NPR Fresh Air: A Roots & Rockabilly Christmas Concert With JD McPherson
December 12, 2018
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. After pledging to never make an album of Christmas songs, my guest, roots and rockabilly musician JD McPherson, has broken that promise. And I’m really glad he did. His new album “Socks” features his original holiday songs, and they’re really fun. McPherson and his band came to our studio last week with their instruments to play some of those new Christmas songs and talk about music and other things.
McPherson is a songwriter, singer and guitarist who is described by music critic Ann Powers as a supreme rock reinventor. McPherson grew up far away from the hubs of the music world on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. His father runs the ranch. His mother is a preacher. Before becoming a full-time musician, McPherson taught art for four years to students in middle school. His Christmas album “Socks” is his fourth album.
Welcome all of you to FRESH AIR. It’s so exciting to have you here, and the new Christmas album is great. JD, I’m going to ask you to introduce the first song and to introduce the members of the band.
JD MCPHERSON: Certainly. So my name’s JD McPherson, and over to my left is everybody else. That’s Doug Corcoran, the utility guy who plays everything. Jimmy Sutton on bass. Ray Jacildo plays keys with background vocals, and our friend Jason Smay on drums.
GROSS: Though Jason isn’t here, I should say.
MCPHERSON: That’s correct.
MCPHERSON: He’s too loud. He’s…
GROSS: We’re not going to be hearing him.
MCPHERSON: He’s too loud. He’s in a straightjacket…
MCPHERSON: …In the other room.
GROSS: Too loud for our little studio.
GROSS: OK. Do you want to introduce the first song?
MCPHERSON: Yeah. This is “All The Gifts I Need.”
JD MCPHERSON BAND: (Singing) Happiness is automatic. There’s music in the air. Grab the boxes from the attic and haul them down the stairs. Freezing weather’s around the corner, and everybody knows. Whoa-oh, whoa-oh-ho (ph). Soon the tree will be all lit up, sparkling as it glows. Today’s anything but the same old thing. I can almost hear those sleigh bells ring – singing all those happy songs while the little ones all dance along. I take a real quick look around, and suddenly I see. It’s not even Christmas yet. I’ve got all the gifts I need – got caught hanging the mistletoe. Somebody stole a little kiss. I ain’t tied a single bow, but I can already cross love off my list. I take a real quick look around, and suddenly I see. It’s not even Christmas yet. I’ve got all the gifts I need. I take a real quick look around, and suddenly I see. It’s not even Christmas yet. I’ve got all the gifts I need.
GROSS: Thank you so much for performing that. That is so great. And this is in our studio. We heard JD McPherson on vocals and guitar, Jimmy Sutton, bass and guitar and also singing backup vocals, Doug Corcoran and Ray Jacildo. And that is one of the songs that’s also featured on JD’s new album, which is called “Socks.” And it’s an album of original Christmas songs. And it’s really fun, just like the song we just heard. JD, why did you want to do a Christmas album? I’m glad you did it.
GROSS: Why did you want to?
MCPHERSON: Well, I didn’t want to for a long time. We had done a Christmas song. So I – you know, I started professional, like, touring, I guess you’d call it. I always had bands, but I started touring pretty – you know, in my 30s. And once I was on the road and doing it and making it happen – pretty much anything anyone told me to do, I would do it. I was like, OK, yes, please don’t take this away from me.
MCPHERSON: So a few years back, our label at the time said, why don’t you do a Christmas song? And I said OK, and so I did it. And it actually went OK. And it was a lot of fun. I’m actually a big Christmas fan. But, you know, we did it. And then I was like, I won’t do anymore. That was it. And then, you know, the old saying never say never – I don’t know. I just got the bug in my ear to do it.
And I always loved Christmas music, and I love rock ‘n’ roll. And I – there was a few things that happened that made it seem like it was OK. For one thing, Nick Lowe made a record that was, like, a brilliant approach to holiday music. And he kind of set this, like, standard of, this could be actually pretty interesting. And so I have to say once we actually did it, it’s probably the most fun we’ve ever had…
GROSS: Wow, that’s great.
MCPHERSON: …Making a record.
GROSS: So there’s another Christmas song I’d like you to do, and it’s called “Ugly Sweater Blues.” And a lot of people intentionally wear ugly sweaters to Christmas parties – really hideous ones. So did you ever have any, like, ugly sweater traditions or real-ugly sweaters that you were forced to wear?
