It’s safe to say singer/songwriter J.D. McPherson never expected to be nominated for awards alongside well-known bands such as The Lumineers and buzzworthy up-and-comers like Charleston’s own Shovels and Rope, nor did he expect to perform on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Conan.”
McPherson, a 36-year-old former art teacher from Broken Arrow, Okla., expected his debut LP, “Signs and Signifiers,” a promising retro-sounding album with its roots in the early rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly of the 1950s, to cater to a certain type of fan.
“I didn’t make the record for mass consumption,” McPherson said. “I thought this album would have a very specific audience and be like a fun project and a way to go out and gig every once in a while and maybe, if we were lucky, go over to England and Spain, where they have these huge festivals. For whatever reason, people over there have a real attachment to early American rock ‘n’ roll.”
The album was released by Chicago’s Hi-Style Records in April 2012, McPherson made a low-budget music video for the album’s debut single, “North Side Gal,” a clip that has more than 1.2 million views on YouTube.
By year’s end, McPherson would be labeled an artist to watch by Rolling Stone and performing on “Conan” and Letterman.
His good luck continued in 2013. Last month, the Americana Music Association nominated McPherson for two awards, including Song of the Year for “North Side Gal.” The Lumineers platinum-selling hit “Ho Hey’ is up for the same award.
“It’s been a crazy year,” McPherson said with a chuckle. “Let’s just put it that way.”
McPherson is performing two nights in the College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard as part of this year’s Spoleto Festival USA, which began May 24 and ends June 9. He is also performing at The New Brookland Tavern in West Columbia on June 9.
He discusses his retro sound, hunting for records and the gimmicky nature of the swing music revival of the late 1990s.
Question. How did you end up getting into early rock ‘n’ roll? Did you grow up with it?
Answer. Not really. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with “120 Minutes” and hardcore and punk music like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub and a lot of these Scottish bands, but living in a rural area, it was really hard for me to get my hands on a lot of that stuff. From there, I just started listening to early rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly music and I really identified with it. Being from the country, it just did it for me. It’s funny because what occurred to me was that if you like jazz or rock ‘n’ roll or rockabilly or rhythm and blues, you can take vocabularies from that music and make new things happen with them.
Q. So I take it you’re a vinyl junkie. What was your last good find? Do you get a chance to get to record shops on the road?
A. It’s hard on tour because there’s just so much more that goes on in addition to doing the shows but any chance we get, which is not very frequent, we like to do a little sightseeing and hit up a couple record stores. I haven’t made too many scores recently, but we were in Lincoln, Neb., and I bought a Staple Singers LP and a few 45s.
Q. There was a brief revival in people’s interest in swing music that felt kind of gimmicky, were you ever afraid making your record that people might think of what you’re doing as a gimmick?
A. With that swing music thing, a lot of that was a gimmick but there were people in that scene like Mando Dorame from Royal Crown Revue, who plays with us sometimes, who were true blue. There were people in that scene at that time who were genuinely heavily influenced by swing music and tried to treat it with as much respect as possible. When people hear my music, I hope they understand that I’m doing this out of love and respect for that music and the artists who came before me. It’s not like when a really big star does a retro album, you know. Like when Christina Aguilera did that album a few years ago and came out with finger-wave curls in her hair. It’s just a marketing ploy.
Q. What did you think when you found out about the Americana Music Association nominations?
A. I was beyond honored because of what a broad swath of music the Americana represents. You have country singers that have been huge hitmakers like Dwight Yoakam and then newer bands like Shovels & Rope and The Lumineers and John Fulbright. I’m definitely in really good company.