Photo by Dave Good.
You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy. Just ask John Meeks, who recently released his debut album, Old Blood, a collection of acoustic Americana with a country-appropriate allotment of melancholy.
Meeks, who grew up shuttling between Southern California and New Mexico—the divorced-parents hand-off—says country wasn't optional when he was a kid.
“'Listen to this stuff, boy,'” Meeks laughs, mimicking his father's urging. “He was always trying to get me a pair of Wranglers and some cowboy boots. I was afraid I'd get beat up.”
When Meeks would visit New Mexico in the summers, he got a serious roadhouse schooling.
“My dad played music three or four nights a week in country bands. He would take me out to honkytonks and VFW halls and other places, so I would listen for hours to these '60s, '70s and '80s country bands. He would keep me up 'til 3 or 4 in the morning at truck stops. It hurt, at first, to listen to this music. I didn't like it.”
In junior high, Meeks—who used to play with local indie-rockers Plural—joined the school band and, in high school, went the marching-band and school-orchestra route. He even attended college in New Mexico as a percussion major.
“Me and my old drummer would sleep on the roof of the music building, and in his truck, and we'd shower in the drama building. It wasn't conducive to studying. We both ended up leaving school, and I forgot why I was doing music.”
But not for too long.
“I remembered when I picked up the guitar and played the one chord that I knew, and started singing over it. I felt that excitement of creating something again.”
Meeks first headed down the ol' country road about eight years ago as a bit of a spoof.
“Once I got over being angry at my dad for it, I really liked the sound of George Jones' voice and Willie Nelson—the sentiment, the heartache,” he says.
“I wrote a song called ‘Two Barstools,' and it sounded like a Loretta Lynn / Conway Twitty song. I almost copied the first line but changed the words. I faked an accent.”
Here, Meeks demonstrates, with disturbing accuracy, his faux country quaver. Maybe those Wranglers were a good fit, after all.
“I realized it was so easy to write these songs and not think too much. I was so heady, cerebral. I thought, ‘My God, I've got to be metaphorical and really deep.' But then I wrote these country songs, and I felt good. It's not laborious to write these songs. I started discovering the beauty, and simplicity and minimalism.”
He decided to write a bunch of songs for himself and ended up with a collection of 20 or so. He played them for a friend “who was really into the whole Americana revival thing,” and she flipped out.
“She put me on a homework assignment and said I had to write a song per week and record it and send it to her or she would be mad at me.”
The spurring worked. He wrote and wrote. And then, about three years ago, his friend upped the ante, telling him she'd booked him a show at the Whistle Stop.
“I was terrified,” Meeks admits. “I told [musician] Adam Gimbel about it, and he said he'd help me and play guitar. He turned me onto Mocha Joe [Camacho], who played pedal steel. Then I had a little gang. We got a good reaction.”
Among the impressed was The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle, who offered to play bass with Meeks.
“Jimmy LaValle likes my stupid country songs?” Meeks says he thought to himself. “I got my confidence boost from that. I told myself, ‘Alright, asshole, stop being a wuss about it.' I got some momentum.”
About a year and a half ago, Meeks decided it was time to put his money where his country-warbling mouth was. He forked over $2,000 to record three songs at Stereo Disguise Recording Laboratory (SDRL), the music studio run by The Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins.
That short EP earned Meeks high praise from local press and a brief mention on NPR. It also caught the attention of Brad Lee, head honcho of local label Loud + Clear Records—who also happens to be a partner at SDRL.
“Brad heard it, and he had a record label that hadn't done anything in a while. He thought, ‘Well, I'm a partner. Shit, I'll just schedule time and do it for you for free and put out the record and work out payback based on whether we sell any CDs.'”
Jenkins' signatures on Old Blood are detectable, from the spooky musical saw trailing the second track to the album's cover art and liner notes—“A comic book, Old West, pulp kind of thing,” explains Meeks.
LaValle lends his talents on the album, as does fiddler Matt Resovich, who plays in both The Album Leaf and Black Heart. In the midst of preparing for a small upcoming tour, Meeks has also been polishing up some duets, which he'll sing with local charmer Joanie Mendenhall, among others. He's planning to release a five-song EP while wrapping up another 10 songs destined for his sophomore album.
This time around, it won't take him nearly a decade to get it done.
“Man, the wait was really painful,” Meeks says.
Luckily for him, a little pain goes a long way for a country crooner.
John Meeks plays with The Donkeys, Drew Andrews and Tobyn Clarke on Friday, May 21, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/johnmeeksmusic.com.