A STORM IN THE SOUL:
THE MIGHTY JEREMIAHS
But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.
"So we don't have any excuse not knowin' what God wants us to do. If you can't see, that's no excuse. If you can't hear, that's no excuse. If you can't read, that's no excuse."
-Rev. Willie Morganfield, used in "Revelator Intro" on The Mighty Jeremiahs.
The popular culture of modern America was created by a handful of young Jewish men during the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century. The common theme among their creations? Alienation, displacement, but also an obsessive and righteous drive.
And because of that, The Mighty Jeremiahs have released their debut self-titled recording.
A large leap in logic? Well, consider:
Two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland named Siegel and Shuster develop a character sent to Earth as a baby from his dying home world, given to the unknown by parents who knew they were doomed. The child grows somewhere in Midwestern America, knowing he is gifted, but still different from others. As a man, he becomes the ultimate force for good. And leaps a few tall buildings in a single bound.
In another instance, a young commercial artist named Robert Kahn (who will later change his last name to Kane), tired of drawing cowboy comics, creates character with an obsessive drive fight crime that drives him deep into a self-exile and, other than a few close confidantes, the fight becomes his alone. His weapons: fear and physical skill. Along with a mask with pointy ears and a long cape.
A little more than two decades later, two men named Lieber and Kurtzberg (who were already known by their last names Lee and Kirby) dream up a special school for young people with certain abilities, who are deemed freaks and are feared by the rest of the world: one boy who sprouts wide wings from his back, another whose eyes trap the power of the sun and release it in devastating blasts, a girl who can rip open a bank vault just by looking at its door and a bulky, strong-yet-agile young man who begins to grow blue hair all over his body. Under the tutelage of a man confined to a wheelchair, these and others learn the harness their powers and channel them to benefit an ungrateful world. Years later distinguished television actor Kelsey Grammer will play one of them in a movie.
So how do you connect a handful of Jewish men and the cultural phenomena they created with band named after a Jewish prophet whose members include a blues vocalist and harmonica player from Nashville, a guitarist from Glasgow and a drummer and bassist from Lexington who together made a blues-rock Gospel recording that had its genesis (no pun intended) fourteen years ago and was finally released late last year on a label based in Louisville?
It's easy. Except that The Mighty Jeremiahs aren't faster than speeding bullets or dress in tights and swing from buildings.
"It's been an adventure, how this whole thing came about," guitarist Greg Martin said. "It wasn't meant to be a CD. It just kind of morphed into one."
"I knew it was good as we were doing it," said vocalist Jimmy Hall. "As each track was put down and mixed, it got better and better and bigger. And I knew it was something special, but, boy, the feedback we get from people is just amazing."
"As it developed along," bassist Mark Hendricks said, "and different people who had different spiritual backgrounds started getting involved with it. Their effects on the songs make it something really special for me."
"We were doing it to have fun and thought it was right," said drummer (and Martin's stepson) Jon McGee.
Just like the men who inadvertently contributed to the nation's culture by adding to its mythology while exorcising feelings of alienation with the creations from their daydreams, The Mighty Jeremiahs took what started as a freeform studio jam with a single track into a full-scale recording that is now in its second printing and quickly becoming the best-selling title for its label and is getting more and more airplay on Christian radio stations nationwide solely on word-of-mouth praise and stellar reviews, a market that is currently thick with gentle songs of praise that are more crossover froth than the kind of from-the-gut boldness heard in the Jeremiahs' debut release, which Jimmy Hall described as "Mountain meets ZZ Top and goes to church."
"I have no idea what's going on in the Christian market," Martin admitted. "And I would say The Mighty Jeremiahs are the total opposite of what's going on over there."
"I'm sure it's got a totally different sound," McGee said, "and I can promise you that no matter what market you're in, Christian or secular, it's all about money. For whatever reason, once you take something and make it product, then you've got money involved and a bottom line."
"But you've got to support the ministry," Martin added with a laugh.
