Coat Tales

My Morning Jacket may have a big new label, but its haunting brand of country remains as comfortable as ever

One day in 1998, a small Southern California label called Darla Records got a love letter in the mail. Along with a hand-scrawled note -- written as if intended for a girl named Darla -- came a tape of bizarre, breathtaking songs by a scruffy Kentuckian named Jim James. The label's owners, James Agren and Chandra Tobey, were intrigued by the move, which for My Morning Jacket began as attraction from afar.

"I saw a cute little picture of [the pair] in Spin magazine, and I just thought they looked like nice people," says the 25-year-old James, singer and songwriter behind the Louisville quintet My Morning Jacket. "I made, like, a red foil mix-tape cover and wrapped it all up in real romantic packaging and stuff."

The flirtation worked, and Darla's courtship with My Morning Jacket lasted through the band's first two enchanting albums, 1999's The Tennessee Fire and 2001's At Dawn. But for the group's upcoming third record, to be released in August, My Morning Jacket moved to a new label -- According to Our Records, an RCA subsidiary founded by Dave Matthews.

Though James jokes that My Morning Jacket scored the ATO deal because "I sent 'em a mix tape all wrapped up in a romantic package," he concedes that this time, the band took a more businesslike approach to finding a mate.

"We met a ton of people from almost every label you can imagine, from the smallest one to the biggest one," says James in his light breeze of a drawl. "[ATO] just seemed like they got what we wanted to do the most."

Aligning with Dave Matthews seems a far cry from writing lovesick pleas to a somewhat obscure record label in Fallbrook, Calif. But while My Morning Jacket may now be affiliated with one of the biggest arena rock acts around, the group still records in a country barn and transports itself from city to city in an unglamorous tour van. The contrast befits the modest musicians, whose brand of dreamy, countrified rock has made them saviors in the minds of more than a few fans yet complete unknowns to most of the public. The forthcoming album, It Still Moves, will likely determine whether the act will find critical acclaim and mild fame like fellow major-label crossovers Wilco or wither in relative obscurity, as did Louisville comrades Squirrel Bait. Regardless of the outcome, the boys of My Morning Jacket expect to keep their roots about them.

Less than two weeks before heading west to San Francisco, the members of My Morning Jacket -- James, his cousin Johnny Quaid on guitar, bassist Two-Tone Tommy, Danny Cash on keyboards, and drummer Patrick Hallahan -- are aboard that unglamorous tour van heading from Chicago to the next gig in Milwaukee. The stereo has been blaring everything from Nina Simone and George Harrison to Burning Brides and, appropriately, a group called Swearing at Motorists.

Through a series of yawns and a spotty cell-phone connection, James bemoans the fact that most of the buzz surrounding the band so far has focused on My Morning Jacket's Kentucky roots and excessive facial hair.

"It gets really old," James says. "I understand we're new, so people have to come up with things. But it is frustrating, because I don't think we're a Southern rock band and I don't think we're altcountry. We're proud to be from Kentucky and we're proud of who we are, but we're just trying to play some music."

That music is what's most remarkable -- at once melodramatic and mellow, like the shoegazing sound of Slowdive with a heavy dose of twang, or perhaps the rough-edged country of Uncle Tupelo muddled by trippy dreams. It's undoubtedly far removed from the mix of Mötley Crüe, Guns N' Roses, Muppet music, and Disney songs of James' formative years, when he and guitarist Quaid whiled away the time with sleepovers and video games. Though James and Quaid grew up together and have known each other the longest, James and Hallahan met in fourth grade, and the frontman became friends with Tommy and Cash when the three were teenagers.

After playing in various bands throughout Louisville, the men of My Morning Jacket came together in the late 1990s. James thought up the name after a fire devastated one of his favorite bars in Lexington, where he'd spent a year and a half at the University of Kentucky.

"There were burnt pool tables and burnt cigarette machines outside, and it was real creepy," James recalls. "I went into a dressing room and found this robe that had the initials MMJ on it, and I guess I just kind of took it to mean that."

In 1999 the group released its first album, The Tennessee Fire, a sometimes groovy, often bittersweet collection of songs like "They Ran," a ghostly ballad reminiscent of Neil Young's "Round and Round," and "The Bear," with its stark, eerie drums and forlorn vocals. At the other end of the record's spectrum is "It's About Twilight Now," which owes its inspiration to '60s pop, with "yeah yeah" background vocals, surf-ish guitars, and galloping drums.

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