MCPHERSON: Well, it was more of – so, you know, I’m a – I have three older brothers and an older sister. And they were all out of the house when I was born. I was a big surprise. And so it wasn’t really sweaters, but my parents put me in these, like, velvet, like, tuxedos and, like, little ruffled pirate shirts and things like that. And there’s all these really unbelievable pictures of me with this bowl haircut with these tuxedos and things. And, you know, I was 3 or 4 at the time, so it didn’t bother me. But it’s humiliating, right?
MCPHERSON: For – everybody has some point where they’re being forced to wear clothes that they don’t really want to. So ugly sweaters, I think, everybody – even if you haven’t worn them, that’s a thing that you can always relate to – that, at some point, your parents are going to make you wear something you don’t want to wear.
GROSS: I know the feeling. I knew the feeling. All right. Can you do that song for us? So this is JD McPherson and his band performing in our studio. We’re going to hear JD on guitar and vocals, Jimmy Sutton on bass. Doug Corcoran is going to be playing steel guitar and Ray Jacildo – chimes. So here we go.
JD MCPHERSON BAND: (Singing) Mama, don’t make me wear that old thing again. Hand-knitted Christmas trees and a silly snowman – no matter if I refuse, I got these ugly sweater blues. Mama, why can’t you see I feel like a fool? Green elves with snowflakes and scratchy alpaca wool – maybe you heard the news. I got these ugly sweater blues. Another year, another sweater and another holiday soiree. Mama hears the people laughing while the presents are unwrapping. She’s not even sorry. Mama, don’t make me wear that old thing again. Green elves with sleigh bells and a gingerbread man – corduroys and pointed shoes, I got these ugly sweater blues.
(Singing) Driving to Atlanta for an interview with Santa, I can hear him say, hey, that kid is back again and dig that ugly cardigan; oh, what a shame. Mama, don’t make me wear that old thing again. Hand-knitted Christmas trees and a silly snowman – no matter if I refuse, I got these ugly sweater blues. Done paid all my dues – I’m singing these ugly sweater blues.
GROSS: That sounded great. That’s such a great song (laughter).
MCPHERSON: Thank you.
GROSS: That song was written by JD McPherson, who we heard on guitar and vocals. And this is one of the songs that he wrote that’s on the new Christmas album “Socks” that he recorded with his band. And thank you for playing this in the studio for us.
MCPHERSON: This is so much fun. Thank you for having us.
GROSS: This is so much fun for me. Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll hear more music in our studio back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JD MCPHERSON SONG “HOLLY, CAROL, CANDY & JOY”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guests are JD McPherson and members of his band, and they have a new album of Christmas songs – original songs – that’s called “Socks.”
So JD, I want to ask you a little bit about your past ’cause you grew up on a cattle farm…
GROSS: …in Oklahoma. So, like, describe it for us.
MCPHERSON: One-hundred-sixty acres or thereabouts, an A-frame house that my dad built up on a hill. Southeast Oklahoma is really pretty. I think it’s the prettiest part of Oklahoma – mountainous, kind of Ozark-type landscape, registered Brangus cattle, a 1940s Massey-Harris tractor and nothing else to do but to obsess over music and draw pictures.
GROSS: Did you have to do things on the cattle ranch?
MCPHERSON: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: What’d you have to do?
MCPHERSON: Well, you have to feed them first of all. And that was kind of – I think that’s probably the – the best description is waking up at 5 in the morning before school and putting out a round bale, meal and salt mix for the cows and everything. That’s an early day for a teenage kid.
GROSS: So you had to do that.
GROSS: And did you have to shovel anything?
MCPHERSON: No, there’s plenty of room. You don’t have to worry about it too much.
MCPHERSON: Just walk – watch where you’re walking.
GROSS: My knowledge of, like, cattle is kind of like cattle drive Westerns like the TV series “Rawhide.”
GROSS: Nothing like that.
MCPHERSON: No, you just kind of call them and they come up and…
GROSS: Really? Like, you call them.
GROSS: And they come.
MCPHERSON: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: What’s the cattle call?
MCPHERSON: Oh, I can’t do it here ’cause it’s so loud, but it’s kind of like (imitating cattle call).
GROSS: Did that help you musically to learn how to do that when you were a kid?
MCPHERSON: I don’t know. Maybe that’s where the first thing happened. I don’t know. It could be.
