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JD McPherson’s school of rock ‘n’ roll

The MFA-holding rockabilly singer from Tulsa combines early rock ‘n’ roll with punk influences.
Rockabilly artist JD McPherson is bringing his early rock n roll sound to St. Paul with two nights at the Turf Club, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Image by Samantha Franklin
Rockabilly artist JD McPherson is bringing his early rock ‘n’ roll sound to St. Paul with two nights at the Turf Club, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Before he became a full-time musician three years ago, rockabilly artist JD McPherson found creative ways to inject music into his day job as a middle school art and technology teacher.

Now on tour and booked to play two nights at the Turf Club this week, the artist based in Tulsa, Okla., looks back on how his wide range of heroes influenced both his music and teaching careers.

“I couldn’t keep music out of it,” McPherson said. “If the fourth-graders were doing dictation typing, they’d be typing about Charlie Christian or the Clash. If the kids were learning how to operate PowerPoint, they were seeing a demo about Jimi Hendrix.”

Between school nights, the 37-year-old McPherson wrote and recorded his debut album, “Signs and Signifiers,” with Chicago upright bass legend Jimmy Sutton as his producer and bandmate. It was originally released in 2010 on Sutton’s Hi-Style Records, but McPherson’s ’50s-style roots effort was reissued in 2012 on Rounders.

“We made that record when I was a schoolteacher; I had no plans to quit [teaching],” McPherson said. “Luckily, I lost my job, and that’s what really got it going.”

McPherson’s final push for independent success came with twin life changes: Management approached him for representation, and McPherson discovered that his contract with the Tulsa school wasn’t renewed.

“The album was finished, and we had an offer to play a festival in Europe. I was working; I had to ask my boss, ‘I’ve got an opportunity to play this gig in Spain; can I miss parent-teacher night?’”

Growing up outside of Tulsa, McPherson spent his adolescence absorbing the early rock ’n’ roll canon reflected in his sound, including artists like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Buddy Holly.

“[I was] enamored with the style of rhythm and blues and early rock, but on the other side, you don’t want to make time-machine records,” McPherson said.

He avoids staleness by absorbing more contemporary artists. On the album’s title track, McPherson’s distinct vocal tone and guitar tremolo sound like Little Richard covering the Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?”

“The best thing is listening to everything,” McPherson said. “Keeping an encyclopedia in your brain about what’s happened since people started singing and playing music.”

This mental encyclopedia includes the Wu-Tang Clan, according to McPherson’s website.

“People always mention the Wu-Tang thing. I think I said that one time, and it ended up on the Wikipedia page. So I’m always getting asked about the Wu-Tang,” he said.

Even after earning an MFA at the University of Tulsa in open media and finding a career in education, McPherson continued to pursue his passion for music.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that your work isn’t important because you’re doing it on the weekends or in your spare time,” McPherson said. “One of the ways to become a fully realized person is to pursue those interests that are important to you and leave some kind of mark, even if the mark isn’t going to be heard.”

And McPherson isn’t insecure about failing to reach music stardom in his 20s, or the fact that his performing career took off later in his life.

“Not everybody gets the same success,” he said. “I was an idiot when I was 22 years old. Sometimes it happens really early, sometimes later on.”


What: JD McPherson with Cactus Blossoms

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

Where: Turf Club, 1601 W. University Ave., St. Paul

Cost: $20

Ages: 21+

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