Former middle-school art teacher becomes rockabilly musician

Oklahoman JD McPherson didn’t think “Why me?” when he suddenly was terminated from his job as chair of a private middle school’s art department.

The former open media and experimental film major knows exactly why he was let go from the adventurous gig. He was too edgy for Tulsa.

“I started off teaching typing and word processing, while I elbowed my way into the art program because that was my real background,” he says. “But I, uh, didn’t stick to the curriculum, which was a big problem. My approach didn’t mesh well with that school’s philosophy.”

But everything happens for a reason. McPherson used his unexpected free time to track “Signs & Signifiers” — a swinging 1950s-retro indie debut picked up by Rounder — that he’ll back in The City Thursday.

An unfettered, Gretsch-echoey exuberance reverberates through the album’s R&B and rockabilly originals, including “Fire Bug,” “North Side Gal” and an aptly-dubbed “I Can’t Complain.”

He didn’t grouse about getting the ax from the school, he says, “because it was a pretty hip art program by the time I was through with it.”

Kids loved Mr. McPherson. He taught fourth graders typing by dictating to them biographies of crucial artists like The Clash, Charlie Christian or Duke Ellington.

His media-literacy course focused on video shooting and editing, and his eighth graders advanced to researching
abstract works of Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol.

Others even graduated to Andy Kaufman-type pranks. One pupil carried a sapling in his backpack for an entire day as a project, which he later planted on campus. The grade was A+, says the professor: “It was a totally meaningless performance with this really cool outcome.”

As a teen in tiny Broken Arrow, Okla., McPherson already was pushing boundaries. When he saw David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” he was determined to enter film school.

When he discovered punk rock, he started tracing its roots. “Then I got my hands on some pre-pop Buddy Holly — the Decca rockabilly stuff — and it had all the energy and enthusiasm of The Ramones, but with a country twang to it,” he says. “Then I got more into the black side of 1950s rock ’n’ roll, and I felt more at home with that stuff than anything else.”

For sonic accuracy, the guitarist recorded “Signs” in analog at Hi-Style, the Chicago studio and label of Jimmy Sutton, also his bassist.

Still, McPherson is not giving up fine art. “My main thing is single- and multi­channel video installations,” he says. “People have said that I needed to do either music or art — I couldn’t both. But why not? David Byrne does both! David Lynch, too!”


JD McPherson

Where: Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday  

Tickets: $21

Contact: (415) 885-0750,

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