J.P. McDermott and Western Bop
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J.P. McDermott and Western Bop


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The best kept secret in music


"In the Dark..."

Character, they say, is what you are in the dark. In that case, local bandleader J.P. McDermott has the character of a true professional, and the voice to match. At Saturday night's CD release party for his first full-length, Last Fool Here, the heavy rains knocked the power out half an hour before showtime, but the show went on nonetheless.

At 9 PM, the Half-Moon BBQ sat square in the middle of a two-block stretch of Georgia Avenue where the only lights came from passing cars, plus plenty of fire trucks, cops, and ambulances. At 9:30, owner Marc Gretschel stood on the sidewalk in the misting rain, assuring curious patrons that yes, the power was out, yes, the beer taps worked, and yes, in the back room, J.P. McDermott & Western Bop were playing -- very unplugged. Stepping into the bar provided a rare glimpse into a previous time and place -- say, Appalachia before the great rural electrification projects of the 1930s. Patrons gathered in the twilight glow of a few candles. Cups and bottles crossed the bar one way and handfuls of cash went the other, to disappear mysteriously, without the normal chime of a register. Beer in hand, you followed the sound of acoustic guitar up the stairs to the back room and into another level of darkness, away from any windows. You knew the room was packed -- you could hear the people, you could sense their mass, you could even smell them. But the darkness was deep, palpable, dreamlike. It was like having your head under the covers in a winter midnight. Here and there, someone groping for room to stand or a place to set a drink would flick a lighter or open a cel phone -- intermittent fireflies. As your vision adjusted, you could see a little ambient light through the open back door, outlining the silhouettes of people dancing. And through the dark cut a mighty voice: barking, yipping, crooning, howling, and vibrating with all the controlled pathos and bon vivance that the soul of rockabilly could demand. Drowning out the acoustic guitar of Bob Newscaster and easily dominating even the full drumset and upright bass, McDermott's voice boomed out of his torso and knifed to the back of the room, soared up to the balcony, and even stretched all the way down to the front bar. He belted out Johnny Cash and plenty of Elvis Presley from the Sun Sessions and his own utterly authentic compositions, and he wasn't about to let a little thing like a failed power grid stop him. At 10:30, someone returned from a long trip to fetch a generator, and staff prepared to start taking the set apart and rebuilding it with this gas engine plugged in. But JP shook his head, said, "We ain't stopping now," and played on in the campfire night. His thoughts must have been on the troubadours of a previous century as well, because he introduced "the first country song ever recorded, in 1902, a hundred and three years ago," and the quartet launched into a reverently rocking "Wreck of the Old 97".

At 10:45 the lights came on, to general cheering. The band finished out the unplugged set and took a well-earned break, and the fully-wired third half of the show kicked off at 11:30. "This is easy now," said McDermott. Andy Rutherford joined Newscaster, drawing fireworks from dueling casters, and three old-fashioned mics caught the backup vocals, now able to compete with Louie Newmayer's bass and Tom Bowe's drumming. Feet visible, more folks braved the dance floor, including one young woman who treated the insistent honky-tonk beats as a personal aerobics track. The crowd stayed heavy throughout, enthusiastically greeting every song, including a heartaching rendition of the album's jukebox-perfect title track. Many took the opportunity to get McDermott's autograph on the CD, a masterful collection of rockabilly five years in the making and worth the wait. Try listening to it in the dark. - Joel Sparks, Metro Music Scene

"Honky Tonk the Way It Should Be"

Washington Post Staff Writer

IT'S LATE on a Saturday night and the parking lot is full at Griff's Place (5500 Olney-Laytonsville Road, Olney; 301-926-0100), a rough-and-tumble one-story rectangular brick roadhouse way out in the middle of nowhere. Okay, it's not nowhere. It's at the intersection of Muncaster Road and Olney-Laytonsville Road, surrounded by cornfields and park land, along a road planted with signs that say things like "Bales of Hay $3." But it took me a long time to find it.

The door swings open and a happy couple literally stumbles out, arms around waists for mutual support, chased by the smoke, beer-sign lights and the rockabilly music within.

