When Rounder Records jump-started retro-rocker JD McPherson's career last year, his debut album took off like a Rocket 88.
And just in the nick of time, too, since the Broken Arrow bopper's teaching job had just stalled out.
“This came along at exactly the right time, and we're doin' OK,” the singer-guitarist said from a diner parking lot where his outfit had stopped on the way to Columbia, Mo.
OK, indeed. Since Rounder picked up “Signs & Signifiers” in April 2012, it's racked up rave reviews and was the most-played album of the year on Americana radio.
The video for McPherson's “North Side Gal” was an Internet sensation, drawing a million views since its release.
McPherson and his band have been on the road almost constantly since, rousing crowds across the U.S. and Europe, and millions of viewers on “Conan,” “The Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, McPherson will rock the block as he headlines the roots-oriented Sailor Jerry Stage of Norman Music Festival 6.
“Yeah, it has been a really interesting year, for sure,” McPherson said. “We've been kind of workin' on this record for a little longer than that because it came out on the Hi-Style label, an independent label before that. But certainly when we jumped on with Rounder, that's when things kinda started to happen.”
Hi-Style is a Chicago-based indie label and analog studio owned by Jimmy Sutton, who produced “Signs & Signifiers” and plays standup bass in McPherson's trio, which also includes Alex Hall on drums, piano and organ.
“We're talkin' like a one-man operation versus a 30-, 40-people operation with parent companies and ties to PR firms, and things like that can kind of get a machine going,” McPherson said, comparing the two labels. “Things like that really help out, but it also helps to hit the road and tour as much as you can, and we certainly have done that.”
Before his big breakthrough, McPherson, 36, who earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Tulsa, was teaching technology and art to fourth- through eighth-graders in Tulsa. Then, financial cutbacks were ordered.
“So the first thing institutions like that will do is they cut the arts,” he said. “And so they cut all the art teachers down to part-time and then I was the freshman of the group, the newest hire, so they just let me go altogether. So that's the way it goes.”
But McPherson had a wife and two small daughters to support.
So now was the time to find out if he could actually make a living indulging himself in his first love — making music.
“The great love of my life I guess is kind of rhythm 'n' blues and rock 'n' roll, but I've listened to and continue to listen to everything I could get my hands on, and I've always been consumed with this stuff since I was a kid,” said McPherson, who was born in Tulsa and grew up in southeastern Oklahoma near Talihina.
“It's like all I kinda really ever wanted to do is listen to records, read about records and collect records, and I just bought every magazine I could get my hands on, from like Rolling Stone to biographies to just, like, punk-rock fanzines to whatever, and so I think that whatever you're into is going to come out of ya at some point.”
Lots of influences
While McPherson's music is heavily influenced by '50s rockabilly, there are more modern shadings in his writing and playing as well. He remembers first falling for '80s pop when his older sister plopped a pair of headphones on his 5-year-old head and turned him on to Duran Duran's “The Reflex.”
“It was like ear candy to a little kid, you know?”
The next phase of McPherson's informal musical education came from his dad's blues records. He was mesmerized by the songs of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, and the much older recordings of Charley Patton and others.
“One guy with a thumping foot and an electric guitar was kind of my favorite thing,” he said.
Then the records of his much older brothers — albums by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers — caught his ear.
And then came punk.
“I was kind of a weird kid in this very rural environment, and I start rebelling and listening to punk rock and hard-core, some of the burgeoning alternative music that was happening in the '90s,” McPherson recalled. “That's really kinda when I guess my brain sorta turned on and I started thinkin' about writing and doing something, because the greatest gift of the punk ethos is the kind of economic freedom that kind of lets you make something out of anything. And you can put a lot of time into it, but you don't need to invest much more than just enthusiasm.”
And finally, he discovered Buddy Holly, which was perhaps the beginning of McPherson's own fully formed sound.
“It's sort of like midcareer Buddy Holly stuff, which is funny to say, 'cause his career was very, very short,” McPherson said.
“His stuff with Sonny Curtis, the Decca stuff, and that kind of like hit a chord I guess, because it had all the stuff that I liked but it was a country guy doin' it, and I just liked it. It's just fun to drive around and listen to it. I liked the guitar style on it and everything, I liked the textures and sounds and stuff. That one thing led to another. ... When I started getting into early rock, that was probably the most consumed I had been, to discover music.”
With all the touring and TV appearances, there's barely been time to start work on his next album, but some ideas are in the can, and a new McPherson album could arrive by early 2014.
And while vintage rock still will be the touchstone, the teacher-turned-troubadour promises some twists.
“There's the ability to push the songwriting a little bit, I guess experiment with the form of rhythm 'n' blues and rock 'n' roll. Because, honestly, it didn't last very long. At least the vocabulary we work with. It was pretty short before it started to change. So we kind of feel like there's still things you can do with it, and so maybe there'll be a little '50s psychedelia coming out. We'll see. Who knows?”