GROSS: So you said there’s nothing to do except obsess on music. So what music were you obsessing on early on?
MCPHERSON: Well, so when my brain sort of turned on was – my older brothers were teenagers in the ’70s. And so their music was kind of guitar rock. Classic rock they call it nowadays – Cream, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, et cetera. And I was interested in it, and I was interested in guitar.
And so, my older brother John Aaron would teach me a thing here and there. And the more I kind of listened to these things, I guess – became curious about what they were listening to. I mean, I couldn’t stop listening and reading ’cause it was so difficult to get music. I would have to call, you know, like, the mall in Fort Smith, Ark., and place an order for three CDs that I just read about in the Cream magazine that I bought the last time I was in Fort Smith. So it was like this constant sort of mining.
And, you know, you read things and you find out that, you know, Robert Plant was into Benny Joy and the Everly Brothers and Little Richard. And so I don’t know. When I kind of stumbled on that stuff, that was kind of a really big deal. I just remember asking my brother also if he – I started getting into kind of punk rock music and asking my brother, hey, John Aaron, you were around in the ’70s. Did you ever listen to punk rock? And he said, no.
MCPHERSON: So that was the twain. We split up there.
GROSS: So you mentioned punk rock. Did you start in a punk rock band?
MCPHERSON: Yeah. So me and my friend Mitchell had three bands with the same – just the same two members basically. We would – my nephew eventually – we taught him how to play bass, so we had a trio and. But yeah, that was – we played two shows. One of them was canceled.
MCPHERSON: That was – I think that was John Sparks’ backyard. Cowboys don’t really like X…
GROSS: But you had no…
MCPHERSON: …And Buzzcocks and stuff like that.
GROSS: Right. You had no audience.
MCPHERSON: Right (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
MCPHERSON: But we worked so hard on it.
GROSS: Oh, gee, that must’ve been…
MCPHERSON: We made flyers.
GROSS: That must’ve been so discouraging. You love this music, and there’s nobody to listen to it with…
MCPHERSON: No, not really.
GROSS: …Or to play it for.
MCPHERSON: I mean, it was just fun. It’s just a good – it’s a good thing to do. And, you know, your idling – your idle setting at 14, 15 years old is frustration, so you just do stuff because you’re supposed to do it. It’s like you against the world. And so that’s what we did.
GROSS: Now, since we’re talking about Christmas ’cause you have a new Christmas album, I think that your first Telecaster guitar was a Christmas gift.
MCPHERSON: Yeah, it was actually a Stratocaster, which is weird because I immediately shifted into being a Telecaster guy after that. But that was the best thing that I could have ever received. I mean, it was like – it was just the right time. I worked really hard.
GROSS: What time was it?
MCPHERSON: I was, like, probably 15.
GROSS: Age 15.
MCPHERSON: I think it was 15. And I didn’t expect to get it. And I had got all my presents, and I was, you know, really grateful for all – and then all of a sudden, my brother brings in this white – you know what was? It was the same guitar that Wayne had in “Wayne’s World” that he wanted to buy. And he said, oh, yes, it will be mine. It literally said “Wayne’s World” on the back of the guitar neck. Like, it was the guitar made for them.
MCPHERSON: I was so stoked to have a real electric guitar, so – but then I discovered Joe Strummer and Keith Richards and Chrissie Hynde all had Telecasters, so I wanted to do that instead.
GROSS: So when you were growing up on a cattle farm, was it hard to get into town or to go to a store? It sounds like you had to call stores and shopping malls in another state in order to find music.
MCPHERSON: Yeah. I mean, the nearest…
GROSS: It sounds isolated.
MCPHERSON: It was really isolated. The nearest supermarket was about 45-minute drive. I mean, there was, like, little country stores here and there. But, you know, my folks would do their shopping in, like, McAlester, Okla., or whatever – very – yeah, very isolated. Nearest neighbor was 2 1/2 miles away – dirt road.
GROSS: Did you vow, one day I’m going to be in New York?
MCPHERSON: Well, I wanted to go to Tulsa. (Laughter) My sights were much smaller.
MCPHERSON: We used to go to – we used to go shows in Tulsa, and there’s a really important venue there called Cain’s Ballroom. And I saw, you know, all of my first concerts there. It’s such an important place. And I knew that the Sex Pistols had played there, and Hank Williams had played there. So that was like – I wanted to be in Tulsa.
GROSS: Could we hear another Christmas song?