Stepping in, I see the band on a little stage to the right, a pool table is in the middle and a bar lines the left wall facing the music. I scoot to the bar just as Louie Newmyer slaps his upright bass, igniting a version of Johnny Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry."

There's a cloud cover of cigarette smoke -- practically its own weather system -- but the really, really cold long-neck Budweiser seems to chase it away. On stage, that's J.P. McDermott & Western Bop, J.P. himself leaning into the old-style slotted microphone belting out these classic country, honky-tonk and rockabilly tunes in his throaty tenor. Andy Rutherford rips a Telecaster solo, while drummer John Shepherd pushes the shuffle into the land of pure groove.

I feel like that front door was the entrance to a time machine. "That's the thing about Griff's, and why I like playing there and places like JV's [in Falls Church]," McDermott says. "It could be 1958 or 1978, it almost doesn't matter. These are working-class bars that never change, where these songs are part of the normal fabric."
The songs are by the likes of Cash, Ray Price, Floyd Tillman, Maddox Brothers & Rose, Red Foley and many more greats from a bygone era.

Also well represented on the list is Buddy Holly, who led the 41-year-old McDermott down the musical path he now finds himself on. "It was during the '50s revival in the '70s, all that Sha Na Na stuff was happening," recalls McDermott, "and I really liked the song 'Runaround Sue' but could never remember the title. I bought a 45 of 'Peggy Sue,' thinking that was it, put it on and said, 'Wait a minute! This is much better!' And that started a real love affair with Buddy Holly."

He learned the Holly canon, playing his songs in bands with buddies at Rockville High School. A visit to Bethesda's Psychedelly club to see local rockabilly ace Tex Rabinowitz cemented his passion. "Tex had a major impact on me," McDermott admits. "I saw him many, many times, and he was part of a scene that was part punk, part rockabilly in the late '70s here, the Slickee Boys, the D. Ceats, the Bad Boys."
At the University of Maryland at College Park he formed the new wave band the item ("All lowercase, of course.") and played at long-gone local clubs like the Gentry and Friendship Station before calling it quits in favor of career and family in the mid-'80s. "I traded it in for singing lullabies," he says laughing. "But a few years ago, I just got the bug, went out to an open mike with my guitar and did some songs I really love, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash. I played the five songs I had ready and Kenny Haddaway, who was running the open mike, is there saying, 'Do some more! Do some more!' but I didn't have any more, so I started listening to my old records again and worked up material."

A conversation with rockabilly singer Jay Jenc led to McDermott putting together Western Bop in 48 hours for its first gig, opening for Jenc's band Jumpin' Jupiter at IOTA in July 2000, "and we've been at it pretty much nonstop ever since," he says.
McDermott knows he's an anachronism, delivering songs that haven't been on the radio in 40 years or more, but he's standing by his choices. "Someday it'll roll back around so that more people will want to hear this stuff," he says. "Maybe I was born too late, but I really feel a connection to the music and to the kinds of places you used to hear it played. And there are still people out there that work hard for a living and like to have a beer and hear a sad song. I'm just lucky I get to do that for them."

Friday, October 4, 2002; Page WE05
- The Washington Post

"That'll be the night: Buddy Holly tribute in Silver Spring"

by Chris Slattery, Staff Writer
Feb. 2, 2005

J.P. McDermott is man enough to admit it. "My first memory of Buddy Holly is kind of embarrassing," says the multiple Wammie nominated native Washingtonian rocker. "There was a song a I really liked a lot: 'Run around Sue' by Dion. I bought 'Peggy Sue,'" he says. "I accidentally stumbled into Buddy Holly."

Nowadays, McDermott is a family man who works "in middle management. It helps pay for guitar strings." But back then, he was a student at Rockville High, interested in hearing more from the '50s-era groups that were inspiring the punk guitar bands of the '70s.

He wasn't alone. When Holly died in 1959, he left behind a legacy of nearly 100 recordings, and at least 40 original songs -- classic ones, too, that became hits for him posthumously and were recorded by artists like the Beatles, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Those covers captured the imagination of a new generation of fans, and "American Pie," Don McLean's little 1971 ditty about Holly, burnished the legend.

