Jompson Brothers: I have seen the future
of rock 'n' roll. If it has a future. Which is not to pile upon Chris Stapleton's new group any of the foolishness which Dave Marsh's breathless, glorious, joyous hyperbole racked up for Bruce Springsteen. This is not Time magazine, and the Jompsons owe nothing to Springsteen. (Indeed, it occurs to me just now, it is difficult to argue for Springsteen as a rocker. He's an electrified heir to Guthrie and Dylan, a songwriter with a very loud band -- Phil Ochs' revenge? -- but his lyrics are meant to seem cerebral, are meant consciously to be his kind of art. Or, to use Jeff Gilbert's useful shorthand, Springsteen writes songs which are meant to be appreciated above the waist.) Having served on the booking committee for the just-completed Clack Mountain Festival, here in beautiful downtown Morehead, Kentucky, I had not meant to write about it. It is, after all, a clear conflict of interest, and though I no longer work as a journalist (and never did; I was and am a writer, indifferently employed), one hates to let such standards slide into the abyss. However. I came home at midnight, after helping to fold up the chairs and throw away half-empty bottles of Ale-8, giddy, for I had seen and reveled in the best rock band I have witnessed since...at least since seeing Soundgarden tear up New York City during CMJ. At least since. Now, it is true that I have spent little enough time working the rock these last fifteen years, but that in some small measure reflects my perception that rock as a genre has fallen on very hard times. The aforementioned Chris Stapleton, then, lead singer of the Jompson Brothers, is better known as the former lead singer of the Nashville supergroup bluegrass 'n' more ensemble, the Steeldrivers. Which features the estimable singer/fiddler Tammy Rogers, the bluesman Mike Henderson (on mandolin), here), Richard Bailey on banjo and, now, Gary Nichols, up from Muscle Shoals, on vocals. Nichols had a throw with the Nashville machine back in 2003. The Jompson Brothers are nothing like that, except that Stapleton's wail and growl is at the forefront. It's a quartet, with Morehead's J.T. Cure on bass, Greg McKee on guitar, and Bard McNamee on drums. They don't have a record out yet, but you can find some shaky hand-held videos of them on YouTube (I refuse to link, sorry), and you can hear their songs on MySpace. So there I stood about ten o'clock last night, having been on my feet since 9 in the morning with one thing or another, tired in the heat and the humidity and the humanity, with a shit-eating grin spreading. I'm a tough crowd, even in my own mind. I've seen about everything at least once, at least everything I could. Used to be, four or five nights in a club. Seattle Austin New York Los Angeles Nashville. Wherever the winds blew. Fun while it lasted, but it wore out. Or I wore out my welcome. Something. So here's this voice coming out so loud I'm glad the mayor's still in the crowd, glad he's smiling, too, and he's older than I am. This voice...somewhere between Noddy Holder (Slade) and Bon Scott (AC/DC, but you knew that), except distinctly from Eastern Kentucky, because Stapleton's from a few counties south of here. This piercing, keening, wailing voice, a unique and powerful instrument which he deploys without visible effort, his face hidden beneath an old hat and a long wad of hair. Three songs in my back shivers. It's an involuntary muscular thing, and I can remember every time it's happened: The last time I saw Nirvana, Cobain a shell of himself and still able to sing from the Coliseum stage with such want and hurt and power and anger; the first few times I saw Whiskeytown, when they were right; Sam & Dave, again at the Seattle Center Coliseum, singing without microphones; Steve Earle & Del McCoury at the Station Inn. Not very many times (there are others, but lists become lists for their own sake, and I wish to move on.) My back shivers in the presence of magic, that's my theory. And the Jompson Brothers, heaven help them, have the magic. Every last bit of it. McKee is a formidable guitarist, the rhythm section is click-track tight just on instinct and rehearsal time. And they don't have a song that reaches above the belt, not one (not counting the gospel number you'll find on YouTube). Because they're southern, the Jompsons will suffer the inevitable Skynyrd comparisons. Well...not really. Their forte is more mid-'70s cock rock. Aerosmith, without the drugs and the swagger. Thin Lizzy, maybe. Black Oak Arkansas, if you need a Southern reference. Their MySpace page has a slogan: Born in the garage, built for the arena. And that's it, exactly. They are a stunning band, a classic rock 'n' roll band of the old school. A muscle car in a Prius world (and I like both, just to say). Two questions, then? How does a classic rock band, no matter its Southern origins, fit into whatever fits into No Depression? And how does a modern classic rock band survive, what with the ossification of rock radio and the segregation of classic rock into an oldies format? Here's a stab: Classic rock is roots music. Classic rock is built on a blues chassis; and a lot of the new music is not. A lot of the young players haven't felt the need nor the desire to go back and study the old blues masters, or they stop at Stevie Ray and Jimi Hendrix and think they've got the picture. If they care about the blues at all. Classic rock is the fermentation of everything we held holy in our magazine, though it wasn't at the time, something we felt the need to dwell upon, unless it was an obvious figure like Neil Young or John Fogerty. And it's another style of music which has been left by the side of the road in the headlong, heedless hustle to discover something new, to anoint the season's next big thing. So you build an audience for a classic rock band the same way you do for a roots band, or a jam band. You play the clubs. And then you go back and play them again. The formula which has served the Drive-By Truckers so well. (If I heard right, the Jompsons have been woodshedding down in Athens, GA, and so one hopes there's a little Trucker cross-pollination possible. Though Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Shona Tucker are all storytellers more than the Jompsons will ever be.) Regardless, the Jompsons are the best rock band I've seen in twenty years, even if it doesn't seem that long ago. I even bought a t-shirt. And now, if the weather will permit, back to the garden.