Though Memphis is rife with hip-hoppers, post-punk rockers, and club/dance DJs, the music is, at its core, traditional, still rooted in the mid-century sonic foundation — blues, country, rock, and soul — that made the city one of the world's most important cultural centers.
But current-day Memphis proves that traditional doesn't have to equal conservative. Many of the city's defining modern musicians — from spiritual godfather Jim Dickinson to followers such as ex-Oblivians Jack Yarber (now of the Tearjerkers) and Greg Cartwright (his Reigning Sound relocated to Asheville, North Carolina), on-the-rise Amy LaVere, and blues-based beast Alvin Youngblood Hart — are diverse roots performers who synthesize foundational forms into a recognizable personal style. To that illustrious list, you can now add John Paul Keith. Keith, who moved to Memphis in 2005 after an up-and-down music career that took him from Knoxville to Nashville to New York to Birmingham, has been tearing up local clubs for the last year or so with his ace backing band, the 145s, melding honky-tonk country with Chuck Berry-style rock, Stax-referencing grooves, and lilting '60s pop. Late last year, the band released its debut album, Spills and Thrills , locally on vinyl. On April 14th, the record goes worldwide with a CD release on the Big Legal Mess, an imprint of the Mississippi-based Fat Possum label.
At their worst, Keith and the 145s spin genre music that fits neatly into roots niches: The rockabilly of "Pure Cane Sugar." The mean slide blues of "Let's Get Gone." The Booker T. & the MGs homage "Cookie Bones." At their best, the band blends these styles into perhaps the most pleasurable sound in Memphis music right now. Spills and Thrills ' opening "Lookin' for a Thrill" leaps out at you with a groove that wiggles like a glowworm, dances like a spinning top. Keith and guitarist Kevin Cubbins laying nimble country-rock riffs over the fleet rhythm section of drummer John Argroves and bassist Mark Stuart. Other highlights include the bluesy, swinging country of "Second Hand Heart," the shuffling lament "Otherwise," and the Reigning Sound-style sock-hop rock of "If I Were You."
This is not the future Keith had envisioned for himself when he moved to Memphis a few years ago to be closer to his sister — the only person he knew in his new hometown.
Keith had taken several shots at a music career already. He'd been a founding member of the Knoxville-via-Nashville alt-country band the V-Roys. A second Nashville band, the garage-rock Nevers, had signed to Sire Records, for which they recorded one aborted album. And Keith had been a sideman for temperamental alt-rock fave Ryan Adams early in Adams' solo career.
By the time Keith moved to Memphis, he'd had a new band in Birmingham fall apart and was through with it all. "I'd decided I didn't want to play anymore," he says.
This up-and-down career seems to have informed one of Spills and Thrills ' most memorable songs, the arty ballad "Rock and Roll Will Break Your Heart," in which Keith sings, "All around the world, kids wanna dance/They're falling in love/They're joining bands/And they're making records that won't make the charts/Rock-and-roll will break their hearts."
In Memphis, Keith's sister introduced him to harmonica player/band-leader Billy Gibson, who coaxed Keith into sitting in one night at the Rum Boogie Café. "I really had a ball and got asked to do other gigs," Keith remembers. "I needed the money — I was just temping at the time — so the next thing I knew I was playing on Beale Street."
That was a new experience for Keith. "I'd never played for 'civilians,' as I like to call them — people who aren't necessarily big music fans," he explains. "I was used to playing rock clubs, indie-rock clubs, where there's a different kind of audience. I learned a lot about what music's purpose is, which is entertainment."
Though he was playing regularly, Keith still didn't have any designs on forming another band — until a year later when he got the itch again. Hanging out at Taylor's Music to look at guitars, Keith struck up a friendship with the store's then-owners, Stuart and Argroves, one of the city's best bassist/drummer partnerships. The trio booked a show at the P&H Café, Stuart bringing his former Pawtuckets bandmate Cubbins along for a second guitarist. The band had rehearsed for one hour for the two-hour gig. Keith met his new steel guitarist John Whittemore for the first time at the show.
The group winged its way through covers — heavy on Chuck Berry. ("To me, he's towering figure," Keith says of Berry.) "It was the most fun I'd had singing and fronting a band in, well, maybe ever," Keith remembers. Just when he thought he was out, Memphis pulled him back in.
Still, finding his place wasn't easy. "I would go to shows in Memphis, but I didn't really know what to go to," Keith says. "There would be a lot of noisy stuff I didn't really understand. I'm not a punk guy."
Meeting Stuart and Argroves gave Keith an entrance point. But it was one magical weekend at local clubs that really hooked him: "I saw Jack Yarber [with the Tearjerkers] at the Hi-Tone on a Friday night and then the next night saw Alvin Youngblood Hart at the Buccaneer," Keith says. "And that weekend flipped my lid."
From there, Keith started playing with both Yarber and Harlan T. Bobo, experiences that, he says, "really opened my eyes to how great Memphis was. In Memphis, if it's good and soulful, people like it. If you look at Memphis music, it's always been that way."
After spending five years in Nashville, Keith found the differences in his new hometown refreshing. "Nashville is night and day from Memphis," he says. "I don't think I ever had fun at a show. I don't think the audience ever did either. The only people who go to shows in Nashville are in the music business and they're only there to network. It makes for a really stale environment. Even if you go to Nashville thinking you're anti all that, you can't help it. It's the culture."
Needless to say, Keith has found the looser, less competitive culture in Memphis more amenable to his music. "I thought it was over," he says, "that I just needed to find a vocation and grow up. Now I feel like I'm back from the dead. I couldn't be happier."