It still moves

How an Americana band from Kentucky helped a veteran fan rediscover the magic of classic rock

Pavement on Skynyrd Street: My Morning Jacket is, clockwise from left, drummer Patrick Hallahan, keyboardist Danny Cash, bassist Two-Tone Tommy, guitarist Johnny Quaid and singer Jim James.

Pavement on Skynyrd Street: My Morning Jacket is, clockwise from left, drummer Patrick Hallahan, keyboardist Danny Cash, bassist Two-Tone Tommy, guitarist Johnny Quaid and singer Jim James.

You’ve probably read plenty of obituaries for the music business by now.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the music industry has shed 20 percent of its work force in the past three years, and the pink slips keep coming. Once there were six major-label companies. Now there are five, and two of them—Sony Music and Bertelsmann—are merging, making a total of four. Meanwhile, music retailers are in trouble, closing stores and laying off their staffs.

And all because a bunch of freeloader college students were downloading music off the Internet and not paying for it, while teenage music fans who outgrew Orlando Mouseketeer dance pop decided that all music does indeed suck and that going to the movies or watching TV or playing first-person shooters on Xbox is a lot more fun.

You have to give those kids some credit, though. Someone told them rock ’n’ roll was cool, so they turned on one of the local corporate-chain clone-rock stations and heard Nickelback followed by Puddle of Mudd, Hoobastank, P.O.D., Korn and Limp Bizkit. Radio knobs switched to “off,” and PlayStation 2 sales shot up accordingly.

Another group of erstwhile music consumers, composed of indifferent baby boomers whose once-passionate romance with music vanished when they reached middle age, also is blamed for the decline. For this group, rock ’n’ roll fandom was said to be almost like a religion, and that generation’s voracious appetite for music transformed the selling of music from a cottage industry to big business. Then middle age arrived, and other things suddenly loomed more important: kids, mortgages, bills, television and oncoming mortality. Somewhere along the way, these people stopped trying to extract deeper meanings from old Bob Dylan albums and switched their allegiances to the latest network-TV sensation.

I know a little bit about this demographic because I’m a member. And, having grown up obsessing about music—spending untold hours in record stores thumbing through vinyl LPs, poring through magazines to find out more about the latest fab arrival from the British Isles, piling into a smoke-filled van with buddies at least once a week to make a 180-mile round trip over to San Francisco to see three or four bands at Winterland (on school nights, even) and arguing the finer points of Mick Ronson vs. Earl Slick or Duane Allman vs. Lowell George into the wee beer-fueled hours—I’ve missed that obsession for quite a while.

But that’s the peril of growing up. Get older, and you stop treating music like breakfast, lunch and dinner. Instead, it becomes comfort food, and you return to whatever musical Oreos pulled your chain when you were 16 or 18. Anyway, that was the theory coined by radio programmer Lee Abrams, whose “album-oriented rock” format of the 1970s later ossified into the airwave beast now known as classic rock.

But what makes a classic a classic?

What inherent quality must a record have to give it that “fairy dust,” as the fictional group Spinal Tap called it, that bewitches a listener enough to motivate him or her to listen deeply and then go out and buy whatever else the act and its members have created?

Back in the day, we knew it had something to do with mystery. Some records give up their charms on the first listen; you play them once or twice and lose interest, or you get addicted and play the records again and again for the cheap sugar high they provide. But other records provide a listening experience not unlike peeling the layers of an onion, or spelunking for treasure—think Dylan’s inscrutable masterpieces.

In recent years, I’d become convinced that immediate pop smashes and cheap sugar highs had won the music wars and that depth and mystery were something to be found on catalog CDs from the vinyl-LP era.

Then I stumbled across a Louisville, Ky.-based quintet named My Morning Jacket via its third album, It Still Moves, which came out in early September. The CD was the band’s debut for Dave Matthews’ ATO Records through RCA, which ensured the album would be more visible than the band’s indie-label releases.

Enigmatic visions in warm, fire-lit hues: Cover art includes, from left, At Dawn (Darla Records, 2001); Split, a shared EP with Ohia (Jade Tree Records, 2002); and It Still Moves (ATO/RCA Records, 2003).

My Morning Jacket had been getting quite a few nice press notices, many of them categorizing its music in the tradition of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and Little Feat. In recent years, there have been a number of so-called jam bands—Phish, Galactic, Widespread Panic and the String Cheese Incident, to name a few—that attempted to follow in the footsteps of the Dead, the Allmans and others. But none of those new acts had captured the essential magic of those 1960s and ’70s bands, at least to these ears.

