When JD McPherson starts to commit a song to tape — and it is literally tape, as in reels of quarter-inch brown plastic run through a 1960s-vintage Berlant machine — the Oklahoma rock ’n’ roll phenomenon finds the right rhythm for the song after crate-diving through vintage rhythm and blues in search of cool drum patterns. Then, as drummer Alex Hall plays the rhythm, bassist and producer Jimmy Sutton dances around the studio, carrying a metronome and adjusting it until he nails the perfect tempo.
So it is no surprise that the 35-year-old Broken Arrow singer-guitarist’s debut album, “Signs & Signifiers,” is full of energetic and timeless music that retro-purist rock and soul fans can use for “scratching circles on the old dance floor,” as he sings on one track. McPherson is experiencing success with songs that sound as old as rock ’n’ roll itself, including standout tracks such as “North Side Gal” and “Wolf Teeth,” and the former teacher with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Tulsa is pulling in big crowds.
Having just conquered Europe, McPherson returns to Oklahoma with a 10 p.m. Friday show at VZD’s, 4200 N Western, and a headlining performance at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Tulsa’s Mayfest.
“It’s ridiculously good in the U.K. right now,” McPherson said in a recent phone interview. “We’ve had pretty steady gigs since the record came out in Europe, but mostly in central Europe — Germany, Belgium, the Benelux area, and Spain, certainly. But the England thing that’s happening right now is pretty nuts. We’re on regular rotation on BBC Radio now. We did six different radio shows for the BBC in addition to all the gigs.”
Originally released in 2010 on the small independent label Hi-Style, “Signs & Signifiers” was picked up by Rounder, the respected roots-music label that is home to Alison Krauss, Dr. John, Robert Plant and dozens of other artists with strong ties to folk, blues, world music and traditional R&B.
“We made the record with no dream of it doing much more than us being able to fly to Spain a couple of times a year to play a roots weekender,” McPherson said. “We knew that it would probably do OK with the subculture of folks that are into that kind of stuff.”
Instead, McPherson sold out his show at The Borderline in London and immediately booked a return gig at a larger British venue later this year.
And now the buzz is spreading back home. Since Rounder rereleased the album April 17, “Signs & Signifiers” is receiving attention from National Public Radio, Rolling Stone magazine and other key tastemakers, which still comes as a surprise to McPherson.
Range of influences
“Signs & Signifiers” might sound like an archival R&B recording from the 1950s, but the album is informed by McPherson’s broad swath of influences and subtle references to his graduate studies.
Growing up in southeastern Oklahoma near Talihina, McPherson started playing guitar at 13 and soon mastered the Led Zeppelin songbook thanks to his older siblings’ albums. But he also took a strong interest in his father’s collection of Buddy Holly records, enjoying the pop hits and bonding with Holly’s harder-edged songs. Whenever he had the chance, McPherson drove to Fort Smith, Ark., and rifled through the racks at the local Hastings, discovering subgenres that eventually found their way into his own music.
“I still pepper my music listening time with all kinds of different things,” McPherson said. “The stuff that gets me excited the most is the ’50s rhythm and blues and black rock ’n’ roll stuff, but I’m still very interested in what is happening in music now, and music as related to subcultures, like the punk rockers and the rude boys and ska stuff. I don’t know why — I guess it’s like all rock music was like new tribalism. Every band had their own scene and their own pageantry, and David Bowie was a different person on every album.”
This musical discovery process explains two separate but linked elements of the artist’s career: McPherson’s decision to sign with Rounder and his personal affinity for hip-hop. He expresses particular admiration for the Wu-Tang Clan, especially Raekwon and RZA, who incorporated off-key piano figures, music from B-movies and obscure jazz samples into their music. Like McPherson, Raekwon, RZA and other hip-hop masters were crate divers, discovering new music and injecting it into their own work.
“Those were really intellectual guys,” he said. “A lot of hip-hop guys were musicologists. They had to look through stuff from the past to find samples and inspiration.”
Ties to literature
That same deep study of music is what attracted McPherson to Rounder. He met Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton-Levy, who founded the label in 1970, and was impressed with both the trio’s dedication to finding important and elemental music and the label’s roster.
“They were going to see Little Richard when he was no longer popular, and trying to find the lost harmonica player for Jimmie Rodgers, setting up fake businesses so they could find Jimmie Rodgers recordings for RCA, who had no idea that he had done anything for RCA,” McPherson said. “I mean, they were digging and excavating for this American music.”
And then there is the title of the record. “Signs & Signifiers” is a reference to literary criticism — a required area of study in McPherson’s MFA program at TU. It is not often that an album of traditional R&B and rock ’n’ roll makes reference to structuralism and the work of Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure.
“Yeah, jeez Louise, that’s an arduous process,” McPherson said of his literary criticism class. “You gotta read that stuff, but it’s tough. It’s almost like you’re reading about something that you just kind of know innately, but you’re having to find extremely complicated words to describe it.”
And that might sum up “Signs & Signifiers,” an album full of songs that feel natural and loose, but reveal the many layers of McPherson’s musical influences upon “close reading.”
McPherson said the title and the cover, which depicts McPherson in deep thought while holding a literary text, are inside jokes about his educational background, but the music comes from someplace more primal and less intellectual. It comes from finding the right beat, the right sound, and the right feeling that will make people scratch those circles on the dance floor.
“It’s sort of making fun of myself in a way, because we made this really straightforward record and then made this ridiculous, seeming coded album cover, and then the album title itself promotes this convoluted, coded way of thinking,” McPherson said, laughing. “But that is not necessarily the case.”
When: 10 p.m. Friday.
Where: VZD’s, 4200 N Western.
When: 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: The Williams Green Stage at Mayfest, between Main and Boston on S Third Street in downtown Tulsa.