If the story of My Morning Jacket’s rise to the middle seems familiar, it’s because you’ve been hearing it, with other bands’ names attached, for years: Five polite young men of occasionally suspicious hygiene, ignored by the hometown hipsters, make good. They release several promising indie albums, find success overseas thanks to Europeans enthralled with their relative novelty, and eventually emerge with a major-label deal and an endlessly discussed new album.
It’s a story that doesn’t always end well, though every once in a while a band is good enough to make you hopeful that, as promised, they really will become the next Wilco, instead of the next Son Volt.
My Morning Jacket’s ATO/RCA debut, It Still Moves, signals their official arrival as the latest Alt-Country It Band. It’s a superlative mixture of melodic country rock and a sort of temperate psychedelic experimentalism. Low-key, fuzzy and mostly amiable, It Still Moves is an impressive but determinedly minor work for a major-label debut, as if the band were trying not to get everybody’s hopes up.
If that’s the case, it hasn’t worked. The attention being given My Morning Jacket is close to what has recently surrounded the Drive-By Truckers, a band with whom they are often associated, despite definite differences in sound and aesthetic. Unlike the Truckers, there’s little that’s either gothic or rootsy about My Morning Jacket, and what is seems to have shown up mostly by accident.
Both share a fondness for old-school southern rock, so pronounced in My Morning Jacket’s case that one magazine recently dubbed them “the Allman Brothers for cool people.” Perhaps more to the point, both the Truckers and MMJ are erstwhile alternative acts drawing from the shallow well of mid-’70s classic rock, while most of their contemporaries are still pilfering from usual suspects like the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and Johnny Cash.
But unlike many of their peers, My Morning Jacket seem to be almost entirely irony-free; they may be the only indie rock band to ever cite the Eagles as an influence and mean it in a good way.
“I think [country influences] kind of seep in because of where we’re from, but our sound came more from bands like America and the Eagles, that kind of soft country rock, than it did from [traditional country],” says lead singer Jim James. “It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started getting more into things like Buck Owens.”
Jim James (born James Olliges) grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, weaned on a steady diet of classic rock. “I remember the feeling music gave me when I was growing up, how it either made you so happy or reminded you of someone you missed, and made you sad,” James says. “It connected with the most primal emotions in me. I remember being at the dentist’s office and listening to Simon & Garfunkel, or hearing a great Stevie Wonder song on the radio. When I grew up, I searched those songs out because I remembered the way they made me feel.”
He didn’t start singing until he was in eighth grade, and then only cover songs; he began writing his own material when he was a sophomore in high school. A stint as an art student at the University of Kentucky followed, along with a series of forgettable bands and countless open mike nights around town. In the interim, he worked as a waiter, and a landscaper. He picked up trash at the zoo. “Sometimes I’d just hang out and watch the monkeys all day. Without music I’d go insane, I think. I don’t know what I would have been otherwise.”
Eventually James, guitarist (and cousin) Johnny Quaid and bassist Two-Tone Tommy Blankenship formed what would become, with occasional lineup changes, My Morning Jacket, reportedly taking their name from a poster in a burned-out club. (A woman on the poster was wearing a robe that had the letters MMJ on it; James figured the letters stood for My Morning Jacket. You can feel free to assume drugs were involved.)
The band hadn’t been playing together long when James, inspired by an article he read in Spin, sent a foil-wrapped demo tape to Darla Records, a small indie-pop label in California. Darla issued their debut, The Tennessee Fire, in 1999. The album (its name taken from a Tennessee fireworks store, not from the mid-’80s Silos song) hammered out a formula that My Morning Jacket has followed, with varying levels of finesse, ever since: pop, country blues, lo-fi rock, spacey balladry, lots of harmonies, expert arrangements.
Just as importantly, The Tennessee Fire highlighted the band’s growing fascination with reverb. “I need reverb to write and to play,” says James. “When I was a kid I was in this band, and one of the guys in the band’s brother was supposed to be the singer, but he couldn’t do it anymore. We panicked, and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll try,’ but I wasn’t very comfortable with it. I was very self-conscious. Then one day, someone left the reverb on. I stepped up to the plate, and I was just bowled over by how it sounded. From that point on, I needed it whenever I sang.”