MCPHERSON: Yeah. What are we doing?
GROSS: OK, so let me suggest one. How about “Bad Kid” from your new Christmas album, “Socks?”
GROSS: Can you all play that for us? And the musicians here are in the studio with me, and it’s JD McPherson and his band. And we’re hearing Jimmy Sutton on bass. And Doug, what are you playing on this?
DOUG CORCORAN: Baritone guitar.
GROSS: Baritone guitar (laughter), OK.
MCPHERSON: Doug plays a lot of instruments – one, two, three four.
JD MCPHERSON BAND: (Singing) Oh, well, Christmastime is a time to be good. But baby, I’m a bad, bad kid. A stocking full of kerosene matches and wood – I guess I’m just a bad, bad kid. Government surveillance since I started to walk, ain’t no telling what I did. I like to think I’m just misunderstood. But you know I’m just a bad, bad kid. Daddy told Momma last Christmas Eve, you know we got a bad, bad kid. He’s got a black leather jacket and a real mean streak. I guess he’s just a bad, bad kid. He knocked off a Macy’s and my uncle’s antiques, hocked them for 49 quid. He’s on a one-way ticket down a dead-end street because Momma, he’s a bad, bad kid. Well, I can’t help it. I was born like this, a permanent spot on the naughty list. I never get a present. Santa’s scratching his head. How’d a little fella get so misled?
(Singing) Well, I can’t help it. I was born like this, a permanent spot on the naughty list. I never get a present. Santa’s scratching his head. How’d a little fella get so misled? In the downtown store on a silent night holding onto Momma’s hand, in the toy department, people waiting in line looking to meet the fat man. Old Kringle felt a tingle running up his spine. He saw me, then he run and hid. Santa heard his own name ended up on a list. It was written by a bad, bad kid. You don’t mess with a bad, bad kid. You don’t mess with a bad, bad kid.
GROSS: My guests are JD McPherson and his band. Their new album of McPherson’s new, original Christmas songs is called “Socks.” They’ll play more music, and we’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HEY SKINNY SANTA!”)
JD MCPHERSON BAND: (Singing) Hey, Mister Santa. How’s it looking? That 32 waistline, you better get cooking. We need a big Santa. It’s almost Christmastime. First stop, we got to get to Chicago. The secret to the pizza there is in the dough. Italian beef with giardiniera, hot and sweet, pop a Polish sausage on Maxwell Street. Windy City popping corn with caramel and cheese adds a couple notches to his belt with ease. We got to get some gumbo in N-O-L-A. Santa needs a pot of crawfish etouffee. Andouille and jambalaya, Santa don’t stop, a fried oyster po’boy and a nice Lagniappe. Fill him up with beignets and a box of pralines. We’ll get his red britches busting at the seams. Hey, Mister Santa. How’s it looking?
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to our concert of roots and rockabilly new original Christmas songs with JD McPherson and his band. Their new Christmas album is called “Socks.” This is his fourth album of what’s sometimes called retro rock. McPherson is a songwriter, singer and guitarist. He grew up on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma.
So when did you start getting interested in rockabilly?
MCPHERSON: So, you know, some of those punk bands that I was into would do – would once in a while – like, OK, for instance, The Clash on “London Calling,” they did a song called “Brand New Cadillac,” which was a cover of a rockabilly tune. There was a couple of bands that did covers of Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else.” It was, like, pretty apparent that earliest expression of rock ‘n’ roll was a big influence on the ’70s punk rockers because they were like, we’re tired of 15-minute, you know, synthesizer solos and stuff. Let’s just get it back to kind of street music. And so it appealed to me in that way.
But at the same time, there was really great musicianship on those early rock ‘n’ roll records because you had drummers like Earl Palmer, guitar players like Hank Garland, Grady – I mean, all these incredible musicians sometimes playing with 17-year-olds who couldn’t play their instruments on the same record, and I just – all of that really appealed to me. It was like mashing all of these worlds together and making something really exciting, so I guess that’s why.
GROSS: And Jimmy, you’re interested in that, too. And this is Jimmy Sutton, the bass player – because, like, you even have your own record label and studio. And the label’s called Hi-Style.
JIMMY SUTTON: Yeah, Hi-Style.
GROSS: And Jimmy, you’re interested in that too – and this is Jimmy Sutton, the bass player – because, like, you even have your own record label and studio. And the label’s called Hi-Style.
