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Thursday, May 16, 2013 01:51 pm

From Perkins to Presney

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John Michael Presney plays the Walnut Street Winery in Rochester on Friday, May 17, with guest Jonathan Field.

John Michael Presney spent the better part of the last two years on the road in the first national touring production of the Tony award-winning musical Million Dollar Quartet portraying the “father of rockabilly,” Carl Perkins. The Rochester native, talking to me by phone from poolside in Tucson, Ariz. as he prepared for his final MDQ performances, spoke highly of his time with the show and earnestly of his career ahead.

“This is a dream day job, but it’s wrapping up now,” he said. “I’ll be living and working from Chicago, and decompressing at my parent’s place in Rochester over the next few weeks.”

The powerful and lasting influence of the Memphis-based Sun Studios of the 1950s that produced such household names as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, becomes obvious in the popularity of the Million Dollar Quarter production. One of the many terrific advantages of performing in a popular, national production comes from meeting folks in the business. Springfield Americana music fans should recognize the musical director of the play, Chuck Mead, a founding member of BR549 and recent performer at Bar None.

“There’s no lack of authenticity in the show. We met Carl’s son, Johnny Cash’s sister and Jerry Lee’s rhythm section,” remarked Presney. “It’s been an incredible experience and now I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends then playing as much as I can of my own music.”

Presney’s current EP, The Nighttime and the Dawn, got started in Salt Lake City and finished in Los Angeles at Billy Bob Thornton’s home studio, “The Cave,” housed in what was once the home of Cecil B. DeMille and later, Slash of Guns N’ Roses, and purportedly haunted by Warren Zevon. The album, recorded by J. D. Andrews (the Rolling Stones and Kayne West) with guest string parts courtesy of Jessy Greene (Wilco, Foo Fighters) contains “road inspired, Americana/Indie-rock” rooted more in later folk-rock-country-indie influences than the famed Sun Studio sessions.

“My playing has as much to do with Carl Perkins and rockabilly as with rock, no offense meant and I played his part with honor,” he explained. “But my music comes from a mix of growing up in the country and living in the big city – with Neil and Dylan, U2 and Radiohead all coming together. A song will be what it will be.”

I couldn’t help but think that the actual basis for the strength and popularity of the Sun Studios music was really the same thing of its time – country attitudes filtered through city influences to make a new kind of music. Presney’s ability to distill these separate styles into a cohesive sound gives his music an originality and progressiveness worthy of listening and respecting, “bringing it all back home” in an inventive, provocative and listenable way.

“For now I’ll be concentrating on doing a full length record in the fall, reconnecting with family and friends and looking forward to playing my music,” said the committed artist and actor. “I’m going out and seeing where all this goes.”

Please take notice that the upcoming weekend holds a fantastic selection of entertainment possibilities in the Springfield area. Music abounds at the Highland Games, Old Capitol Art Fair, PrideFest, Craft Beer Festival and Lake Springfield club parties, plus the genuine and good-to-go JP Harris and the Tough Choices (highly recommended) at the Hoogland for WUIS’s Bedrock 66 Live! concert series, and heaven knows what else, are all going on, and you, dear reader, have the wonderful problem of difficult choices ahead. Good luck!  

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com

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