Music » Music Features

Roots-Rock Return

The well-traveled John Paul Keith settles in with a second Memphis album.



I'm an old familiar tune that you used to hum/Set your watch back, baby, when you see me come," John Paul Keith sings on the title track to his new album, The Man That Time Forgot.

Keith, even in a city that's a magnet for tradition-minded musicians, is particularly adept at a wide variety of "roots" forms — Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly-style rock-and-roll, Tex-Mex and honky-tonk country, garage rock, early-'60s soul, folk rock, smoky jazz-blues, and Marshall Crenshaw-style power pop — and his new album's title hints at this mastery.

But Keith was leery of using it as the title, an idea that producer/label owner Bruce Watson (who is releasing the album via Big Legal Mess, an extension of his Mississippi-based Fat Possum label) pushed.

"At first, I was like, I don't know about that. It was a little grander than I'm prone to doing," Keith says, acknowledging that the title hints at his classic bent.

"I looked at it as partly that way and partly as the state of my career," Keith says. "I've been around the edge of the music business and had a couple of close calls with a wider audience but never quite got there, and the title kinda summed that up too."

A Knoxville native, the well-traveled Keith had been in several bands in several cities — including a short-lived major-label deal for his Nashville band, the Nevers — before relocating to Memphis several years ago and eventually falling in with Midtown musicians Jack Oblivian and Harlan T. Bobo, with whom Keith has now gone on two European tours.

The Man That Time Forgot, due for a local release this week and a national one later this month, will be Keith's second Memphis album, following 2009's Spills & Thrills.

The first album was billed to John Paul Keith & the One Four Fives, citing the backing band whose primary/studio lineup now includes drummer John Argroves, bassist Mark Stuart, and keyboard player Al Gamble.

Cutting down to a solo credit on the new album was mostly a realization that the full listing would be both cumbersome and confusing next to the album title, but it was also a nod to the reality of the band's touring situation, which finds Keith tabbing other local musicians on all three instruments from time to time.

"I wish I could take out [the main lineup] all the time," Keith says. "But fortunately, Memphis is an embarrassment of riches."

The new album is another showcase for Keith's sharp songwriting and facility with different strains of classic American music.

"I try to find a way of doing something that's interesting to me musically without it being a cliché," Keith says. "I'm not necessarily always successful, but you try your best, especially lyrically, to find an angle or twist that hasn't been done. I think the best songs are written without an instrument. Write the song in your head, with the melody and lyrics, without having a guitar or piano. That's when you're onto something."

Often, Keith says, he'll start with a song title and work from there. One example on The Man That Time Forgot is the jazzy "I Work at Night."

"I had that lick for several years and couldn't figure out how to get into the song," Keith says. "I just came home one night and the phrase was in my head. I had been working at the Hi-Tone Café, working the door, and playing music, working at night."

"In the middle of the night when good people sleep/That's about the time I earn my keep," Keith sings.

"One thing that happened after the first album came out is that I lost my day job. I had an office job for a few years and I lost it," Keith remembers. "That freed me up to tour, so it was a blessing in a way. I was in a panic there for a few months. But I stopped panicking because I had gigs and money was coming in. It wasn't a lot but enough to keep the lights on. Two years later, here I am, still doing it."

In addition to regular home gigs and touring, Keith and his band's command of different roots forms and limber, dance-friendly sound has made them a popular choice for party and event bookings, a sideline that's helped Keith avoid the need for a regular day job and keep his focus on music. The band works with local management company Resource Entertainment Group on those bookings.

"We get weddings and private parties, and those generally pay better than club gigs," Keith says. "But the cool thing about it is we're able to pretty much do our normal thing. We don't get too obscure, but we still do our originals and no one's ever complained. Resource Entertainment has been real cool about it to. They told us, 'Look, just do what you do.'"

One recent gig had Keith and his band playing a wedding reception at the Hi-Tone, where the 84-year-old grandmother of the bride spent, literally, hours on the dance floor.

"She was a hoot," Keith says. "We loved her to death. She made our day. We usually do good with that demographic."

At one point, Keith asked the dancing grandma what she wanted to hear. An Alabama native making her first trip to Tennessee, she wanted to hear some Elvis.

Keith and company — more prone to cover Chuck Berry than Elvis — played "Mystery Train" and then taught themselves "Don't Be Cruel" on the fly, as younger couples joined the older lady on the dance floor.

"It's not a One Four Fives gig unless we play something we don't know how to play," Keith says.

The Hi-Tone Café

Saturday, June 4th

9 p.m., $7

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