John Paul Keith says he's had it with trying to be too original. These days, the One Four Fives' chief vocalist, songwriter, and guitar geek extraordinaire says he gets a bigger kick when somebody comes up to him after a show thinking one of his songs was a cover and asks who the original artist was. Although each of the dozen songs on the band's debut album, Spills and Thrills, is a One Four Fives original blast of jukebox-ready rock-and-roll, it's easy to understand why some people might get a little confused.
Keith sounds as world-weary as Lou Reed as he croaks the lyrics to "Rock and Roll Will Break Your Heart" over a haunting piano arpeggio like the one at the top of Skeeter Davis' "End of the World": "You're spilling drinks everywhere/You're getting ashes all in your hair/You've got the moves/You look the part/ But rock and roll will break your heart."
The song smacks of unfiltered biography, but it plays out like some lost Johnny Thunders cut: a last bittersweet slow dance with destruction after one too many seven-day weekends. It sounds like the voice of a younger but somehow wiser incarnation of Keith visiting the present to remind himself of what it means to fall in love with three chords and a fickle guitar.
"I moved to Memphis in 2005 to take a break from playing music," says Keith, settling back into a drink at El Chico's on Highland with One Four Fives bass player Mark Stuart and drummer John Argroves. "Well, I didn't actually know I was taking a break. I thought I was through with it completely. I'd been in a bunch of bands and decided I didn't want to play anymore. I was frustrated with the stress of making records with your own money and trying to get them out there in the world, and doing gigs out of town, and all the personalities you have to deal with. You hit a certain age, and you start to think about other things, like about how it's time to start making a living.
"[Lucero singer] Ben Nichols told me — and it's the best thing I've ever heard — 'Sometimes all it takes is a compliment.'"
To hear Keith relate his story, it sounds as though he'd been running on nothing but compliments since he was 19. His Gram Parsons-inspired tune "Looking for a Thrill" sums things up well enough: "Ain't never been lucky/I ain't never been hip/I found a whole lot of trouble when I opened my lip."
"You had a lot more success than most people though," Stuart interjects, prompting Keith to recount his Knoxville days with the V-Roys, a nattily attired country-rock group that signed to Steve Earle's E-Squared Records just as the band was falling apart; the Nevers, which signed a restrictive deal with Sire for an album that was ultimately never released; and his days backing alt-country poster boy Ryan Adams.
Keith swears he had no intention of ever being in a band again. "But I wasn't working steady either. And I needed to play to make a little money," he says. "And I knew a couple of Beale Street guys who I started playing with, and that's when I really got excited about playing again. Everything was completely different than anything I'd ever been a part of before."
Keith hooked up with Stuart and Argroves when the two Memphis musicians ran Taylor's Music. "I'd just come into the shop and look at old guitars all day," he says. Eventually, they decided to start a cover band.
The One Four Fives' first gig was at the P&H, and although the bar wanted Keith to play for two hours, the new band, which now included Pawtucket guitarist Kevin Cubbins, had only rehearsed for 20 minutes. Keith hadn't even met John Whittemore, his pedal steel player, until right before the gig.
"Whittemore showed up in a tuxedo," Keith recalls. "I'd call a Chuck Berry tune, we'd pick a key, and we'd go.
"Memphis really is the best music town I've ever lived in," he adds, stopping Stuart and Argroves before they can repeat the conventional wisdom about how tough local crowds can be. "You're spoiled and you don't know it because you've spent your lives here. But the audiences here are the best. I've never been in a band that has a bunch of people who will turn up every single time you play."
Keith says he's also been impressed with both the talent and the people here who possess it so abundantly. "It's like a built-in support group," he says, recounting his tour of Europe backing local favorites Jack Yarber and Harlan T. Bobo.
Keith's association with Yarber and Bobo is also apparent on the disc. The song "Second Hand Heart" is a beautifully executed bit of country quirk about some poor guy whose capacity to love is a little frayed. With its marshall drumbeat and a glissando worthy of Billy Swann, it's the best Harlan T. Bobo song that Harlan T. never wrote or recorded. But the wickedly infectious "She'll Dance to Anything" sounds like a straight-up homage to both Yarber and the Midtown music scene he's been near the top of for almost 20 years.
"I play that boogie bass line, and people get up and dance," Stuart says excitedly. "[Playing in the One Four Fives] is the most fun I've ever had."
"We had to add a piano because you have to have it in these kinds of songs," Argroves interjects, no less excitedly. "I was trying to play the rhythm on the drums, and it was killing me."
"Our release party at the Hi-Tone is going to be just like our other gigs," Keith says. "We aren't going to have an opener. We'll take breaks, but it will just be us playing for two or three hours.
Spills and Thrills has been picked up by the Fat Possum imprint Big Legal Mess. It's currently only available on vinyl, but each album contains a password to download the complete album.
John Paul Keith & the One Four Fives
Spills and Thrills Record-Release Party
The Hi-Tone Café
Friday, December 12th
Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission $5