Beneath the Keith 

Memphis blues and soul man John Paul Keith is wiser than most about the
music industry. Clocking years in playing affords him a certain

“We were coming back home from Baton Rouge on a Sunday afternoon. I was driving the van, and you think, ‘God, this is a long drive,’” he said. “It occurred to me, ‘I love this.’ You have to love it. Some people love playing, some people love recording, but you’ve got to love every minute. You have to.”

There for a while, however, he didn’t. Keith had spent a decade in Nashville; he signed a record deal at the age of 21. Efforts to push his rootsy sound to something more commercial burnt him out.

“Even if you tell yourself you aren’t going to be one of those guys, when everyone you know is a part of that culture, you start to, whether you mean to or not,” he said. “That’s what I did, and I was not very good at it.”

Disillusioned, he moved to Memphis with the intention of leaving it all behind. But the sound of the blues filling the streets rekindled the romance, and he soon found players and audiences who approved of his vintage sensibilities and God-given guitar talents.

“What became apparent was this was the most open-minded place I’d ever lived, as far as music goes. Everybody was cool with whatever you did, as long as you meant it,” Keith said. “Nobody cares if it’s hip or not. It does not matter. It couldn’t matter less. You’re free to do what you love.”

His music is an even blend of all things old and classic, where garage rock and rockabilly find as much footing as ’60s pop and blues. His latest album, The Man That Time Forgot, has been praised for how honest and true it sounds to the ’50s and ’60s.

“We live in an age of robotic rhythm,” Keith said. “We try real hard to make our songs swing, to make them boogie. You can’t do that with a machine.”

So far, it’s worked exceedingly well, and he’s happier than ever.

“We opened up for Chuck Berry in St. Louis recently. He’s 84 and still gigging,” he said. “He doesn’t need the money; he just loves doing it. I hope that’ll be me someday.”

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Joshua Boydston

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