SUTTON: Yeah, Hi-Style Records, that’s right.
GROSS: And it’s all roots music. In fact, I like the description on your website of the label. It says Hi-Style focuses on American roots music that feeds the soul.
GROSS: So Jimmy, one of the things you do is play slap bass. And I want you to demonstrate how that sounds for us.
SUTTON: Absolutely. Here, I’ll give you two of my favorites. This is going to be a combination between – how about Willie Dixon and Bill Black?
GROSS: So it’s turning the bass into a bass and a percussion instrument at the same time.
SUTTON: Yeah. Basically, yeah. First time I heard slap bass was – I was real young, and it was on an episode of “Rawhide.” I can’t remember who was playing it. For some reason in my head, I thought it was Roy Clark, but I don’t know if he plays acoustic bass.
MCPHERSON: “Rawhide” again.
GROSS: Yeah, it’s a great show (laughter).
SUTTON: But, you know – but, yeah, and along with JD, listening to early punk rock music, it kind of – when the whole rockabilly thing kind of surfaced, it almost gave us the OK to get back in – you know, just to dive into it. I mean, bands like, you know, the Stray Cats kind of brought it to a real, you know, nationwide or worldwide level. And…
GROSS: So when you’re playing slap bass, where are you slapping? What do you…
SUTTON: Oh, well, I’m slapping over the fingerboard towards the bottom. And I’m playing gut strings right here too, and they tend to sound a little better than all-steel strings. But I’m – here, this is a single pull (playing bass). And this is a slap (playing bass). I’m slapping down with my hand – pulling, slapping (playing bass). And then you can do all kinds of tricks (playing bass).
GROSS: Great. And, you know, some of the early rock ‘n’ rollers used their bass as part of the choreography. They put it under their legs or spin it around. Have you done that kind of stuff onstage?
SUTTON: I used to do it all.
SUTTON: I used to do it all. Yeah, I used to surf it, stand on it, lay on it. You know, it was just ridiculous. It was a lot of fun. But, you know, that was in my – maybe my 20s – teens. It started in my teens, sure.
GROSS: Why did you stop?
SUTTON: Because everybody else started doing it, and I think people expected me to do it – you know, are you going to stand on the bass again? And I just wanted to play better. You know, at a certain point, I thought, I better concentrate on the bass a little bit more than jumping all over it.
GROSS: It’s probably not the best thing for the bass either, right?
SUTTON: Well, I still have that bass that I bought back in 19 – oh, yeah, it was in 1982 I think I purchased my first bass in downtown Chicago.
GROSS: So you grew up in Chicago.
SUTTON: Yeah, I did.
GROSS: So you were a city boy.
SUTTON: Yeah, I did not live around any cows like JD here.
GROSS: How did you meet?
MCPHERSON: Yeah, I was trying to get a gig in Chicago, and I was a fan of his bands. And I messaged him on Myspace.
GROSS: Myspace served it’s function.
MCPHERSON: It did.
SUTTON: Yeah. And I thought, here we go again.
SUTTON: But I listened to this music. And there was something going on there, so – and here we are.
GROSS: Well, I’m glad you got together. This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, we’re doing music in our studio today. And my guests are JD McPherson, who is a songwriter, singer and guitarist, and members of his band. And their new album is an album of original Christmas songs written by JD. The album is called “Socks.” But we’re also hearing them play some music that isn’t Christmas music. And that is the case – not Christmas music – with the next song I’m going to ask you to do, which is called “Jubilee.” And performing in our studio on this song will be JD on guitar and vocals and Jimmy Sutton on bass. Doug Corcoran is going to be playing baritone guitar. And Ray Jacildo is going to be on chimes. And before we hear it, JD, introduce the song for us. Tell us about the inspiration for this song.
MCPHERSON: “Jubilee” – we were making the last record, and I had this kind of chord progression started. And I worked on this one with Ray actually. And the lyrics were written I think almost overnight. I wrote it for the next day’s session, which is kind of a habit I have. And anyway I just remember reading about some – I was looking in a book about Western clothes. I have this book called “How The West Was Worn.” And it’s like fascinating to me. Anyway there was something – I just saw the word jubilee. It popped out, and I wrote it right there. It was really – it became – once you get this kind of spark sometimes, they come really quickly. I wish they always did. They don’t always. But yeah, this is “Jubilee.”
GROSS: But in this song, jubilee is a person. It’s a woman.
