Meet Memphis Ambassador John Paul Keith, Sharpest Pen Around
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.
Photos by Jim Herrington
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."
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.
Courtesy of Rockabilly Hall of Fame Producer Roland Janes
"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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