How Fired Schoolteacher JD McPherson Brought New Life to Old-School Rock

Oklahoma singer talks Fifties music conspiracies and exposing his students to Bad Brains

JD McPherson has a deep knowledge of early rock & roll.

If you went to middle school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from 2008 to 2011, you may have been lucky enough to take a class with one Mr. McPherson. As the chair of the art department, he taught students about Andy Kaufman, organized an avant-garde art program and had a mixtape club that even the high school soccer players took part in. "This is why I lost my job," the teacher says. "Maybe you shouldn't give 15-year-old kids Bad Brains."

After about four years, McPherson was fired. "I kind of saw it coming," he continues. "When it happened, I was kind of relieved in a way, because it was getting really hairy. You would be amazed how much of a shark tank it is." Besides, unemployment allowed him to spend more time perfecting the raw, straight-to-tape Sun Records-era rock & roll he's explored on two albums, 2012's Signs & Signifiers and the new, more adventurous Let the Good Times Roll. "[Getting fired] had to happen at that exact time or I wouldn't have done it. Because I had a wife and kids. I'm not gonna tell them, 'Hey, daddy is gonna quit his steady job just out of grad school, and I'm gonna go get in a band and play.'"

"It just sounds like 1957," Eric Church, who has written songs with McPherson and recently invited him to open some shows, says of the 37-year-old's music. "It's the slicked back hair, and rolled up jeans – there's just nothing like it, man. But when kids hear it, it's brand new. If you recall that music, a lot of it has died off. Hell, there's nobody else doing it. Nobody. And he's doing it in a unique way. I think that people are just hungry for that."

McPherson grew up in Oklahoma on a 160-acre cattle ranch; his family bred black brangus cows. But instead of farming, he spent most of his childhood "making videos, drawing and playing guitar." He studied film in college, and in grad school earned an "open media" degree that allowed him to study everything from art to jazz guitar to card magic. During his downtime, he listened to rock & roll and post-rockabilly bands like the Blasters. McPherson is an encyclopedia of obscure records, and at one point in our conversation, he discusses Big Al Downing, Wanda Jackson's piano player who went on to solo success, at length. When I mention Billy Lee Riley, who Bob Dylan discussed in his recent MusiCares speech, McPherson lights up: "I've seen Billy Lee Riley three times. He was an incredible guy, a really amazing performer, even in his old age. He should have been huge. He was badass."

In a recent interview with AARP, Dylan discussed the possibility of a conspiracy to eliminate rock & roll in the late-Fifties. McPherson agrees immediately. "It is more than a conspiracy," he says. "You can't tell me otherwise. There were dudes wearing suits, sitting in big houses that were really angry about things that were happening as a result of teenagers having real music for the first time. And they definitely did things."

McPherson is most interested in this the brief moment before early rock & roll lost steam. "You had records being made in New Orleans, for instance, where you had really, really strong, seasoned session players, accomplished jazz musicians, having to play this real primitive music," he says. "So you have this finesse thing that's shifting towards a more raw, visceral thing. At the same time, you have teenagers that don't know how to play that are making records – regional records where they're trying to play above their ability. So it's like, the first time where both of those things were totally accepted. And as long as it was cool and good, teenagers wanted it. And I'm fascinated by that idea, that these two worlds were forced to kind of collide."

McPherson wrote Let the Good Times Roll at home in Oklahoma between constant touring pulled him away from his wife and kids, a rough period resulting in songs like the scathing "revenge song" "All Over But the Shouting." He wrote one highlight, the soul ballad "Bridge Builder," with friend Dan Auerbach in the latter's Nashville studio. "I was not comfortable playing those chords, and I said, 'Hey man, I am not comfortable playing those chords!' And Dan said 'Why not? Do you like the Everly Brothers?' And I said, 'Yeah,' and he goes, 'What are you talking about? Just play the chords.' I was afraid to drift away from textbook traditional rock & roll, rhythm & blues formula. Now I am all about it. He cracked the egg that led to the omelette.

"Maybe this is bad form to say this but I really, really love it, I really love the second record,"
 he continues. "I am so proud of it and I just love it I like it listening to it. I really like listening to it. It's weird."

Above, watch the video for McPherson's "Let the Good Times Roll," which stars a married couple that the singer met on tour. "They're literally the coolest people you've ever seen," he says. "They're nice to a fault, but at the same time, effortlessly cool. We were in town for an extra day in Chicago, and I had my camera and I invited them over to the house where we were staying. They brought their new baby, and I just said, 'Just take time holding the baby and dance.' And there are scenes where they're tired, because they are tired. It just fit a lot more to me. Because that song is kind of an existentialist song, about love and the afterlife and stuff. It just struck me as more hitting home with the theme of the song, for them to be in it."