Since 1999, when Jack Yarber formed the Tennessee Tearjerkers, the group has morphed from a lean, coulda-shoulda-rocked-CBGB's unit into a sprawling, Stones-influenced bar band. However, as evidenced on the Tearjerkers' latest record, Jack O. Is the Flipside Kid, Yarber himself -- veteran of legendary local groups including the Compulsive Gamblers and the Oblivians, -- has hardly changed a bit.
"I feel like the same person," Yarber says of the evolution, which has also found him playing in countless small garage combos, such as Loose Diamonds and the Knaughty Knights.
Just before Thanksgiving, Yarber returned from a six-week European tour with Harlan T. Bobo, which took the Memphians from Paris to Linkoping, Sweden. For the trip, which also included keyboard player Adam Woodard, Yarber temporarily replaced the Tearjerkers' precision rhythm section of Terrence Bishop and John Bonds with Bobo and drummer Paul Buchignani; during Bobo's sets, Yarber traded his guitar and lead mic for the bass.
Bobo and Yarber replicated those overseas performances during Memphis Roller Derby's Ho Ho Ho Burlesque Show at the Hi-Tone Café last Saturday night. True to form, Yarber alternately snarled like Iggy Pop, crooned like Nat King Cole, and drawled his lyrics like a down-on-his-luck Hank Williams. One song in, he even relinquished his lead position to Preacher's Kids frontman Tyler Keith, who leapt from the audience to deliver a frenzied version of "Honky Tonk Women" before smashing the microphone to the stage. Unfazed and perfectly willing to be upstaged, Yarber just shrugged, picked up the mic, and soldiered on.
Because he makes it look so simple, it's easy to overlook the sheer talent that Yarber possesses, especially in a live environment, when the beer is flowing and the dance floor is shaking under the stomping of a hundred pairs of feet.
Put on any of his albums, which include 2001's Bad Mood Rising and 2005's Don't Throw Your Love Away, and you'll be blown away by the diversity of material, which runs the gamut from well-worn R&B covers to a version of Van Halen's "D.O.A. Blues."
Yet it's Yarber's originals that really shine: Listen to the dirgy "Flipside Kid," the taut, western-influenced "Til the Money Runs Out," or the fuzzy feedback that drives "Hong Kong Girl," and you'll hear the sound of a man who's comfortable in his own skin. Replay "Golden Age," which divulges just a few seconds in that "she's a tragedy," or the next song, which opens with the line, "Well, let me tell ya about Knick the Knife," and you'll get sucked into his pulp-fiction world, which is populated with human Frankensteins, cemetery freaks, and bad girls galore.
Yarber's songwriting skills make the album, recorded in various locations in Detroit and Memphis, sound cohesive, whether tracks feature a full band, drummer Mark Sultan, or just Yarber himself.
"Do you think that if I didn't list the information [in the liner notes], people would notice?" Yarber wonders. "I recorded it over a long period of time. I found out that it's hard to create an album over a single weekend. 'Knick the Knife' came from a Johnny Vomit [and the Dry Heaves, one of Yarber's longest-running side projects, which dates back to his high school days in Corinth, Mississippi] jam session. Some songs, like 'Golden Age,' were instrumentals that I found lyrics for, and a few were cut after I got my four-track machine repaired and I was just trying to see if it was working. The real challenge is doing it live, going from one style to another. The band usually figures it out, knowing when to rock out and when to lay back and swing."
It's a pretty nonchalant attitude for someone who's toiled in the music business for two decades while watching friends rocket to success around him. Yet Yarber's hardly the bitter type. It takes plenty of prodding to get him to talk about the time he persuaded Jack and Meg White to come to Memphis, where they would ultimately record their breakthrough album, White Blood Cells, or admit that MTV faves the Hives have been covering his originals onstage.
When asked why he prefers to remain in town, where he's often forced to pick up a day job to pay his bills, Yarber shrugs.
"I've made a lot of trips to Detroit, and I thought about living there," he notes. "But after being up there for a week, I couldn't really see the difference between Detroit and Memphis. And besides, I did move away. I came from Corinth to Memphis. Here I am."