So can this recording, already distinguished within its genre with its raw, thundering sound, make its way deeper into Christian radio and, possibly, into the lives of its listeners? Or will the very things that make it so distinguished also keep it on the fringes, alienated from an audience? According to the Oxford Study Bible, the prophet from whom they take their band name himself was alienated from his own home and family, so will this band never reach an audience and end up, like Jeremiah, reciting its Lamentations?
Considering the gradual manner in which The Mighty Jeremiahs are being revealed to the public, the answer should be obvious. Or, as it is put in Jeremiah, 31:28, "I shall watch over them to build and plant."
Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways and see and ask for the old paths, where is the good way and walk therein and ye shall find rest for your souls.
1992: Doug and Ricky Lee Phelps leave the Kentucky Headhunters to form their own band, leaving the Headhunters with only two members. In Lexington, the band Black Cat Bone falls apart just when they had landed a deal with Elektra Records. The band's guitarist, Jon McGee, moved back home to Glasgow with his mother and stepfather, Headhunters member Greg Martin.
"It was a pretty intense time," Martin recalled. "We were going into David Barrick's studio with no particular plan at all. The first track that we cut was `John the Revelator,' We'd come up with a pretty cool riff and Jon originally sang it. We thought it sounded pretty good. Then I got busy putting the Headhunters back together."
"That sort of started it," McGee said, "but we never knew what to do with it."
The project became less of a collection of tracked jam sessions and more of an actual recording when the Christian blues harmonica performer Darrell Mansfield joined Martin, McGee and Mark Hendricks, McGee's former bandmate in Black Cat Bone, who became part of the nebulous project.
"Once we had a few sessions with Darrell Mansfield," McGee said, "we started to get a little more focused. Darrell went on to do another project and he only used a couple of tracks at the most from the sessions and told us we could do whatever we wanted to with the rest."
Yet not everyone in those sessions was comfortable with the project's direction.
"When Darrell got involved," Mark Hendricks said, "and it was obvious that it was gonna be a Gospel record with a rock-and-roll-blues feel, I had mixed emotions about it. I wasn't exactly 100 percent with the idea. But I wanted to play on it. And anytime you get to play on a record with Greg Martin, you go for it. And when we were doing that session with Darrell, it was incredibly creative."
One of the songs from those sessions that Mansfield took with him was a cover of "Respect Yourself," originally performed by the Staple Singers in the 1970s. Martin took the feelings from recording that song as a sign that there had to be an end result for all the piecemeal work in the studio.
"He never used the song," Martin said, "then the master got lost."
Now that the project had a direction, even without one of its key tracks, there was still no specific plan for making a final product. Considering that all of its members were involved in other work, that start-and-stop process was accepted. Even necessary, because it allowed a gradual development. If Rome wasn't built in a day, then The Mighty Jeremiahs could take their sweet time, if needed.
And they did. "It was organically grown," Jimmy Hall said. "Piece-by-piece, let it do what it wants to do. And record what you're led to do. That's how [Martin] involved other people in it and that's how he involved me in it."
Hall had known Martin for years, since the time Martin sent him a Christmas card. They kept in touch, doing gigs together and he joined Martin on a few Headhunters recordings. Then Martin told him about a spiritual album he was working on.
"He invited me up for the first session," Hall remembered. "I can't remember the year. At least maybe three years ago. He asked me to sing `John the Revelator.' I went up there, he played me the track. It had so much power. I just laid down a vocal and gave it all I've got. It just worked. And from that time, Greg said it was sounding good and wanted me to do some more."
Part of the reason the project was grown piece-by-piece was because of all the members' other commitments: Martin and the Kentucky Headhunters, McGee and Hendricks were working in Lexington with a new band they called Traildragger and Hall had his commitments with Hank Williams, Jr., Wet Willie (who had the mid-1970s hit "Keep on Smiling"), touring as a vocalist with Jeff Beck (who referred to Hall as "The best singer I know."), doing his solo work and working with his own outfit Jimmy Hall and the Prisoners of Love.
"To really schedule it," Hall said, "we had to look at certain windows. I would tell Greg what I had and he'd say `Okay, we've got time for you.' He was patient with me and was able to pull it all together."
