Sometimes, when you least expect it, the music gods throw you a gem. An undiscovered, uncut diamond – sparkling with such unadulterated potential and promise that it stops you in your tracks.
I was introduced to Josh Okeefe by a mutual acquaintance, but it was a while before I listened to his new self-titled album. My initial reaction, after simply ‘wow!’, was confusion and surprise. This is not the music I expected from a twenty-something; this is authentic, raw, roots song-writing, delivered by the voice of a world-weary, American old-timer. Okeefe’s voice hits you with the force of a hurricane: a rare, powerful, gravelly sound, the likes of which is usually crafted from many decades of nicotine, alcohol and hard living in the deep south.
But Josh Okeefe is a contradiction. He’s young and he originates from Derby, England. Listening to the lyrics, his songs recount tales of English soccer – the ‘Salford Boys’ and ‘Busby Babes’. He paints atmospheric pictures of living in his hometown city on ‘Keepin Me Going’ – ‘I smell like a rancid Derby bar’.
Speaking to Okeefe to better understand his origins and influences, I discovered that he is also a poet. He answered my many questions with eloquence and a deeply atmospheric language. ‘Yes, I’m from Derby, England, a market town, the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It’s a grungy type, working-class feel, cobbled streets, grey popcorn textured buildings, hustle and bustle, on the grind all–day, every–day kinda place.’
Okeefe is currently living in the US, in Nashville, and he doesn’t shy away from the heavyweight subject of racism in America, with the powerful track ‘Terence Crutcher’ recalling the dreadful shooting last year.
Most of the arrangements on the album are stripped back, serving to showcase the strength of Okeefe’s vocals, which also evokes an analogue era of the past. This is a very early Guthrie or Dylan combined with a voice that has even more gravel than the Dubliner’s Ronnie Drew. But Okeefe is no copycat. He is unique, and has an originality and authenticity as a folk singer akin to an early Billy Bragg. Of the eight tracks on the album, two are under two minutes long – again suggesting the influence of Woodie Guthrie and that era. All that is missing is the analogue crackles.
Every track on the album is a stand out. ‘Cigarettes’ is a beauty, a classic. ‘The Ballad of Yana Farage’ deserves to be listened to in absolute silence, preferably with headphones, so that every second of its two minutes can be savoured. ‘Keepin’ Me Going’ is uplifting, and it’s simply impossible not to sing along to.
Okeefe sought out Nashville, following the footsteps of Hank Williams. ‘I heard that the old lovesick drifting cowboy lived and recorded in Music City once upon a time, so I knew it was a place I wanted to see and get to. I guess I had hoped that some part of his spirit was still lingering.’
The Nashville connection is also evident in his cover of the Cash classic, ‘Jackson’, another stand out of the album, possibly because it appears as an unexpected lighthearted highlight. Duetting with another powerful singer, Cora Carpenter – decribed by Okeefe as ‘an angelic hillbilly, kick-you-in-your-shins type’ – this is possibly the best cover of Jackson that I have heard. This is a young Johnny and June, full of life and humour, bringing real meaning to the song’s lyrics.
Okeefe tells me: ‘Jackson was a mistake. We have sung that song a million times together on stage but we were not supposed to record that song. Cora had joined me for a recording session and we had planned to do a few takes of another song of mine together as a duet. But when the tape started rollin’ I just started playing Jackson. Nearly burst out laughing halfway through the song but we managed to hold it in and finish the take! I recall just getting tired and not wanting to record anymore, so we just kept that take of Jackson and went with it for the album, left the other song out.’
Okeefe is passionate about musical history and the musicians and albums that have influenced him, including Cisco Houston’s ‘Cowboy Ballads’. ‘Cisco’s voice is so rich and majestic, could sing you to sleep or wake you from a deep hole you’d been lost in for a week. The pied piper type, symbol of hope. He was elegant, sophisticated, smart attire, seem like he’d be the older brother you wish you had to look up too’.
Another record which Okeefe cannot stop listening to is ‘Foc’sle Songs and Shanties’ by Paul Clayton and the Foc’sle Singers. ‘Another from the Folkways label. It has a kelly green front cover with a drawing of a sailing ship which appears to be battling treacherous black seas. From first glance it looks like something you should be listening to, history in a record, something that is gonna teach you something, make you feel more educated. ‘Rio Grande’ and ‘Banks of the Sacramento’ are the recordings on that record that stay with me, haunt me if you like. You hear ’em and they are so powerful, make you feel strong. Never heard a recording that sounds so manly, heroic and charismatic. It is crowded but lonesome, dangerous and drunken but still on path for the long voyage ahead.’
Listening to Cisco Houston’s recordings, the influence on Okeefe is evident. And Cisco Houston also broke the stereotype of a folksinger. He is quoted as saying: ‘Some of our folksong exponents seem to think you have to go way back in the hills and drag out the worst singer in the world before it’s authentic. Now, this is nonsense…Just because he’s old and got three arthritic fingers and two strings left on the banjo doesn’t prove anything.’ And in the same way, Okeefe’s youth and English origins are proving no barrier to pushing forward the frontiers of great American folk songs.
Over the past weeks, Okeefe’s songs have buried themselves in my head, and I find myself humming his melodies over and over. Deceptively simple and ‘just right’, Okeefe’s songs and his latest album are destined to become classics. Don’t let this gem pass you by.