John Paul Keith is passionate about his city’s rich heritage — and good barbecue
The Real-Phonic Radio Hour knows its roots-rock talent, so when organizers chose John Paul Keith, the Memphis guitarist and songwriter, to close out their 2013-14 season at the James J. Hill Center in St. Paul last spring, hopes were high.
He tore it up in gen-u-ine crowd-pleasing style.
Keith is active in social media, and after the show, his followers knew he had met St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, and upon returning to Memphis, stopped for barbecue.
Barbecue, in fact, comes up often in his Twitter feed. Next weekend, Keith returns to the Twin Cities area with stops at the Turf Club on Sept. 6 and Bayport BBQ on Sept. 7. He was asked about the road life of a barbecue enthusiast — and about music, too.
Q: You make it easy to track your barbecue-related whereabouts. Was last spring’s stop on the way home from St. Paul a ritual of sorts?
A: I usually do get barbecue when I get back from a run. They’re everywhere here. There’s a local fast food BBQ chain called Tops. There are more of them here than there are Starbucks. Memphis!
Q: Chris Johnson, the owner of Bayport BBQ, has been a longtime fan of the deep blues artists out of Mississippi. You often play in Clarksdale, Miss. Are they still strong on music tradition there?
A: Yeah, Clarksdale is very aware of its history. They named a street after John Lee Hooker, after all. They have the Delta Blues Museum, and the crossroads, of course.
Q: How do you rate Mississippi vs. Memphis barbecue? And St. Louis barbecue? You play there quite often, too.
A: I consider Memphis and Mississippi barbecue to be in the same area code. Never had St. Louis barbecue, but I liked the ribs I had in Kansas City once. I’m not really a barbecue snob, by the way. For me, on a scale of 1 to 10, all barbecue starts at around 7.
Q: You opened for Chuck Berry in St. Louis two years ago. Did you catch yourself thinking while playing, “Whoa, I gotta avoid that Chuck Berry solo?”
A: I was self-conscious about playing too many of his licks with him just a few feet behind me in the dressing room. But then I realized I wouldn’t have much to play if I didn’t. So I just went with it. It was a dream gig.
Q: As a Southerner, are you inclined to be suspicious of barbecue here?
A: No, I’m not suspicious of any American barbecue. I once had pretty good stuff in the middle of the night in Omaha, Neb., of all places. What they call barbecue overseas is nothing of the sort, however. When they say barbecue, they mean grilling out.
Q: The Replacements went to Memphis to record “Pleased To Meet Me” with Jim Dickinson. You played with him in a band, Snake Eyes. What was that experience like?
A: Great. He had old songs he’d written in the mid-60s in the garage-rock style of the time. So we put together a band of more recent Memphis garage veterans. But we never recorded, which was a real shame. He was a sweet and generous man, and a joy to sit and listen to. He impressed on me that if you travel the world as a Memphis musician, you’ve got a lot to live up to and you’re an ambassador for the whole history of that music.
Q: When might we hear new music from you — or from (side project) Motel Mirrors? It’s been almost a year since you put out “Memphis Circa 3AM.”
A: Too soon to say. My co-conspirator in Motel Mirrors, Amy LaVere, is touring heavily behind her new album, and she’s about to get married to Will Sexton. Maybe after that we can start working on new stuff. I never talk about ongoing writing because I think it kills your incentive to keep going. It’s some sort of psychological thing — like telling people you are writing makes you feel as if you’ve written.