Great Kentucky Musicians 002: An Interview with Jim James of My Morning Jacket

Jim James Promo

Jim James Promo photo by Neil Krug

By Chris Egan

Jim James is a musician from Louisville, Kentucky.  He is the lead singer and guitarist in the band My Morning Jacket, a member of the band Monsters of Folk, and just last year, released his debut solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God.  Needless to say, James seems to have no problem staying busy.  In addition to making music, James is also actively involved in the issues that affect both the people in his home state, and those in the rest of the world.

James and the rest of My Morning Jacket are in the studio working on their much-anticipated new album but he was kind enough to take a break from recording to discuss both music and his efforts in activism with us at the Kentucky Project.

First of all, I understand that we may see a new My Morning Jacket album in 2014.  How is the album coming along and can you narrow the release date down at all?

JJ: It’s going great. We are going to some cool new places and just enjoying playing music together as a band.  We hope maybe it will come out in the fall.

A fantasy come true for many MMJ fans; My Morning Jacket just played four days at the Riviera Maya in Mexico for the “concert adventure;” One Big Holiday.  This included three unique concerts and a dance party hosted by MMJ.  The flaming lips, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Mariachi El Bronx joined in on the fun too!  This sounds amazing and for big MMJ fans it was probably the best vacation they ever had.   Can you tell us a little about the idea for this “concert adventure”?  And how did it go?

JJ: It was a lot of fun! I think more fun than anyone expected.  The place was so beautiful. It was just a chance to relax and have fun. Even though we worked our asses off re-learning songs for it!  We were so excited that so many people wanted to come share in the event [‘s] magic with us!

A non-profit organization, Positive Legacy, was also involved in the four- day concert experience.  Can you tell us a little about them, what they do, and their involvement in One Big Holiday?

JJ: Positive legacy organizes local outreach and service projects in conjunction with live music events that allow fans to make their experiences meaningful at the personal, local, and global levels. During OBH (One Big Holiday), that meant organizing a day of service/cultural connection, having a donation drive for a local organization, a charity auction, and a golf tournament.  The silent auction raised over $20,000 to support positive legacy’s environmental and humanitarian projects. They also received lots of school supplies and sports equipment from OBH attendees at the donation drive. These supplies will be donated to two schools in the Puerto Morelos area.

More info on positive legacy at OBH hereClick here to see a full recap of the Positive Legacy programs & achievements at My Morning Jacket’s One Big Holiday 2014!

Jim James

Jim James promo photo by Neil Krug

Both you, in your solo work, and My Morning Jacket as a group, do a fair amount of tributes and cover songs.  You released an album of George Harrison songs, Tribute To. You also did a cover of a Bob Marley tune, “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” for a 2014 compilation album Sweetheart 2014.  My Morning Jacket added a cover tune, “All the Best,” to Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, and did “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver.  That seems to be more cover work than the average band. And I’m certainly not complaining; they are great covers.  Do you seek out the opportunity to release cover songs and tributes or are you approached for these albums?

JJ: We are usually approached by these albums…  [We] just love exploring new avenues and covers. We also were on a Red-Hot Fela Kuti tribute album recently that raises money for AIDS research and awareness.  We feel that doing covers is one of the greatest ways to learn more about music and yourself.

You produced and were also featured on an album, Dear Companion, by Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, two other great Kentucky Musicians.  That album helped raise awareness on the issue of Mountaintop removal coal mining.  While your efforts surely helped, the fight to end mountaintop removal is still going on with groups like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and I love Mountains.  Would you say it is time for Kentucky to start moving away from its reliance on coal altogether, or just use more environmentally sound methods of extracting it?

JJ: I think it is time for all of us to move away from fossil fuels and seriously start implementing and researching alternative energy sources to make them easy to use and reliable.  I think we need to be very aware of and thankful to the hardworking people in the coal industry, especially the miners who work so hard to keep our power going.  But we need to work on new ways to keep those people employed so they do not lose their livelihood while we transition to new energy methods such as manufacturing solar and wind technology…water technology.  I am surely no expert in the ways of modern energy production, but I know we need to get out from under the thumb of these horribly destructive practices such as mountain top removal that destroy the earth and the communities around the sites and beyond – as we see far too often and have seen again in the most recent horrific spills that have affected the water supply not only in the community nearby but also in far reaching ways.  We really need to start taking this seriously before its too late.

I’d also like to ask you about a related issue in Eastern KY:  The SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) Summit was held recently in Pikeville Kentucky.  Many ideas to help revive the impoverished region were discussed including bringing high-speed broadband Internet to the region, engaging the youth, and expanding the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway.  Obviously, the main goal is to bring jobs to that area.  What do you think is Eastern Kentucky’s best chance for success?

JJ: I think it would be amazing to see some of these big coal companies put their money where their mouth is and show some respect for the earth and the communities that have given them the coal they make so much money off of.  Can you imagine if one of these companies were to say, “Today we are stopping all destructive coal practices and building a new plant that will manufacture and distribute new energy technology such as solar panels, wind turbines, etc. Everyone that has been previously employed in the mines and other areas of coal production will now be trained and employed at this new plant so no jobs will be lost – helping make a better future not only for KY but for the entire world!”  CAN YOU IMAGINE!!! Yes, of course this sounds like a pipe dream, and obviously would be a GIGANTIC undertaking, but is entirely possible if a few CEO’s can escape from the claws of greed and put that money back into the community.

Or if a company like Apple or Microsoft started manufacturing their technologies in places like Eastern KY, Detroit, Cleveland, etc. and paying workers fair wages with health benefits, etc.  There needs to be more incentives for these companies to bring jobs back to America, especially in the places that need jobs the most.  There is SO MUCH talk about this obviously, but all it would take is a few CEO’S making a few less hundred million dollars personally a year, and instead putting that money back into the communities to build a stronger/longer lasting work force, which would in turn make them stronger companies.

Imagine a world where CEO’s and corporations took pride in treating their employees right? Everyone, including the CEO’s at the top of the food chain, would eventually benefit from this…

…and OF COURSE we need to get high speed internet, etc. easily accessible in these communities to help engage and educate the youth and keep people truly informed about the reality of the situations going on right in their backyard that they might otherwise not be getting.  Its easy for these big coal corporations to pull the wool over the eyes of not only their workers but the public at large if they do not have access to the truth about the situation.

Also, jobs repairing the region and making it stronger like the Bert T. Combs Parkway, etc. putting people to work to better the region are obviously a great idea.  We need to work hard to make KY more progressive (Ditch Mitch), follow the lead of other states who already have marriage equality, and be more pro-active about the healthcare situation Everyone deserves access to good healthcare.  Immigration reform is needed so badly; I know there are a lot of hard working immigrants doing so much for our communities who live in fear of being found and deported and therefore cannot truly pursue the life they and every living being deserves to live, and so are underpaid and mistreated.  This is a nation built by immigrants.  Its funny how people seem to forget that so easily.  We need to start finding ways to recognize and remember this to give people a real chance to be treated fairly.  I truly believe there is room for everyone to live a happy life on this earth if only those few who have so much will just let go of just a little bit of it in order to make it a more even playing field for everyone else.  Dare to dream right???

Thanks to Jim James for doing this interview.

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