New York native Richard James' journey from the Big Apple to the Bluff City was a long one, but ultimately it has led to his emergence as a viable force in the local punk/garage-rock community.
James' awakening as a musician occurred during the late 1960s in the New York City borough of Queens, where as a kid he discovered rock-and-roll.
"Two records really affected me," James says. "The first was Led Zeppelin IV, the other was Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock.' It was right there with those two that I caught the sickness of loving rock music."
At the age of 18, James enlisted in the army and relocated to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. And then in 1985, after three years of service, he migrated to Nashville and developed an affinity for Southern hospitality and live performance.
"New York was a very jaded place at that time," he says. "It was not a place to explore one's self or experiment musically. It was just way too competitive. There was a certain sense that you had to be weirder than weird, which is not me.
"One night in Nashville I was at a bar watching a touring band play, and they had a meltdown on stage," James recalls. "The guitar player threw his guitar down in the middle of the set and walked off. I had had a few drinks and jumped up on stage and started playing guitar with them, even though I didn't really know how. It was an epiphany for me."
From that point on, James committed himself fully to playing guitar and writing songs, honing in on a sound equally influenced by classic punk rock and American roots music. Along the way, he also moved back to New York for a time, met and married fellow musician and songwriter Anne Schorr (the pair played around the New York area in the early to mid-'90s as the Broken Chains), and eventually resettled in Tennessee once and for all in 1997.
His current project, Richard James & the Special Riders, was formed in Nashville in 2004 and from the onset featured contributions from a rotating cast of backing musicians, including Schorr, onetime Memphian Marty Linville (Pisshorse), Jason Frazier, and former Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels. While in Nashville, the group produced several recordings, including the excellent debut LP Music for People Who Been Wrong(ed).
By 2006, however, James and Schorr had grown weary of the Nashville music scene and decided to roll the dice and take up shop in Memphis.
"I just found Nashville to be too sterile," James says. "People in Memphis are more engaged in the local music scene and seem to like music more generally. It's messed up, in a good way, and community-oriented — like New York was in the '70s."
Since coming to town, James has collaborated with several of the scene's most noteworthy musicians, including Ross Johnson (Panther Burns, Alex Chilton), Jake and Toby Vest (The Third Man, The Bulletproof Vests), Patrick Glass (Noise Choir), and Marcus Battle, among others, as the Special Riders. At any given show, the group is composed of various combinations of local players behind James and (most of the time) Schorr.
"Richard has such a strong musical identity, other people just naturally fall in line," Schorr says. "Despite the changes in lineup, the sound has become more consistent over the years."
Late last year, James and company began laying down tracks at the Vest brothers' local studio facility, Hi/Lo Recording, for what would become the group's newest effort, The Hi, The Lo, The Night Life. As with previous efforts by Richard James & the Special Riders, the record explores familiar roots-punk territory but with a slightly more laid-back and twangy edge, largely thanks to the nimble lead guitar work of Jake Vest.
"Jake's a great guitar player, because he doesn't just impose his will on a song. He really listens," James says. "All of the guys I play with now have that trait. They play for the music. They put their asses on the line and do what's best for the song."
This Friday night, Richard James & the Special Riders will celebrate the release of The Hi, The Lo, The Night Life with a special show at Murphy's featuring an expanded lineup.
"We'll have three guitars, maybe a couple of different drummers," James says. "It's going to be a fun show."
Richard James & the Special Riders Record Release Show, with Chinamen, Dream Team, and Allen Morrison
Friday, February 25th
10 p.m.; $5