Sometimes it makes for a complicated route, but singer-songwriter Peter Case has always made music that’s at once rooted in the past and new beginnings - everything from the blues, folk and country to punk, new wave and pop.
“When I was a kid, a lot of my favorite records were just people who were playing solo,” says Case. “I loved Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt - all those really stripped-down records.”
Those musicians inspired a teenage Case to first pick up the guitar.
And long after Case made a name for himself with punk and pop bands such as the Nerves and the Plimsouls, it was those musicians who inspired him to revisit his muses and record what he calls his first “real” solo album, “Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John.”
“I play like this all the time on the road,” says Case of the album - his 10th solo release. “But I’ve never cut a record like this before - with the stripped-down sound (and) the minimalist accompaniment.”
You have to go back to the beginning to understand Case’s story - his musical history is almost mythological in its scope.
The son of Buffalo, N.Y., teachers, Case dropped out of high school and moved out on his own at age 15 to play in blues and folk bands. At 18, he moved to the West Coast and busked on the streets San Francisco.
The impact of that move was immediate, Case says. “I wanted to be at the center of everything, and San Francisco was this big psychedelic rock scene,” he says.
“Within 15 minutes of setting up and playing on the streets there, I met Mike Wilhelm - the guy who started the Charlatans, this great psychedelic band.”
Wilhelm liked what he heard and asked the budding musician to join his band, but Case was too young to play in bars. Instead, he continued to play - and live - on the streets.
The street life eventually led to another connection in 1974, this time with Paul Collins and Jack Lee, with whom he formed the power pop band the Nerves, and it was here that Case switched his focus from acoustic and blues to pop, punk and the burgeoning new wave scene.
The Nerves didn’t sell many records but they did make a mainstream splash - sort of - when Blondie had a massive hit with its cover of the band’s “Hanging on the Telephone.”
After the Nerves broke up in 1978, Case formed the Plimsouls, an L.A. band that merged garage rock, punk and Britpop into a jangly power pop sound.
It proved to be a successful combination. The band’s 1983 single “A Million Miles Away,” which appeared on the “Valley Girl” soundtrack, was a big radio hit.
This success led Case back to the beginning when, newly signed to Elektra Records, the Plimsouls were invited to purchase some new equipment on the record company’s dime.
“We were at the Guitar Center and I strayed over to the place where the acoustic guitars were hanging on the wall and I just fell in love with this Gibson Hummingbird,” he says. “I snuck it into the pile and then I just started writing songs on it.”
It was around that time that Case started receiving mysterious packages in the mail - several Bob Dylan albums a day, to be exact.
“It was really weird; his publishing company sent me an entire catalog,” Case says. “To this day I have no idea why, except that I’d once said in an interview that I’d borrowed a copy of ‘Blood on the Tracks’ - so maybe that was it.”
Whatever the reason, Case listened to those records and started re-examining his folk, blues, country and early rock origins. By the time the Plimsouls disbanded in 1983, Case had established a reputation as a respected singer-songwriter that carried over into his solo career.
Now, 25 years later, he says, the challenges lie in making a record that’s true to those roots - and compelling.
“Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John,” he hopes, is just that album.
With a contemplative tone that touches on everything from personal relationships to politics, and with a musical focus on blues, folk and Americana, he says that the 11-track acoustic disc was “the hardest kind of record to make.”
“You want to carry people away and have it be exciting like a rock record,” he says. “(But) the producer moved me away from that idea and, in the end, I liked that because I thought it was more interesting. It has a real late-night kind of feel to it.”
Still, songs that are quiet and thoughtful on record become bigger and louder on stage.
“My shows are definitely rock, so the songs sound different. They grow as you play them,” he says.
It’s an evolution that mirrors the singer’s career.
With four decades of experience, Case has never been a household name. You might know his songs, but you probably wouldn’t recognize him on the street.
Still, between new albums and reissues, music lessons and producing projects, Case says he manages to make a decent living.
“It’s hard work being a musician, but I just keep going,” he says.
“I’ve been doing this for so long and made so many records that it seems like one of them is always about to be re-released again - it’s just a nice cycle that constantly feeds itself.”
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