GROSS: OK, all right. Can you play it for us?
MCPHERSON: From Western clothes to a song about a girl, here we go.
JD MCPHERSON BAND: (Singing) I hang around where the music is playing. I see the joyful look on every face. I try to listen to the words they’re singing. But nothing ever fills this empty space. You’re the only thing that stirs up any feeling in me. Jubilee, why you got to strike me down? I shatter into pieces when you come around. Could you ever feel the same? You were always stronger than me, Jubilee. When you sip that glass of wine, swaying in the party lights and feeling fine, when your buzzing like a bee, think of me, Jubilee. Think of me, Jubilee. Think of me, Jubilee. Think of me, Jubilee.
GROSS: So that was just an excerpt of the song “Jubilee.”
MCPHERSON: Yeah, that was the abbreviated version…
MCPHERSON: …Because it’s a very long song. For us, five minutes is very, very long.
GROSS: Well, I’ll tell you what. Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is JD McPherson and his band. And they have a new album of Christmas songs – original songs – that’s called “Socks.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JD MCPHERSON SONG, “SANTA’S GOT A MEAN MACHINE”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is JD McPherson and three members of his band – bass player Jimmy Sutton, Doug Corcoran, who plays baritone guitar and also sings, and Ray Jacildo, who is the keyboard player. And he’s playing chimes for us today in addition to singing backup vocals. Jason Smay, the drummer of the band, is not with us today because in our studio, the drums are just going to be too loud, and he’s the drummer. So thanks anyways, Jason. You sound great on the record.
So we talked a little bit about growing up on a cattle ranch. You taught school before you were a professional musician. You taught eighth grade. You were fired from eighth grade teaching, so was I.
GROSS: You lasted four years. I lasted six weeks, so…
MCPHERSON: Oh, wow.
GROSS: I have the edge over you.
MCPHERSON: I want to know what you did.
GROSS: Everything wrong. I couldn’t…
MCPHERSON: I did that, too.
GROSS: …Keep the kids in the classroom, let alone teach them anything.
GROSS: But why were you fired?
MCPHERSON: Well, really, the – you know, the – there’s actually a little bit of a legend perpetuated by a big rock magazine that I was fired for giving a 15-year-old boy a Bad Brains CD. That’s true. I did give him the Bad Brains CD. But the reason I was fired is because I was a terrible employee.
GROSS: In what sense?
MCPHERSON: I just – I’m not good at wallowing in the mire of administrivia. I’m not good at office politics. I’m not good at relating to other adults. In fact, I’m much – I’m, actually, much better with the kids. You know, I’m essentially a 13-year-old, you know, mentally, anyway. So I’m just kind of – we can relate to each other.
GROSS: Is administrivia your word?
MCPHERSON: I think I’ve heard that word before.
GROSS: Oh, I haven’t. I like it. I like it.
MCPHERSON: Yes, I invented that word, Terry (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) You also – like, one of your – your first album, in fact, was called “Signs & Semiotics” (ph).
MCPHERSON: …”Signs & Signifiers.”
GROSS: Signs and signifiers are part of the definition of semiotics, which is using signs and signifiers and symbols to understand how meaning is derived from the text. And the semioticists (laughter) who invented – came up with a very arcane language to deconstruct different art forms. Why did you study that?
MCPHERSON: Well, I was in art school for a long, long time. I got my bachelor’s at the University of Oklahoma in experimental film and video art. And then I got my Master of Fine Arts at the University of Tulsa in what they called open media, which was everything. I went crazy over there. I can’t believe they let me get away with – I studied everything from installation to painting to card magic. And – but I’m just saying in 11, 12 years of art school, you’re going to have to read Saussure and Roland Barthes and all those things, which, essentially, teaches you that up is good, down is bad (laughter).
GROSS: So why did you want to name an album “Signs & Signifiers”?
MCPHERSON: Well, I always liked the – I always liked language. And I loved that terminology that you’d see pop up once in a while. I always thought it sounded like kind of a ’20s blues title sound like something that maybe Charley Patton might say or – I don’t know. It just seemed to be kind of both. It appealed to my art school sensibility and my love of kind of archaic blues language, I guess. I don’t know.
GROSS: Did you think it sounded vaguely biblical, like the signs and signifiers of hell? If you don’t – (laughter).
MCPHERSON: Yeah, maybe a little of that, too. Both my parents are preachers, too, so maybe there’s of little that in there, too.
