Jack Yarber is a name that music snobs throw around like some sort of rock and roll currency. He may be “Memphis’ most influential active rock musician.” Known to his most dedicated fans as simply Jack O. (a moniker he held while serving tenure with local legends The Oblivians), Yarber still lives up to the theory that in Memphis you can hardly be taken seriously as a musician if you play in less than three bands. Yarber has been or is a member of Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves (a high school punk project that also featured future Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus), new-wavers the End, ’68 Comeback, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, The Compulsive Gamblers, The Oblivians, Knaughty Knights, South Filthy, The Cool Jerks, The Limes, Loose Diamonds and the Natural Kicks. While most if those bands exude an ultra-cool underground vibe, Yarber’s introduction to rock was pretty similar to most guys in his age bracket.
“When I was a kid I liked comic books, and that got me into Kiss and through Kiss, I discovered The Beatles and The Stones,” says Yarber. “I just wanted to play guitar or drums, and I even picked up the sax for a while, I’m not a master at any instrument, but I’m OK on some.”
Yarber moved to Memphis in the summer of ’87 to play music with his cousin. The cousin ended up returning to Corinth, MS while Yarber decided to stick around. It was a chance meeting with Greg Cartwright that led to the formation of The Compulsive Gamblers, a band that seems to receive a lot more respect in hindsight than they ever did when they were actually together.
“It was weird the way I met Greg, we put an ad in the paper, the Memphis Flyer, looking for a drummer for our band, and this guy showed up, and I told him that the band had broken up and he told me I ought to meet this guy Greg, and then about two years later we started calling ourselves the Compulsive Gamblers,” explains Yarber. “We did two seven inches and recorded a bunch of songs on home recordings, we recorded in Easley, but we never really had an album. Our CD came out after The Oblivians started playing, before that no one was really interested in putting it out.”
The Oblivians, still Yarber’s most well-known band, was formed in 1993 and included Yarber, Cartwright, and Eric Friedl), with all three members performing on drums, guitar, and vocals, switching during shows. They were well known as a staple in the garage rock movement of the ‘90s.
“We never really had a set plan, but I didn’t think we were garage rock like the Woggles, I thought that we were more aggressive garage rock – it was just rock and roll to us.”
But even with sold out tours in the States and Europe, their DIY aesthetic kept them under the mainstream radar and off the radio dial.
“The first European tour was a highlight – we started off in Holland and went to Germany, France Spain, and Belgium, we ended up doing a couple of gigs in England. We were being treated like rock stars, with free everything, we were trying to drink it all and eat it all – by the time we got to England, our shows weren’t getting listed, and we couldn’t find the promoters, it was back to a reality check.”
By the late nineties, the thrill was gone, and the members all went their separate ways, Cartwright started The Reigning Sound; Friedl started the Goner Records store and label, and after a couple of solo records Yarber hooked up with Scott Bomar and started The Tearjerkers. Bomar eventually became more involved in film scoring, working on both Memphis-filmed Craig Brewer productions, Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, and starting his musical collaboration The Bo-Keys. Eventually, the band evolved into a project solely based around Yarber penned songs, currently known as The Tennessee Tearjerkers.
“Jack is one of the finest songwriters around,” says Bomar. “He’s one of the biggest unknown rock stars in town. I am a huge fan.”
The first Tennessee Tearjerkers album, Bad Mood Rising didn’t go over too well with former Oblivians fans.
‘That was my mental breakdown record – cause I didn’t know what I was doing and thought I might as well just document it” says Yarber. “People thought it was too classic rock and had too many slow songs.”
Then came Don’t Throw Your Love Away, which made a much better impression, landing in the number one spot on the Memphis Flyer’s Top 15 Local Albums of the Year. It’s the sort of attention that Yarber is still not used to.
“I just think people thought it was not so crazy – but it’s still not exactly what I had in my head, I think The Flipside Kid was closer to what I really wanted,” he says. He followed that album up with 2009′s Disco Outlaw and 2011′s Rat City.
While Yarber has definitely been paid more in lip-service than he ever has in royalties, he still isn’t phased. He’s played with every legit musician in Memphis and has toured to high acclaim all over Europe, and guested on about a million projects.
“I kind of look at it like there’s no insurance plan, so I pretty much know at this age, if I were gonna do something else, I would have turned around and done it years ago,” says Yarber. “I think about getting out of it sometimes, but then before I know it I’m playing in three bands. I tried to work five days a week, but I like these hours better.”
Jack Yarber (aka Jack Oblivian) is a featured artist in the new film Meanwhile in Memphis.