JJ's Louisville music memories
This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
Unedited, straight from the mind of Jim James.
i have always lived in louisville.
i remember waking up to the sound of chirping birds, as a one year old child, and seeing a giant orange easter bunny with black bead eyes standing above my crib looking down at me laying there. the sun was shining in over his back and there was music playing...some kind of tinkling bells all covered in the haze of fresh human experience...maybe it was coming from the mobile turning above me as the easter bunny would spin it with his hand. this was way before donnie darko.
i remember hearing dan fogelburg’s “leader of the band” in the car with my mom when i was about 3 and, for some reason, i LOVED that song. so she rode us over to raceland mall(remember raceland mall? what a weird name.) and we bought the 45 record of the song, took it home, and listened to it on repeat(that and “thriller” of course). why would a 3 year old gravitate towards a song like that? to this day i cant even think about the song without tearing up. a few years after dan passed away i was able to purchase his old recording console. talk about full circle.
sometime around that same time i remember sitting on the floor of the living room just balling at how sad and beautiful “when you wish upon a star” made me feel when they played it at the end of “the wonderfully wide world of disney” or whatever they used to call that show that walt would host.
i’ll never forget seeing kermit for the first time in stuffed animal form...and saying: “who is this beautiful frog!” and then my mom sitting me down on the floor in front of the TV as the opening song of the muppet show came on and my mind just being blown to bits at the music and the creatures and the beauty of it all. i really believe the muppet show was the first place i learned about the deeper qualities of music and how far reaching and powerful it was...how it could make you feel so many things...watching and laughing at the electric mayhem’s goofy songs or gonzo singing with his chickens...then crying as some weird scientist muppet sang jim croce’s “time in a bottle”...or just feeling utterly mystified and convinced at a young age of the existence of a higher power as kermit sang the rainbow connection and all the muppets joined in with him in the end.
i remember watching neil young perform “harvest moon” on saturday night live, as his guitar tech swept the stage with a broom keeping time, and my mom taking us to the store(remember when you had to go to the store to get music? R.I.P. ear-x-tacy) to get it and picking out “harvest” accidentally instead. i’ll never forget sitting on the floor of my basement bedroom in 6th grade as “out on the weekend” came on over the speakers and it sounded like the beautiful creaking of an old barn that has been in the wind forever and weathered many storms but somehow still standing...and i thought to myself: “this isn’t harvest moon.”
perhaps my greatest musical blessing in louisville, other than the wonderful musical guidance from my mother, came from attending st. martha catholic elementary school... and, even though the majority of that experience was laughably hellish, i met some of the greatest friends of my lifetime there in the 4th grade- like patrick hallahan, who plays drums in mmj and shares with me the very same bday...dave givan, with whom i perform and host sir microcosm, and several others with whom i am still connected to and create with. we all felt as “outsiders,” as many weird or “artsy” kids will feel in grade school and music was our saving grace...it transported us outside the realm of what we felt was impossible in our bodies here on this earth...it enabled us to transcend the pain of being an awkward adolescent...and experience the true glory of life.
at the time my friend aaron had gotten a guitar from his parents for christmas...a beautiful white harmony strat...i’ll never forget looking at it laying there on the table and feeling transported- somehow knowing that this guitar, or one just like it, was the key to salvation...
so my uncle tom was kind enough to loan me money for my first fender squire stratocaster...which i repaid by tearing thousands of boxes of business forms for his company. during that time he also greatly expanded my mind by giving to me a copy of REM’s “out of time,” which contained the first song that my friends and I would ever all perform live, in my buddy dave’s parents garage- “losing my religion.” i wish i still had a copy of our version. it was hilarious. we were VERY lucky that no one heard it, and also that dave’s parents would let us take over their entire house- they are saints. i owe a lot to dave’s parents...as well as my own- who eventually saw how committed i was to music and helped me to purchase an amp, an acoustic guitar, and put up with the constant noise i made listening to and playing music at full volume.
so we had our little band that went thru various hilarious names and songs and we would jam and write and cover songs by all the alterna-grunge and metal greats at the time...and then a few of us started to get really serious about it- so we started a band called “month of sundays.”
