In a world filled with disposable, three-minute pieces of eardrum stimulation, music often becomes a type of sonic wallpaper that is always in the background. Technological innovations like iPods may have taken away a bit of the texture involved in listening to music. There is no longer the physical act of putting a record on a player and sitting down to listen to it. Nostalgic? Maybe. In light of this, a lot of the tunes being made today will not find an ally in time. The pop-hits of yesterday are the kitsch of today.
Not Jeremiah James' songs.
James is a local, country-styled musician making music he believes in. You probably wouldn't guess it if you saw him on the street but James is a walking encyclopedia of rock and country music history. With a little prodding, he'll gracefully tell you where and how the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street was made, what's become of Clarence White's beloved Martin HD-28 guitar, or all about the mystery surrounding Hank William's death. And, sometimes, bits of this kind of information get injected into James' songs:
Sometimes I wish, it was 1955/on my radio--feeling so alive/Hank was already gone--with The Beatles yet to come/at 706 Union Avenue they made records/in the sun.
The reference, of course, is to Sun Records. It was at Sun Records where owner/producer Sam Phillips helped launch the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and B.B. King, among others. Phillips was portrayed in last year's Johnny Cash and June Carter biopic Walk the Line. In the movie, Phillips (played by Dallas Roberts) asks Cash "If you had one song to sing for God and all the world to hear about your experience on earth--what would it be?" And, although James and Phillips will never cross paths, James sings and writes all of his songs as though Phillips' question is tattooed on his arm. James writes each song as if it's the only one, and even though he has only been writing for a year and a half, he's got about 40 tunes. His catalog reads like an encyclopedia of human experience.
"I sing about stuff that is real to me," says James. "I'm really not interested in topics that can't be felt or experienced."
Sun Records is, for the most part, long gone. Since its demise, James feels that country music has seen itself get packaged into a presentation that prefers sentimentality over substance. James says there have been a few exceptions that have slipped past the Nashville gates: Steve Earl, Robert Earl Keen and Todd Snider. But for the most part, the country dial is filled with singers who rarely even write their own songs. This notion was the inspiration for two of James' first songs: "Honkytonk Heroes are Gone," and "Songs on the Radio." The first song is a reference to great songsters who are no longer with us, most specifically, Hank Williams.
All my honkytonk heroes are gone/no more shows and no more new songs/just pictures and records, and old memories/Lord, give them my thanks if you please.
"Songs on the Radio" is a reference to the counterfeit songs that James feels are filling today's radio playlists,
"I was driving around listening to the radio one day--country radio. Don't ask me why I was, I just was. It sounded like hip-hop. I mean hip-hop is all right--just not on a country station," laughs James. He took his disillusionment home with him and penned the following lyrics:
Songs on the radio don't help me today/they all sound too pretty; they got nothing to say/people are looking sexy; but that won't last long/don't seem like country; I could be wrong.
James' first started writing songs in December of 2004. The songs started pouring out of him and within a few months, he played his first gig at The Bouquet. By the summer of 2005, he was recording his first album, Sounds like Home with the help of locals Ben Burdick, Rebecca Scott and others. "It was a great experience. I really didn't know what I was doing. Ben just sort of took me under his wing and helped me make a CD," says James. From there he was featured on KBSU's Music From Stanley radio series, opened for Robert Earl Keen and earned a spot in the singer/songwriter round of Bravo Entertainment's Quest for the Best, where he played a rollicking set with bassist Rob Hill, guitarist Dan Costello, Dobro player Mike Rodgers and hand percussionist Vinnie Mirese.
Wait, a hand percussionist playing with a country player? "Vinnie is my kind of hippie," laughs James. "He plays this tuned Cajon, which is basically a big wood box that sounds like a snare drum. He gets that train rhythm going and I just want to play all night."
While James' professional career was gaining steam, his personal life fell apart. "Let's see, my girlfriend got mad and ended up breaking my prized Maritn--my only guitar--into splinters. Then we broke up and she moved across the country only to get engaged to some guy from the East Coast," recalls James. "It was good, though. I gotta a couple of good songs out of it." One tune, "Four Years and Forever," is an ode to his ex:
"I miss you like a boxer misses punching people in the jaw/or how a young man really misses his mother-in-law."
We're fortunate to have a songwriter like James in our midst for however long that may be. His immediate plans are to tour and finish a new CD. As he continues on, we're likely to see more written about him that simply explains who he is: Jeremiah is the real deal and will gladly to sing about it to anyone who wants to listen.