“Suddenly,” J.D. McPherson tweeted on March 27, “there’s that famous Grant Wood painting you’ve seen your whole life.”
You know the one. “American Gothic.” The stern father, pitchfork in hand, and his daughter with a sideways glance. Intended as a tribute to sturdy Midwestern values, it has also been read as mocking uptight Midwestern values. Either way, since Wood unveiled it in 1930, “American Gothic” has become an essential strand of the country’s pop-culture DNA, a common idea available for update.
It’s timeless, and it’s familiar, and there it was at the Art Institute of Chicago, staring back at McPherson, the 37-year-old guitarist, singer and songwriter who works with another classic American form: rock ’n’ roll.
Like the folks in Wood’s painting, the music McPherson brings to The Palms in Winters on Monday is foundational, like Little Richard and Buddy Holly getting together in 1957 to make a single that’ll burst from a jukebox and launch a million teenage dreams. That’s where McPherson starts.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“You’ve got to find the cool grooves, and then you build,” McPherson said by phone recently from his home in Broken Arrow, Okla.
In 2010, McPherson went to Chicago to make a record at HiStyle Studio. HiStyle could also be called an attic. It belongs to producer and bassist Jimmy Sutton, and it’s filled with vintage analog equipment. The record they made, “Signs & Signifiers,” was released on Sutton’s label, HiStyle Records.
McPherson set up some cameras in the studio and they made a video for the album’s first single, “North Side Gal,” which swings and bops as he unfolds the old story of unrequited love: “She gets colder, every time I try to hold her.”
That worked its way into the roots music community and connected – as shown by the more than 1.5 million YouTube views the video has pulled. The song is straightforward 1950s rockabilly. Coupled with the way they recorded the record (and a little bit of pomade), McPherson arrived pre-tagged as a throwback.
Let “Signs & Signifiers” play, however. There’s the low rumble of a repeating guitar figure that floats through the title track. McPherson modeled that on Johnny Marr’s work on the Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?” There are slightly off-kilter piano fills on “Gentle Awakening” reminiscent of Wu-Tang Clan.
But then “Dimes for Nickels” is all Chuck Berry. Little Richard could take a good run at “Scandalous” and you’d never know it wasn’t his all along.
“I had always wanted to make a record that sounded like that, that was written like that,” McPherson said. He wanted to make that record and then make it breathe in the now.
He did. Like any artist working within a genre (Wood was playing with Flemish Renaissance forms), McPherson added his touches, put out the record, and then he got lucky. In 2011, he was laid off. With an MFA in open media from the University of Tulsa, he had a job teaching art at a private school. Then he didn’t. It opened up his calendar for touring.
With Sutton anchoring the band, they set out on the road. Live, the sound evolved. “Your ideas start to change and you become a little bolder,” McPherson said.
In 2012, Rounder Records gave “Signs & Signifiers” wider release and a push. The album worked to No. 46 on Billboard’s rock albums chart.
By then, McPherson had already done a solo tour with British musician Nick Lowe, who, among other songs, wrote “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” for Elvis Costello. Lowe then asked McPherson to put his visual media expertise to use and make a video for “House for Sale,” from Lowe’s 2012 album “The Old Magic.” And McPherson would have to make it without Lowe, who didn’t want to be in it.
“So I had to find a way to sort of have him in the video,” McPherson said. “The idea was to find all these really beautiful, hip girls and they’ve all got pictures of Nick. The girls Nick has left in his wake.”
Lately, he’s been working with another group of throwbacks, producing a record for the Cactus Blossoms, who sound like Hank Williams playing a campfire. McPherson’s been trying to talk them into a video.
“They’re very old-school,” McPherson said. “No interest in anything other than playing some songs, traveling around, and having a beer. But I’m wearing them down.”
McPherson’s also working on a new record, this time in Valdosta, Ga., at Soil of the South Studios, where producer Mark Neill does most of his work. He was behind the board for the Black Keys’ 2010 “Brothers,” and co-produced last year’s “Essential Tremors,” by J. Roddy Walston & Business.
Having played his first album for nearly four years now, McPherson sounded excited about adding new songs to the mix.
“I think (the music’s) a little darker,” McPherson said. “It’s all still rooted in rock and blues stuff. One cool thing about Mark is he’s not afraid of getting crazy sounds, and some of that’s in there.”