Not necessarily for McDermott, who says, "I knew what it was about, but it didn't really speak to me." He insists all he needed to love Buddy Holly songs was to hear Buddy Holly songs.

"I'm a singer, and Buddy just wrote these beautiful, melodically straightforward songs," he says. "It sent my drummer and I back into his basement [to play]."

Buddy Holly continues to keep McDermott and his band playing. On Saturday, just a few days after the 46th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, he'll host the third annual celebration of the music of Buddy Holly at the Half Moon Barbecue in Silver Spring.

McDermott's combo, Western Bop, will serve as the house band, and local favorites will take their turns: Steve Key will sing "Every Day," Billy Colter will do a duet with the host on "Words of Love," Johnny Bombay will tackle "Not Fade Away" and the Blue Moon Cowgirls will harmonize on "Guess it Doesn't Matter Anymore."

"We go real deep in the catalogue," McDermott says proudly. "There's an awful lot there, and it makes for a really fun night."

The fun night is based on a sad and somewhat sobering thought: The road to the rock and roll immortality is lined with an awful lot of "what ifs." The young and beautiful and super-talented who die tragically, before they can reach their potential, to be sure, but not before they've created the kind of masterpieces most artists only dream about.

Tupac and Kurt. Aaliyah and Selena. Harry Chapin and Jim Croce, back before video killed the radio star, before the punk-pop pioneers Blondie sang "Die young, stay pretty."

But the fountainhead of posthumous rock and roll megastardom -- the guy who started it all without ever meaning to -- was Holly. Straight outta Lubbock, Texas, all lanky and bespectacled and 22 years old when his plane crashed in a cornfield on a bitter cold February night leaving nothing but a phenomenal musical legacy.

"He came literally out of nowhere,' marvels McDermott. And in the pre-MTV era -- heck, it was the pre-Beatles era -- he might have slipped back into relative obscurity had it not been for McLean's 1971 hit "American Pie."

Generations grew up trying to puzzle together the references in that supersized song, which McLean has described as "autobiographical," based on his memories of a loss of innocence that started with Holly's death. McLean was once quoted as saying, "I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence" -- but the song did more than speak for itself. According to McLean's official Web site, it led to John Goldrosen's definitive biography (written over a 12-month period in 1971-72), which inspired the movie "The Buddy Holly Story," which, in turn, led Buddy Holly to superstardom and made a star out of an unknown actor named Gary Busey.

And while it wasn't his favorite song or his favorite movie, these are the kind of connections that McDermott loves to make. He'll tell you about Waylon Jennings, who gave up his seat on the plane to Holly. About the Beatles, whose first recording was "That'll Be The Day." About Marshall Crenshaw, who does the definitive "Rave On." But mostly, he'll talk about Holly and the promising young musicians who died with him the night the music died.

"To be that young, that prolific," he marvels. "You never see them fade. They never put out that record that didn't make it."

And almost half a century after the fact, it seems the music didn't really die at all.
- The Gazette


"Last Fool Here" is out on Shower-Tone Records. We're getting airplay on:

KEXP, Seattle, WA
WNHU, New Haven, CT
WPRB, Princeton, NJ
MCWC, Mora, Sweden


Feeling a bit camera shy


What folks are saying about Western Bop…

* "2004 WAMMIE WINNER - COUNTRY VOCALIST OF THE YEAR" ~ Washington Area Music Association

* "The Keeper of the Rockabilly Flame" ~ Joel Sparks, OnTap Magazine

* "Honky Tonk The Way It Should Be…JP McDermott & Western Bop throw down the classic country and rockabilly as well as anyone around... go go go!" - Eric Brace, The Washington Post

* "Excellent" ~ Fritz Hahn, The Washington Post

* "The singing and playing are a terrific evocation of Elvis Presley's Sun recordings crossed with Buddy Holly style vocals" ~ Tom Heyman, Listen.com

"I must tell you AUTHENTIC ROCKABILLY!!! A mournful, lonesome cry to the past. The band is outstanding. " ~ Blake Gregory, MetroMusicConnection

* "Rockabilly and honky tonk country are a lot closer to the blues than that little trip Elvis took across the tracks. D.C.'s finest honky tonk singer does real working man's music." ~ Terence McArdle, Big Trouble