John Paul Keith grew up outside of Knoxville, the son of a truck driver. He learned to sing in church and he learned to play guitar when he was ten and his father gave him an acoustic and a copy of Chuck Berry’s Golden Hits and The Best of B.B. King. It was the first music he ever heard that wasn’t country or spirituals—he didn’t hear the Beatles until he was nearly in high school. By the time he was seventeen, he was drawing big crowds in Knoxville as a member of the Viceroys, and then quit the band when they got signed because he didn’t like the direction the music was headed. By twenty-one, he had moved to Nashville and formed his own band, and got signed to Sire within months. It was a meteoric rise by a kid everyone in the industry had their eyes on—and wanted their hooks in.
John Paul Keith can sum up the rest in just a few lines. He tells you nearly everything you need to know about him in the first thirty seconds of Spills and Thrills, his humble, freewheeling masterpiece of a record, featuring songs so timeless and well crafted you’d swear they were obscure honky-tonk b-sides. Over a swinging drumbeat and a stinging Telecaster, Keith sings, “Well, I’m right on the money, but I’m never on time / One step ahead, two steps behind / And I’ve never been lucky, and I’ve never been hip / Got a whole lotta headaches when I opened my lip.”
Though the loyal following who pack his Memphis shows with his crack band the One Four Fives might beg to differ about never being hip, truer words have never been sung. Blessed and cursed with rare talent and common Southern stubbornness, Keith would have gone a lot further in the music industry if he only had a little less brains and a lot less integrity. A blistering guitarist and singer, and the kind of songwriter who makes great melodies and incredible lyrics sound effortless, he certainly seems like a sure thing—the kind of artist you just need to hit play and record on and let rip.
Instead, Keith spent more than a decade at near constant odds with band mates, managers and executives eager to water down and compromise his music in order to chase the latest trend. With each fight—whether it was a shady manager badgering him to metal up his guitar playing on the major-label debut that never got released, or losing his whole band to an Americana prima donna—the sheer joy of making music was replaced with the drudgery of trying to stay true to himself in an industry full of exploiters and those ecstatic to be exploited. From Knoxville to Nashville, New York to Birmingham, and back again, Keith struggled to stick to his guns and create the kind of music that would hold up to the records that made him want to play music in the first place. By 2005, he’d had about enough. Alone, with no band and no prospects, he moved to Memphis and declared himself washed-up at 29.
Somebody should have told John Paul Keith that Memphis is the wrong place to go if you’re looking to give up music. A veritable island of great musicians and music lovers, with a scene that is dismissively and blissfully oblivious to the obsessive flights of the music industry, the city is an outsider’s paradise. Tapped by an acquaintance to fill in for an absentee guitarist, Keith was introduced to Beale Street. Dead broke, he started busking for tourists’ tips in W.C. Handy park and sitting in at places like the Rum Boogie Café. Not only did it give him enough money to eat—or, more likely, keep him in sweet tea and cigarettes—the spirit of the city and the camaraderie of the musicians on Beale rekindled Keith’s faith in playing music for its own sake. He fell in love with his guitar again, and the next thing he knew, he was writing songs.
Obsessed with his Telecaster, Keith started hanging around the now-closed Taylor’s Music store in midtown Memphis, where he met drummer John Argroves and bassist Mark E. Stuart. They started playing together, and when they were joined by guitarist Kevin Cubbins, piano player Al Gamble and multi-instrumentalist John Wittemore, the One Four Fives were born. Taking their name from the I-IV-V musical progression that forms the foundation of blues and rock and roll, the band gave Keith the one thing he was missing for all those years: A group of sympathetic musicians who could match his talent—and his integrity. They brought power and muscle to Keith’s songs, but stayed true to the spirit of his influences.
The band built a loyal following in Memphis—both from fans, and from the city’s close-knit scene. Supported by such Memphis stalwarts as Jack Oblivion and Harlan T. Bobo, John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives built a reputation as one of Memphis’ most ferocious bar bands—capable of delivering two, three, even four hour sets of blistering, beer-spilling rock and roll. With this spirit of open-minded acceptance, support and encouragement, so special to Memphis, Keith began to write the best songs of his life.
That raucous excitement and inspiration is all over Spills and Thrills, Keith’s debut album for Big Legal Mess Records. Part of the legendary Fat Possum family that championed and gave a home to such incredible artists as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, Big Legal Mess is proudly preparing Spills and Thrills for an April 09 release. The album, which was recorded mostly live at Young Ave. Sound and the legendary Ardent Records in Memphis, captures the spirit and energy of John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives’ live shows, and showcases Keith’s incredible singing and songwriting. This is the sound of real rock and roll—fast and fun and loud, with songs that fly by so quickly you want to listen to them two or three times in a row. It’s around about the third listen the realization comes: These songs are incredible. From the crafted, bouncing melodicism of “Lookin’ For a Thrill” to the more-poignant-than-you-think tearjerkers “Rock and Roll Will Break Your Heart” and “Otherwise,” this is the work of an amazing songwriter. Spills and Thrills is rock and roll brilliance the way it used to be, back when brilliance could be danceable and catchy, before it became synonymous with self-indulgence and experimentation and arrogance. So if you’re looking for one of the best records of the year, here it is. It took John Paul Keith half his life to get the chance to be himself, but it was worth the wait.
John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives perform “Lookin’ For a Thrill,” at Ardent Studios in Memphis
Photo by Don Perry