As someone normally more prone to a short, sharp and succinct approach to song craft in pop music, I can’t even explain why I bothered to listen to another new record by some jam band from the South. Must have been bored that day.

It Still Moves didn’t clobber me over the head during that crucial first listen, through headphones at work. It was pleasant, and singer Jim James’ voice sounded a lot like Neil Young’s—kind of high-pitched and quavery but sanded nicely around the edges. His voice often was buried in a murky-sounding mix that came drenched in reverb; in fact, the reverb grew all over the music like kudzu. The acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums loped about under that carpet like ambivalent stoners trying to figure out whether to make peanut-butter sandwiches in the kitchen or continue watching Green Acres reruns.

And the songs sounded vaguely familiar, like some half-remembered Neil Young collaboration with Crazy Horse, or like the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev re-imagining the Band’s Music From Big Pink, or like a lost set of songs Jimmy Webb had written for Glen Campbell that found their way into the Marshall Tucker Band’s playlist.

First impression: It was a decent record but not top-of-the-play-pile decent.

It was only later, when My Morning Jacket’s music started reverberating through my head, that it became apparent that something was up. On the drive home, fragments of songs rattled around in the silence, and I wracked my brain trying to figure out where they’d come from. The next morning, I woke up with one of the tunes, a sparkling acoustic-guitar-finessed number called “Golden,” repeating itself like a demented sub-cranial jukebox.

After listening to the record again, it became apparent that all those song fragments, along with the tune in the wake-up jukebox, emanated from a single source. Intrigued, I looked up the band’s catalog online and found two earlier albums and a bunch of EPs. Most of those were released by Darla Records, an indie label that, for a couple of years, was based right here, in a house off Watt Avenue north of the Del Paso Country Club.

So, that day, I picked up The Tennessee Fire, the band’s 1999 debut. Much of it sounded like it was recorded in a shed out in the woods, like low-fi demos that local bands Jackpot or Forever Goldrush might come up with. There was some truth to that; the band had set up a makeshift studio in a barn outside Louisville owned by the grandparents of Johnny Quaid, James’ cousin and My Morning Jacket’s guitarist. (All My Morning Jacket’s records since have been recorded there, too.)

But the gist was in the grooves: James’ voice, surrounded by a warm racket, with Quaid’s prayerfully atmospheric sotto-voce guitar lines—which evoked that breathy coolness found in Hugo Montenegro’s spaghetti-western soundtracks and Angelo Badalamenti’s music for David Lynch’s films—underscoring the gentle noise or moving in counterpoint. The impressionistic Southern gothic lyrics were nice, also. One song, “Evelyn Is Not Real,” sounded familiar; it had appeared on a CD accompanying the Oxford American, a journal of Southern culture.

Because many of the reviews pointed to At Dawn, the second album, from 2001, as the band’s true work of genius, I had to have that, too. And, as it turned out, those rave reviews were spot-on. The record shimmered with eerie brilliance, like indirectly watching a sunset by tracing the shifting shade and color on a Victorian statue of an angel in an old graveyard. Some songs, like “Lowdown,” were boilerplate soft rock, albeit with simple but enchanting guitar architectures. Others, like “Xmas Curtain,” were reminiscent of the loping, extended slide-guitar coda of Derek & the Dominos’ classic “Layla.” But the album’s most evocative number was “The Way That He Sings,” a haunting collision that mated the Band’s vintage rediscovery of Americana’s prosaic virtues with a synthesized string part straight off an old Moody Blues record (don’t laugh—it works). In its lyrics, James captured his band’s essential appeal: “Why does my mind blow to bits every time they play that song? / It’s just the way that he sings, not the words that he says, or the band / I’m in love with this soul, it’s a meaning that I understand.

So, what, you ask, does a Kentucky jam band have to do with saving the music business?

It’s simple: There are a lot of people who are slightly older than the music business’ target demographic of teens and early 20-somethings. These now-alienated music fans used to buy a lot of records. Somewhere along the line, however, they stopped hearing anything that captured their hearts. And, given the format-driven wasteland of commercial radio, their only chance of running into anything new and exciting comes via word of mouth, or from the occasional car commercial.

What My Morning Jacket proved, to me, is that it’s still possible for a new band to get inside my head to the extent that I’m compelled to run out and acquire its entire catalog. The necessary secret ingredients in the music seem to be depth and resonance rather than surface appeal and cynical posturing.

Considering the vultures circling overhead, it’s a lesson the music business might consider taking to heart.