Depending on whom you ask, Jack "Oblivian" Yarber is either a rock legend or an absolute unknown.
This dichotomy is well-understood by Memphis musicians, as underground "fame," for all its rewards, has, with a few exceptions, been the ceiling for local acts for decades. And no one knows this dichotomy better than Yarber, who may be Memphis' most influential active rock musician.
The list of noteworthy bands Yarber has been a member of over the years is massive and includes Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves (a high school punk project that also featured future Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus), new-wavers the End, '68 Comeback, Knaughty Knights, and Tav Falco's Panther Burns. Two of Yarber's former bands — the Compulsive Gamblers and the Oblivians — have seen their reputation and following swell in the decade since their demise, especially the Oblivians, whose international fan base borders on rabid. Due largely to his stint in these bands, both partnerships with Greg Cartwright, now of the Reigning Sound, Yarber has been an acknowledged influence on artists such as the White Stripes, the Hives, and Jay Reatard.
"I just do the best I can," Yarber says. "Those Oblivians records may not be on mainstream commercial radio, but they will always find new fans who are looking for something outside the bland formulas that are pushed on them by the people who think they know what rock-and-roll is all about."
In the years since, Yarber has toured and released a string of successful solo albums under the Jack O & the Tennessee Tearjerkers moniker. Originally conceived in 2000 as a partnership with former Impala and current Bo-Keys bassist Scott Bomar, the band quickly morphed into Yarber's solo incarnation after Bomar became too occupied with film scoring and production work. The band has had a revolving door for side players ever since, at different times including current River City Tanlines John Bonds and Terrence Bishop, Neighborhood Texture Jam guitarist John Whittemore, the Reigning Sound's Greg Roberson, Bluff City Backslider Adam Woodard, and a host of other recognizable local musicians.
The current lineup that's (largely) behind Yarber's latest release, The Disco Outlaw, includes lead guitarist John Paul Keith (whose own band, the One Four Fives, released their debut album last month), enigmatic songwriter/performer Harlan T. Bobo on bass, and journeyman drummer Paul Buchignani, who has backed everyone from Amy LaVere to the Afghan Whigs.
"I like different things about all the lineups," Yarber says. "Harlan and Paul are a great rhythm section because of their dynamics. They've been playing together in Harlan's band for a long time and have good chemistry. John Paul has sonic attack, but he also knows when to pull back and let the song come through. It's great to have him and Harlan, because they're both band leaders on their own and know from top to bottom what goes where."
The Disco Outlaw, released nationally on May 5th by local imprint Goner Records, continues in the more "mature" direction established by previous Tearjerkers releases, as Yarber's strong (and underrated) sense of melody and skill with pop hooks are allowed to take the spotlight. Which is not to say that the record doesn't rock, because it flat-out does — and hard. But The Disco Outlaw is also Yarber's most polished effort to date, which serves the album's strong collection of songs well.
The release of The Disco Outlaw comes directly on the heels of Jack O & the Tennessee Tearjerkers' inclusion in director Craig Brewer's new series for MTV, $5 Cover, which chronicles the lives of several local musicians in semifictional settings.
For Yarber, the opportunity to be part of a project with such far-reaching potential was a welcome one.
"If I were 19 or 20 years old, I would be tapping on Craig Brewer's bathroom window saying put me in your movie," Yarber says. "I'm not a fan of reality TV shows, which all seem to be scripted anyway. But $5 Cover is really music-focused, unlike these other shows. If any of the actors or musicians can get some work because of the recognition, it would be a good thing."
In addition to tour dates promoting The Disco Outlaw with the Tearjerkers, Yarber also has much-anticipated reunions with both the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers on tap for the summer. The Oblivians will reunite in June for a string of gigs in Europe as well as Memphis and Detroit with fellow underground legends the Gories, while the Compulsive Gamblers will reform for the local Antenna Club Reunion Festival in August.
"I love playing a lot and touring as long as it's booked well and the band doesn't come home in the negative," Yarber says. "At some of the last Jack O/Harlan tours in Europe, there were cameras and interviews like we were Dylan in England for the first time. In reality, we were an unknown American rock band who paid off the border guards 300 euros to get in the country."
Jack O & the Tennessee Tearjerkers
The Disco Outlaw record release show, with John Paul Keith & the One Four Fives
Saturday, May 9th
9 p.m.; $5