Not only was the project's piecemeal pace allowing Martin able to work within Hall's schedule, it also allowed him to bring in several other guest performers, including Bonnie Bramlett, Phil Keagy and fellow and former Headhunters Richard Young, Fred Young and Ricky Lee and Doug Phelps.
Also for Hall, David Barrick's studio in Glasgow, where the project was recorded and assembled, provided the perfect vibe. Or sacred space, if you will.
"[Barrick] has a certain magic," he said. "You can't deny it. He was an integral part of the sound and feel of this album. He gets certain sounds that are just amazing. When somebody's got a gift, it's hard to dissect it and analyze it too much. When I was working with him, it was natural to be around him. He knows how to get a good performance out of you."
As the project neared its completion in 2002 and as Martin began exploring deals with Christian music labels, there was one more task to be addressed, probably the hardest one since it would be a prime selling point to a label and especially to an audience: a band name.
The one label with which Martin was working on a deal suggested Blue Cross, taking hints from the band's sound and its message. The trick would have been to get around a certain medical insurance company with the same name. Another name was The Revelators, which Martin had suggested, taking it from the lead track "John the Revelator." An Internet search showed there was another band with that name.
Then Hall had a revelation of his own.
"It's either coming from God or the muse or whatever you want to call it," Hall said. "it is just the same way when I'm receptive for music that it'll happen. I did have a dream during that period about a traditional, black Gospel group, like The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Fairfield Four, ones that sing unabashedly and make a joyful noise. And I thought `The Mighty Jeremiahs.'
"I told Greg. He loved it. And there it went."
In that book of the Bible, for chapter-and-verse after chapter-and-verse, Jeremiah foretells the destruction ungrateful and sinful Israel will face unless it turns from wickedness.
That's not quite the same message from The Mighty Jeremiahs.
"The way I look at it," Martin said, "Jeremiah was very intense. Basically, the cat had the blues."
However, it is in Jeremiah that a new covenant is first mentioned, where the laws of God are written on the hearts of men instead of tablets of stone. If Isaiah's prophecy was of the coming of a savior, then Jeremiah's was the prophecy of what that savior will teach.
But The Mighty Jeremiahs aren't on a mission to convert anybody. "We're not beating people over the head with the Bible," Martin said. "That's not our intention."
"I don't think anybody involved in this project ever consciously had that or anything like that in mind," McGee said. "It's sort of the Trojan Horse theory: you've got what sounds to be a classic rock-and-roll album that can sit alongside ZZ Top's Tres Hombres, but you can take away something different from it."
Thou therefore gird up thy loins and arise and speak unto them all that I command thee: be not dismayed at their faces, lest I confound thee before them.
"If you told me I was going to put out a Gospel record on the ear X-tacy label," John Timmons said, "I wouldn't have laughed at you. We've put out just about everything else. So why not?"
We were in Timmons' office at ear X-tacy, where he operates the store and its companion record label. To get to it, you walk through a pair of double doors at the back of the store and through a massive storeroom stacked with CD jewel cases and other merchandise. Shelving, posters and bumper stickers cover the walls from the concrete floors to the high ceiling. His office isn't any better, a cluttered microcosm of the area right outside his office doorway.
Timmons continued. "To me, it's just so unlike what's out right now being played on the radio. It sounds old, but it's not. I'm hoping we can catch some more ears along the way."
On Timmons' ear X-tacy label, The Mighty Jeremiahs seem to have a natural home: a professional label dedicated to releasing the works of local performers without making large duplication runs and coughing up rolls of money for publicity. Plus there is guaranteed rack space in the store and a spot on the store's web site. But just as The Mighty Jeremiahs' album itself had its period of stops and starts, so did trying to find a label.
"Around 2001," Martin said, "a man by the name of George King, who worked for one of the prominent Christian labels, heard the roughs and loved what he'd heard. He said he was putting a label together and wanted to know if we wanted to be the flagship artist. And I think in 2002 we actually started doing the paperwork for the deal. We weren't The Mighty Jeremiahs at the time. They were going to sell us as Blue Cross."
