Meet Memphis Ambassador John Paul Keith, Sharpest Pen Around
Photos by Jim Herrington
Writer, rocker, and raconteur John Paul Keith swings into Houston Saturday night after a long absence. He's touring behind his latest release on Big Legal Mess Records, Memphis Circa 3AM. American Songwriter has been streaming the album for several weeks, and Rocks Off can't get it off our daily listening menu.
Ranging from snappy rockers like "Baby, We're a Bad Idea" to barroom shuffles like "There's a Heartache Going 'Round" and "90 Proof Kiss," the album demonstrates Keith's musical flexibility as well as his points of reference. Produced by 80-year old Sun Records veteran Roland Janes, 3AM marks a high-water point in Keith's recording career and places him in rare Americana territory occupied by the likes of Jason Isbell and a select few others.
A former roommate of Scott Miller, Keith has one of the sharpest pens around. Lines like "No one ever looked finer/ still wearin' last night's eyeliner" snap a listener's head around with terse truths and elegant observations. In the syncopated groover "Last Night I Had a Dream About You," self-knowledge is hard to come by as Keith declares "every heart's a mystery to its owner/ but sometimes in our sleep we find a clue." The lilting "She's Almost You" nails that can't-get-over-someone vibe as few have. Raul Malo could pull half an album from Keith's tunes on this effort alone.
"You always want to feel like the record you just made is the best one you've ever done, and I definitely have that feeling about this one," says Keith as he packs for a quick swing to Texas with his tear-ass ensemble, the One Four Fives.
"This is our third album as the One Four Fives," he notes."So we're getting very comfortable. But the real game changer on this one is Roland Janes. I can't tell you the added value you get when he produces your album."
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Janes, 80, was part of Sun Records' house band in the Memphis label's heyday and currently works out of Sam Phillips Recording Service, the studio Phillips opened after divesting himself of the original Sun Studio. Janes played guitar on Jerry Lee Lewis's smash hit "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and was a key member of the Sun team from 1956-63. He also fronted rockabilly icon Billy C. Riley's band, the Little Green Men.
"I'm used to recording all night, so I wasn't sure how it was going to work out with Roland because he only records noon to 6 p.m," says Keith. "But with him masterminding the thing, we cut this stuff real fast. This is my first time recording an album where I was home in time for dinner every night."
Keith describes Janes as the consummate producer.
"He's very quiet and has this dry wit," says Keith. "He'd just sit in the control room and let us thrash around on these new tunes we hadn't fleshed out yet. He might just listen for an hour and when we'd seem to hit a wall or just couldn't think of another way to do it, he'd come on the talk-back mike with the perfect suggestion. Seriously, he's so minimal, yet he's just magic."
Keith's career had its highs and lows before he moved to Memphis in 2005. Shortly after moving to Nashville, he formed the Nevers, who were quickly signed to Sire Records, then left to rot on the shelf with an album in the can that today Keith describes as "just bad." He followed up with Twice as Gone, a brilliant rock album released under the band name Stateside in 2002, which included some reworked Nevers songs. But before he could get out on the road, Ryan Adams hired Keith's band and they became the Cardinals.
A French label picked up Keith's album and he moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where a buddy already had a band that could back him up. They recorded another Stateside album in 2004, but according to Keith the wheels fell off the vehicle, with the French label and his management screwing him over.
"My sister lived in Memphis and told me I ought to check it out, and I liked it so I moved there, mostly just to be close to her," he explains. "But I was over music, just completely beat down by the whole experience."
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In Memphis, he came in contact with like-minded musicians and began to jam for fun on old Sun Records tunes.
"I just did a lot of woodshedding, got back in touch with my guitar playing and sort of let the songwriting go," Keith recalls. "Then we started booking a few gigs doing these old rocking deep-track covers, many of which had a Memphis angle about them. Suddenly we had a following of sorts, we'd get calls to play these weddings where they wanted a 'real band,' not a cover band that played the same old set list that every Memphis cover band plays over and over."
It felt good, and Keith's writing chops came back. By 2009 he had the One Four Fives in the studio, resulting in 2009's Spills and Thrills, and in 2011 he dropped another rocker, The Man That Time Forgot. But according to Keith, that was all something of a warm-up for Memphis Circa 3 AM.
"I'm really pleased with this one and a lot of that is due to Roland," he says. "We recorded this to 2-inch tape, and he's just a master of that technique. We took the album down to Mississippi and the engineer listened for a while and just said, 'Hell, this thing is already mixed.'
"We cut this record fast too, and I think the spontaneity comes through," Keith adds.
Keith is also excited by the songs themselves.
"We did four songs in 2012, then I got involved with some other projects, went out on tour with Amy Lavere to Europe and all over. During that period I separated and eventually got divorced after a 12-year marriage. But one thing about being out on the road a lot, I found time to write, so when I got back I had another handful of songs, some of which were of course influenced by my personal situation."
While Keith lived in Nashville, New York, and Birmingham before settling in Memphis, he's not planning any locale switch anytime soon.
"I love to go to Austin, all musicians love to go to Austin, it's kind of a magical place in many ways," Keith reflects. "But when I ask my buddy what he pays for rent, I scrammed right back to Memphis."
Memphis offers other advantages, according to Keith.
"You come up with some off-the-wall idea in Nashville and everybody will try to get you to get back in the center. Nashville has changed some for the better in the last decade, but it's still a pretty rigid industry town. Here in Memphis, you're free to try what you want, people aren't going to tune you out if you sound different or try a different approach. Apparently it's always been that way here."
He name-checks North Mississippi Allstars who just finished a project with Robert Plant, Lavere, and Lucero as evidence of Memphis's eclectic musical community. He wouldn't be surprised to find more bands basing themselves in Memphis, which is about as centrally located for touring as a band can get.
He also notes that while Beale Street, which is owned by the City, is now little more than a tourist trap, there's another scene that's "a little seedier, a little more outside the lines" that is very appealing.
"Down on Beale these days, it's the same set list most places. If you can't do "Mustang Sally" and that stuff, don't bother applying. It's also sad, but economics have hurt Beale Street. It used to be you could go down there and find bands with full horn sections. Now it's mostly trios and duos. The money just isn't there anymore."
Still, Keith is a big booster of his adopted hometown.
"I think Memphis could do more to promote itself as an alternative to Nashville as far as recording goes," he surmises. "There are some incredible recording facilities here. Ardent is as good as any studio anywhere, even Ocean Way. The old Sun Studios stay busy, a lot of it of course being vanity-project traffic, people who just want to say they recorded there. Then we've got Sam Phillips Recording Services and the old Royal Studio where Willie Mitchell did all the great Al Green work."
"And there may not be as many players here, but the quality is sure high," continues Keith. "I did a session recently with a Dutch female songwriter at Sun. We had Steve Potts, who became the drummer for Booker T and the MGs when Al Jackson was killed. You want to record with some badass players, you can do it in Memphis and the cost is reasonable.
Once on a quest for rock and roll stardom, Keith is happy with his situation these days.
"I've managed to pay the bills the last four years with nothing but music, and that's a great confidence-builder," he observes. "I'm also working with a bunch of like-minded musicians who do it because they love it, not because rock stardom beckons. That feels pretty real."
John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives perform 10 p.m. Saturday, October 5 at the Big Top Lounge, 3714 Main. No cover.
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