Unsung hero of rock

Way back before Jack White was world famous, he begged another Jack — this one older, wiser and infinitely more musically talented — to sell him a two pick-up, red-and-white Airline guitar. There was something special about this garish fiberglass git-box, says the Memphis, Tennessee-based Jack Yarber — otherwise known as Jack Oblivian — who White eventually convinced to sell the guitar. Its gnarled tone was the essence of Yarber's dual guitar and drums blues punk trio, the Oblivians, a band that influenced White as much as such similarly iconoclastic roots-shredding groups of the era as the Gories, '68 Comeback and the Flat Duo Jets.

"I found a white three-pickup version with gold trim and a Bigsby whammy bar," says Yarber, "so I sold Jack my old one for a couple hundred bucks. But the white one just wasn't the same; it wouldn't stay in tune."

The red-and-white Airline is now worth a fortune and Jack White is a millionaire ... but things remain relatively the same for many of those who influenced the Detroit rock star, Yarber included. The night of this interview, in Memphis, he says he'll be opening for the Flat Duo Jets' Dexter Romwebber, but he regrets having to tell his bandmates that there will probably be no money involved. Romwebber has a $300 guarantee, Yarber explains, but like his downstairs neighbor, '68 Comeback's Jeff Evans — and for that matter Yarber himself — Romwebber's an unsung trailblazer or a "rock 'n' roll sharecropper," as legendary Southern drummer Dan Hall so succinctly puts it.

"You've got to do it if you're a fan, even if there's no money in it," says Yarber about opening for Romwebber. And Yarber, of course, could use the money. Right now, the cash he pulls in at his day job is all going into making his latest record.

It's been this way for 25 years, and as many albums — some of them solo, others with bands like the Limes and the Panther Burns, but most of them with his own groups the Compulsive Gamblers, the Oblivians, and his latest combo, the Tennessee Tearjerkers. But to see the artist in action is to know his time has been well-spent. His set might include an atomic rendition of "Scratchy" by Travis Wammack, the teenage Memphis guitarist who walked into Sonic Studio in the early '60s, hooked his guitar up to a drive-in movie speaker, and cut some of the most out-of-control singles in all of instrumental rock 'n' roll, records that — until Dennis Coffey records the Link Wray songbook at breakneck speed — remain untouchable, unplayable ... uncover-able. But the Tearjerkers are steeped in dripping Memphis musical mud, and Yarber and company navigate the number as though they wrote it, along with other equally feral Southern obscurities like Bobby Loveless' "Night Owl." The remainder of their tightly executed set consists of songs every bit as accomplished, all from the pen of Yarber. They're tales of lives lived on the edge and loves gone wrong; of shattered plans and dead-end dreams, played with a raw intensity that harnesses country, rock, soul and R&B in one fell swoop.

It's music so good that it prompts the question: Why doesn't White just assemble the whole still-struggling crew of musicians who influenced him, take them on a caravan tour and deliver some poetic justice to the world for once and for all?

In the end, it doesn't matter, because — Jack White Caravan tour or not — Yarber will keep on doing what he's been doing for more than half of his life: creating music that never fails to inspire and only seems to get better as the years go on. Like John Lee Hooker once said: "It's in him and it's got to come out."

Saturday, Aug. 9, at the Annual Detroit Chopper Show at the Corktown Tavern, 1716 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-964-5103. $12; doors at 3 p.m. With Apostle TK, the Meltdowns and more.

Michael Hurtt is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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