month of sundays was hilarious because, while we were willing to die for it and really believed in it, we never really could find a place to fit in within the greater scheme of what was going on in louisville at the time. we were WAY too loud and abrasive for anyone into most mainstream music, but we were way too uncool for louisville’s booming post-hardcore/indie rock scene at the time. that scene was a cold and dark place. i remember really being intrigued by it and going to shows at tewligans and all the haunts...watching bands and wanting to feel welcome but feeling really scared at the craziness of it all...wanting to fit in but not feeling confident enough to try and never really feeling all that “at home” either...we did find solace tho in some of the great bands of that era: rodan, hula hoop, will oldham, rachels and others... getting drawn in to the power of their music and feeling connected to it thru our blood. they had waked the same streets as us. seen some of the same things. what a crazy feeling to love a band that lives in the same town you do...and i dont know if it was the super self-consciousness of being an awkward teenager, or if the scene was really as cold and snobby as i remember it, maybe a combination of both, but we never really fit in or felt loved there- which was frustrating as that was “where it’s at” back then.
so we created our own scene. we called it the freak scene. we would get together with our friends and their bands and we would book our own shows outside of the giant post-hardcore scene going on at any venue we could: primizee pizza, the cardinal inn, people’s houses...anywhere and everywhere we could play our music we would.
we tried to make our “freakscene”(i wonder if we subconsciously named it after the dinosaur jr song?) a polar opposite of the post-hardcore scene. we wanted people to feel welcome at our shows. we wanted it to feel like a place you could come and get wild and have fun and be yourself and not worry. we wanted music to bring happiness... or at least some release... for everyone involved. not many people ever found out about it...but we had some good times.
around the time of the freakscene i was asked to play in another band called “hotel roy” with some beautifully creative guys who really helped start to change my outlook on things. the guys in hotel roy were into our freakscene and that whole vibe, but were also really into the popular indie rock scene as well. they really helped build a bridge in my mind to show me that the feelings i was having about not fitting in to that scene were indeed mostly just in my own insecure mind...and that, aside from a few assholes, there were a lot of nice folks in that world as well, and that i needed to just stop worrying about it and shut up!
...and with their help i learned to calm down and focus on the beauty...because there is just so much of it.
as month of sundays slowly disintegrated in a post non-completed college haze i started doing open mic nights and writing different music than i had written with month of sundays. for some reason i labeled the page in my notebook where i kept track of the songs “my morning jacket.” i still don’t really know why.
one of my best friends, my cousin john, who had long been part of my musical upbringing, was very supportive of this new project of mine. whenever he had breaks from work and his own band “winter death club” he would help me record my songs at the studio on his grandparents farm. we had so much fun doing that and eventually started playing together and it grew and grew and took on a life of its own, with lots of great folks involved past and present- namely the long lasting gift of another musical guide and friend in mr tom blankenship. like my buddy dave’s parents, john’s grandparents are saints. they really gave us a place to land and stretch our wings...so we grew there in that beautiful place. my morning jacket would have never gotten off the ground if it weren’t for johns grandparents support. to any parents or grandparents who let your kids bands practice at your house: you’ve earned a place of positive entry into the afterlife of your choice.
modern day louisville to me is a very happy place. a place of endless creativity, artistic growth, and goodwill amongst fellow artists . being good friends and co-workers with one of louisville’s greatest musical treasures: mister kevin ratterman- who provides a recording studio vehicle for artists to create and realize their musical dreams in the highest quality, i have been able to keep my ear on the pulse of what is going on here NOW in louisville- so much beautiful music being made by the brilliant minds who walk these streets.
i feel very excited to be a part of this wonderful and wide family of new friends and old pals that stretch back before birth and out beyond the grave. i guess THAT -in the end- is what truly sums up louisville to me: family. not just blood family but deeply rooted friendships that began in childhood and hopefully will last until the day i die. i feel like that is a fairly rare thing to find in this life, and that i might not have been so fortunate had i not been born in this beautiful world of louisville KY- a place that southerners look at as “northern,” a place that northerners and the rest of the world look at as “the south,” but in reality exists right in the middle- a place all it’s own with a pure palette and unique point of view to create from...being bound by no particular constraints or rules of identity. i have always felt extremely fortunate and proud to have been born here, and cherish that as part of my own earthly identity.
Photo: courtesy of Mickie Winters