oklahoma – one that, for better or for worse, haunts the nationwide collective consciousness.