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Coat Tales 

My Morning Jacket may have a big new label, but its haunting brand of country remains as comfortable as ever

Wednesday, May 28 2003
One day in 1998, a small Southern California label called Darla Records got a love letter in the mail. Along with a hand-scrawled note -- written as if intended for a girl named Darla -- came a tape of bizarre, breathtaking songs by a scruffy Kentuckian named Jim James. The label's owners, James Agren and Chandra Tobey, were intrigued by the move, which for My Morning Jacket began as attraction from afar.

"I saw a cute little picture of [the pair] in Spin magazine, and I just thought they looked like nice people," says the 25-year-old James, singer and songwriter behind the Louisville quintet My Morning Jacket. "I made, like, a red foil mix-tape cover and wrapped it all up in real romantic packaging and stuff."

The flirtation worked, and Darla's courtship with My Morning Jacket lasted through the band's first two enchanting albums, 1999's The Tennessee Fire and 2001's At Dawn. But for the group's upcoming third record, to be released in August, My Morning Jacket moved to a new label -- According to Our Records, an RCA subsidiary founded by Dave Matthews.

Though James jokes that My Morning Jacket scored the ATO deal because "I sent 'em a mix tape all wrapped up in a romantic package," he concedes that this time, the band took a more businesslike approach to finding a mate.

"We met a ton of people from almost every label you can imagine, from the smallest one to the biggest one," says James in his light breeze of a drawl. "[ATO] just seemed like they got what we wanted to do the most."

Aligning with Dave Matthews seems a far cry from writing lovesick pleas to a somewhat obscure record label in Fallbrook, Calif. But while My Morning Jacket may now be affiliated with one of the biggest arena rock acts around, the group still records in a country barn and transports itself from city to city in an unglamorous tour van. The contrast befits the modest musicians, whose brand of dreamy, countrified rock has made them saviors in the minds of more than a few fans yet complete unknowns to most of the public. The forthcoming album, It Still Moves, will likely determine whether the act will find critical acclaim and mild fame like fellow major-label crossovers Wilco or wither in relative obscurity, as did Louisville comrades Squirrel Bait. Regardless of the outcome, the boys of My Morning Jacket expect to keep their roots about them.

Less than two weeks before heading west to San Francisco, the members of My Morning Jacket -- James, his cousin Johnny Quaid on guitar, bassist Two-Tone Tommy, Danny Cash on keyboards, and drummer Patrick Hallahan -- are aboard that unglamorous tour van heading from Chicago to the next gig in Milwaukee. The stereo has been blaring everything from Nina Simone and George Harrison to Burning Brides and, appropriately, a group called Swearing at Motorists.

Through a series of yawns and a spotty cell-phone connection, James bemoans the fact that most of the buzz surrounding the band so far has focused on My Morning Jacket's Kentucky roots and excessive facial hair.

"It gets really old," James says. "I understand we're new, so people have to come up with things. But it is frustrating, because I don't think we're a Southern rock band and I don't think we're altcountry. We're proud to be from Kentucky and we're proud of who we are, but we're just trying to play some music."

That music is what's most remarkable -- at once melodramatic and mellow, like the shoegazing sound of Slowdive with a heavy dose of twang, or perhaps the rough-edged country of Uncle Tupelo muddled by trippy dreams. It's undoubtedly far removed from the mix of Mötley Crüe, Guns N' Roses, Muppet music, and Disney songs of James' formative years, when he and guitarist Quaid whiled away the time with sleepovers and video games. Though James and Quaid grew up together and have known each other the longest, James and Hallahan met in fourth grade, and the frontman became friends with Tommy and Cash when the three were teenagers.

After playing in various bands throughout Louisville, the men of My Morning Jacket came together in the late 1990s. James thought up the name after a fire devastated one of his favorite bars in Lexington, where he'd spent a year and a half at the University of Kentucky.

"There were burnt pool tables and burnt cigarette machines outside, and it was real creepy," James recalls. "I went into a dressing room and found this robe that had the initials MMJ on it, and I guess I just kind of took it to mean that."

In 1999 the group released its first album, The Tennessee Fire, a sometimes groovy, often bittersweet collection of songs like "They Ran," a ghostly ballad reminiscent of Neil Young's "Round and Round," and "The Bear," with its stark, eerie drums and forlorn vocals. At the other end of the record's spectrum is "It's About Twilight Now," which owes its inspiration to '60s pop, with "yeah yeah" background vocals, surf-ish guitars, and galloping drums.

With its LP of two years ago, At Dawn, My Morning Jacket offered a vibe not so divergent from The Tennessee Fire. Both albums were recorded in the barns and grain silos of Quaid's grandparents' farm in Shelbyville -- a tradition My Morning Jacket maintained even when recording its major-label debut for ATO.

"That's just how we like to do things," James says matter-of-factly. "We told people that's how we do it, and we weren't going to do it any other way."

On At Dawn, as before, James' vocals are heavily fertilized (often exhaustively) with reverb, a nod to those echoey silos. The effect can be striking, as on the opening title track, which drifts along in spacey meditation until James' powerfully amped wail breaks through the expanse like a meteor. The dark lyrics -- "They'll burn your papers in your empty trash cans/ Beat this thought into your head/ Singing over and over again:/ "All your life is obscene'" -- contrast sharply with those of the playful next track, "Lowdown," with lines like "Chancin'/ Glancin'/ Sho' nuff mood for romancin'." Different still are "Honest Man," an extended romp into bluesy psychedelia, and "Just Because I Do," which combines swingy harmonica with juke-joint guitar riffs.

Hardly the watered-down stuff of current mainstream country, the band's unmistakably Southern sound has earned it scores of critical accolades. British music magazine Uncut wrote that My Morning Jacket "may be the best new band since the White Stripes," while William Bowers asked in the Oxford American's latest music issue, "Is it not just plainly obvious that My Morning Jacket is the greatest band in the world?" But while the music is college-radio friendly, it seems unlikely that the group's banjo-laced dirges and dreamy rural pop will score with fans of Dave Matthews' frat-boy rock.

If James' attitude is any clue, it doesn't much matter whether the band wins over new audiences. Even when the subject shifts to the act's eccentric, often costumed, live performances, James brings the focus back to the music, like a star athlete who, no matter what question is posed, can only praise the team for working hard. As far as James is concerned, the members of My Morning Jacket are just pleased to play for those who care to listen.

"We never want to become a novelty act, where people are coming to see us because they think we're going to spray 'em with tomato juice or something," James says. "We're always just trying to be about the music."

About The Author

Nancy Einhart


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