He continued. "We had paperwork going back and forth. My lawyer was talking to their lawyer. Then all of a sudden it slowed down. I didn't realize this, but George King and the partners had a disagreement and the label imploded. I like George King a lot. I respect him. I don't know what went down with the partners, but my lawyer said to pull out of the deal."
Another label, based in Chicago that claimed to have Rick Derringer on its roster, approached Martin. It, too, vanished.
Some time in August, 2004, Martin went to John Timmons. He agreed to put The Mighty Jeremiahs on the ear X-tacy label.
The recording sessions were all but finished. The band had a name. They had a label ready to be their home. But one thing was missing: a single song to complete the package, "Respect Yourself," the one that was lost when it was turned over to Darrel Mansfield.
Then in the summer of 2004, as if it were a divine sign, the lost masters suddenly reappeared. Mansfield sent them on. The band booked the studio time, Hall came up from Nashville to lay down the vocal track and the whole project was ready for final mastering in the spring of 2005.
At the same time, Taildragger, the other band to which McGee and Hendricks belong, were finishing the tracks for their release Skeptictank, which was also released on the ear X-tacy label. Their recording, too, had a rugged, blues-rock sound, but its lyrics were more secular. And gritty. And nasty. It was released alongside The Mighty Jeremiahs.
To announce its presence in a genre full of what Martin calls "Jesus is my boyfriend" music, the CD starts with a loud batch of screaming, reverbed guitars, under which comes the voice of the late Reverend Willie Morganfield, a relative of Muddy Waters, sampled from one of his recorded sermons (used as one of the epigrams for this story). The effect is startling, gripping and sounds like a religious station swamped in blaring static being tuned in late at night somewhere deep in the south by a radio with a broken antenna and a volume knob that won't let the sound turn down. Then McGee's drums slam out the intro to "John the Revelator," followed by Martin's slide guitar riffs and Hall's poolroom raw vocals.
Gradually, almost station-by-station, this outsider hybrid of blues, rock and Gospel is being played and heard by the Christian radio audience.
"On our own, without national distribution," said Timmons, "we've sold about 1200 copies so far, with no marketing. Pretty much word-of-mouth and reviews. We haven't done any mailings to Christian radio. This is stuff they've heard about and asked for. It's kind of picking up its own momentum."
Even though national distribution is to be secured this month, with hopes, as Timmons expressed, that another larger label will acquire the CD and release it nationally, there are still questions about the necessary part of putting out a CD: touring to support it.
"Everybody is so involved in other things that are essential to livelihood," Hendricks said, "that, unless it was a guaranteed thing that could do it on the road, it probably is not going to happen. We've talked about the possibility of a show here and there, but that's not materialized yet. It may be one of those untouchable recordings that you can't see live."
For now, The Mighty Jeremiahs are content with having a finished product with a message they want to share.
"It's just powerful stuff," Hall said. "I've sent it to people who weren't necessarily churchgoing Christians but like good music and they're saying `Well, I like the message.' It's got so much musical merit that the message just works."
"The CD is very positive," said Martin. "There again, I hope this CD finds its way to the cars of some good ol' boys getting drunk and listening to it. I hope they're listening to Tres Hombres and say, `Hey, you listen to this Mighty Jeremiahs yet?'"
It's a tricky thing to release a recording into a genre that is awash in bland sounds that are safe and easy to digest. To be fair, the story is no different in the other genres, either. But like the creations of the young Jewish men in the comic book industry nearly 70 years ago, it is the outsiders, the aliens, the obsessive, the enhanced (naturally or accidentally) viewed by others as freaks who add color, set examples, scare us at times, even save our sorry butts.
Their presence and creativity stirs us, whips up storms in our souls. And like storms, they can be dangerous, but they cleanse and leave the air sweeter.
The Mighty Jeremiahs are now the storm stirring in Gospel music.
Feel the storm at www.themightyjeremiahs.com.