Award-winning songwriter. College music professor. Road warrior. One of the most active front men in modern-day roots music, Jason Lee McKinney has spent the past decade in an absolute whirl of activity, earning an international following along the way.
He hits a new creative peak with Pieces, the eighth studio album from Jason Lee McKinney Band. Recorded with Grammy-nominated producer Kevin Houston (Buddy Guy, Robert Plant, Lucero) at Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch (North Mississippi Allstars), the album whips up McKinney’s own form of soulful American gumbo, finding room for roadhouse rock & roll, bluesy slide guitar, stomping grooves, countrified soul, and the larger-than-life swagger of McKinney’s voice. Separately, these are the individual pieces of Jason Lee McKinney Band’s sound. Together, they form something raw, raucous, and redemptive — a recipe that’s worth revisiting again and again.
Pieces kicks off with “Normal Is Just An Exit.” This foot-stomper, fueled by some incendiary guitar licks, is the perfect launching pad for what turns out to be a great, genre-bending album.
From the early 70s radio vibe of “Good Old Soul,” to the modern funk slathered “Thicc,” McKinney and company grace our earholes again and again. The use of the of the contemporary vernacular on the latter song proves that even Americana music can reach out to the youth.
That Memphis style, blues/rock/soul vibe comes naturally for the band. McKinney’s muscular vocals and brilliant lyrics are mixed with contributions from longtime bandmates Barry Strauser and Billy Wright, as well as background vocals from fellow Memphis-based soul artists Reba Russell and Susan Marshall.
The title track, co-written by McKinney and his son Zion, caught our attention ‘fo ‘sho. Lyrically an anthem to new beginnings, the song is drenched in the slightly funky, jam band vibe that permeates the record, but also adds some nice Gospel harmonies. If one were to look up eclectic in the dictionary, one might find the Pieces album cover as a descriptor.
But our main focus is the final track on the album, “Blues in Bahrain,” and its accompanying video. Jason himself says it best, “The video for ‘Blues in Bahrain’ highlights a month-long tour of the Middle East the band did partnering with Armed Forces Entertainment. It was amazing getting to entertain the troops and see what their daily duties entail. Regardless of politics, it humbles you to see these young men and women and their bravery. At one base the commanding officer pointed out that the soldiers we just played for and were going to load up for a night patrol and would most likely be shot at. A year ago at that time many of them were going to their senior proms. Humbling. That tour covered 3 continents and 5 countries; more air hours than I could count. We got to experience a variety of cultures. Two things I learned- First, everywhere in the world mothers love their children, we aren’t that different. Second, at 6’3 with tattoos and pasty white I cannot ‘blend-in’ at the airport in the Middle East no matter how hard I try. Lastly, the song is just about missing home, everyone can relate to that.”
In the song, a Middle Eastern sounding guitar explodes into some rockin’ blues riffs with Jason’s powerhouse vocal spreading Memphis soul all over the mix. And just when you get comfortable with the vibe, the band turns it down…way down, into what can only be described as a hard ass slow drag with some seriously distorted guitar assaults. Try as you might, the sound of the Jason Lee McKinney band can’t be pigeon-holed.
A rock & roll intellectual who holds a Doctorate, an MBA, and a BA in Management, Jason Lee McKinney is smart enough to know when he’s creating his best work, and Pieces could very well be that work.
Pieces is set for release on all major outlets February 21, 2020 via Bonfire Music Group.
*Feature image Shellie Wright