GROSS: Oh, I was thinking a lot of the blues people, I mean, sang about hell…
GROSS: …And damnation. So your mother was…
MCPHERSON: My mother…
GROSS: …Was a preacher.
MCPHERSON: Still is, yeah.
GROSS: Still is – what church?
MCPHERSON: The Word of Life Church in Bache, Okla. She’s been a minister for – well, she’s in her 80s now. She’s been doing it a long time. That was a big deal because where we lived, that wasn’t really – people didn’t really like that – and some people, I guess, didn’t really like that there was a woman preacher. And she’s an incredible lady. She, you know, always supported my music. She kept the cops from shutting us down in McAlester when my little band played our first gig at the public amphitheater.
GROSS: Why were they going to shut it down?
MCPHERSON: Because it was loud and bad (laughter). But…
GROSS: And they don’t shut things down for aesthetic reasons. They set it down for others.
MCPHERSON: McAlester police, they don’t have – you know, there’s not a lot going on. So when kids with skateboards show up and distortion boxes and – singing songs by people from England, I don’t know. They wanted to shut her down. But I – so I just remember my mom. I didn’t even know she was there, but she was there. And she went over and talked to them and said, let these kids play.
GROSS: So was your family church the church where your mother preached?
MCPHERSON: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So you grew up with your mother preaching.
GROSS: What did she preach? Like what were – what are some memorable things from her sermons?
MCPHERSON: Well, it was a non-denominational service. It was really heavy on music. There was a lot of music. I started off drums there, and my brother played guitar.
GROSS: Oh, so you played in your mother’s church.
MCPHERSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: What music did you play?
MCPHERSON: You know, it wasn’t, like, hymns. It wasn’t – they were kind of songs written by people, like non-published material. It was an interesting place. Like, there was a lot of different kind of – like, I remember, you know, we would bring guys from the Jackie Brannon Correctional Facility to church and got to know a lot of those guys. Some of those guys played in the band. I don’t know. It was – now that I look back, you know, it was just church. But, you know, it was a pretty interesting place, actually.
GROSS: It sounds like it.
GROSS: Sing a few bars of one of the songs that you…
MCPHERSON: Oh, jeez (ph).
GROSS: …Did in church.
MCPHERSON: I remember my dad used to sing this song called “Cover Me” that I really like. And this is going to be – this is, I mean, literally never – (singing, playing guitar) cover me. Cover me. Extend the borders of thy mantle over me for thou are my nearest kinsmen. Cover me. Cover me. Cover me. Repeat.
GROSS: That’s really nice.
MCPHERSON: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: So did Christmas songs actually have special meaning for you because your mother was a preacher?
MCPHERSON: Well, living in the countryside, you know, you don’t go to the mall very much. You don’t hear – you’re not inundated, you know, the day of Thanksgiving and beyond with constant Christmas music. It was actually kind of a special thing to go (laughter) to the city for me. So when I did go and it was Christmastime, it really felt, I think, like, maybe what they’re trying to make you feel as opposed to living in a city and it’s just everywhere all the time, you know? Ever since making this record, we hear – we talked about it a lot. And you hear a lot of people saying that they’re really – they really don’t like it. That never – I mean, they’re just, like, tired of Christmas music or it’s coming too soon or whatever. That never happened to me. So I always kind of really liked it. I think that maybe that sort of cynicism about holiday music didn’t really apply to me in some way.
GROSS: That’s nice.
MCPHERSON: I like that.
MCPHERSON: I like not being cynical about things.
GROSS: Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll be back for some more music performed in our studio by JD McPherson and his band. And their new album is an album of JD’s Christmas songs, and it’s called “Socks.” This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JD MCPHERSON SONG, “NORTH SIDE GAL”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guests are JD McPherson and members of his band. And their new album is an album of JD’s original Christmas songs. It’s called “Socks.”
So when you were fired after four years from teaching, was that like a relief for you? Did it open up the door to becoming a musician…
MCPHERSON: Well, I…
GROSS: …A full-time musician?
MCPHERSON: Yeah. Is it OK if I say, yes, it was a relief (laughter)? You – every job I ever had, I tried to somehow inject music in there somewhere. I tried to figure out a way to make it about what I really wanted to do. And so when the fourth-graders were learning to type, they were typing about the Collins Kids or Charlie Christian. And when they were learning how to make PowerPoints, they were – you know, I showed them the PowerPoint I made about the Clash. And we would have Google search contests where I would play music and press pause, and that’s when you stop. Or, you know…
MCPHERSON: …Name the four Romanes, go; you get a piece of candy…
MCPHERSON: …If you get them in – you know what I mean? So it was always kind of – tiger can’t change his stripes. And I’m a rock ’n’ roll tiger, man.
GROSS: So I want to close with another – that is, I want you to close with another Christmas song. There’s a song I love from the new album – your new album “Socks” that I’d like you to perform for us. And it’s called “What’s That Sound?” And I think everyone in the band is going to chime in on that one.
MCPHERSON: Yeah. Well, this one, I think, is probably getting down to the root of that anti-cynicism sentiment we were just speaking about. This is – this one’s about all of those nice things that you can experience during that time of year.
GROSS: So this is JD McPherson and his band performing in our studio, and the song is “What’s That Sound?” And it’s also on their new Christmas album, which is called “Socks.”
MCPHERSON: OK. Here we go.
JD MCPHERSON BAND: (Singing) What’s that sound at the door I hear? I heard that same merry sound last year. Neighbors are caroling around the town, trying to spread a little bit of joy around. I hear that sound. It makes me feel so fine – sounds a little bit like Christmastime. What’s that sound down the road I hear? I heard that same mighty sound last year. Parade drummers marching out two by two, rocking out the holiday boogaloo. What’s that sound? It sounds like Christmastime. If you listen closely now, you’ll hear it in the air. That’s the sound of Christmas cheer. I hear it everywhere. What’s that sound at the mall I hear? I heard that same busy sound last year. Shoppers are hopping and humming a tune. Happy holidays, and how do you do? What’s that sound? It sounds like Christmastime. If you listen closely now, you’ll hear it in the air. That’s the sound of Christmas cheer. I hear it everywhere. What’s that sound on the roof I hear? I heard that same pitter-pat last year. Jingling bells and big, black boots, a rattling chimney and 32 hooves. I hear that sound, make me feel so fine, sounds a little bit like Christmastime. What’s that sound down the road I hear? I heard that same ringing bell last year. Ringing that thing like he’s leading a band trying to give a neighbor a helping hand. What’s that sound? It sounds like Christmastime. What’s that sound? It sounds like Christmastime. What’s that sound? It sounds like Christmastime.
GROSS: Oh, that was great. Thank you so much for performing for us in our studio. It’s just been wonderful. I wish you all merry Christmas, a really happy and healthy 2019 and great musical things, too.
MCPHERSON: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Thank you…
MCPHERSON: Thanks for doing this.
GROSS: …For doing this.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you so much.
MCPHERSON: Our pleasure.
GROSS: Our thanks to JD McPherson and his band. Their new Christmas album is called “Socks.”
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, from prisoner to crime reporter – I’ll talk with Keri Blakinger about her experiences in prison, including solitary on narcotics charges. She now covers criminal justice, specializing in prisons and the death penalty for the Houston Chronicle. We’ll also discuss some of the Texas prison reforms her reporting has led to. I hope you’ll join us.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Today’s concert was produced by Amy Salit and recorded by Joyce Lieberman (ph) with help from Al Banks (ph). Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I’m Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “EVERY SINGLE CHRISTMAS”)
JD MCPHERSON BAND: (Singing) Every single Christmas I just fall in love, all the fun and happiness it brings. Every single Christmas I just fall in love with every bow and silver bell that rings. See the lights around the town, around and around we go. It’s like this great big world is ours every time it snows. Every single Christmas I just fall in love just because I have you here with me. Every single Christmas I just fall in love, all the windows filled with candle light. Every single Christmas I just fall in love, all the rooftops painted snowy white.
See the lights around the town, around and around we go. It’s like this great big world is ours every time it snows. Every single Christmas I just fall in love just because I have you here with me. See the lights around the town, around and around we go. It’s like the whole wide world is ours every time it snows. Every single Christmas I just fall in love just because I have you here with me, just because I have you here with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “TWINKLE (LITTLE CHRISTMAS LIGHTS)”)
JD MCPHERSON BAND: (Singing) Twinkle little Christmas lights shining on the tree never seem to shine so bright as when she’s here with me. Twinkle little Christmas star, snowy fields and farms. Guide me down the icy roads and back to baby’s arms. Radiance across the sky glimmers brightly in our eyes. The glow of love is all around us so twinkle on, Christmastime.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.