Jason Cline came up with the name of his current country rock band, Featherpocket, while living in Portland, Oregon. Cline was walking from his house in the St. John’s neighborhood to a nearby park that was hosting a jazz festival. En route, he found a clump of feathers, and without thinking, he stuck them in his shirt pocket. A short time later, Cline was chatting outside a music venue with his friend, guitarist Johnny Holliday.
“[Holliday] said, ‘I’m going to put a microphone on a banjo. I’m going to be Banjomouth,’” Cline recalls. “I [still] had the feathers in my pocket, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be Featherpocket.’”
In the short-term, Cline’s flash of inspiration didn’t have much impact. He and Holliday played three or four shows as Banjomouth and Featherpocket before Cline returned to Charlotte. Only later did Featherpocket and its fans realize that Cline had chosen the perfect moniker for his adventurous musical venture.
Featherpocket’s self-titled 2019 debut album enwraps the listener in 10 carefully crafted tunes that draw on the classic country sound originally born in early-20th-century Bristol, Tennessee by the likes of The Carter Family and singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers. Cline’s heartfelt Dylanesque vocals, by turns sprightly and empathetic, mesh with harmonies like wind rushing through the treetops. Cantering guitars, buckboard banjo and the distant locomotive wail of pedal steel are all played with bluegrass-style fire and precision.
It’s a masterful collection that sounds little like Featherpocket’s current music.
“There’s no more banjo appearing in the foreseeable future for Featherpocket,” Cline says. “There is no more pedal steel either. I’m less interested in creating the classic country sound that I was.”
Instead, the current Featherpocket is an electrified power trio. Vocalist and guitarist Cline and fellow band members Lexie Trader on bass and recently added drummer John Phipps retain classic country technique and feel and subsume it into a much more contemporary and urban sound.
“All the acoustic instruments are gone,” Cline says. “[We’re] much more electric guitar focused, [with] a little more funk … and indie rock influence.”
Cline dubs the style “yeehaw music.”
“It’s rootin’, tootin’ cowboy music to dance and get rowdy to,” Cline offers. “It’s still country adjacent, but also more rock ‘n’ roll.”
With this sonic course adjustment, Cline illustrates the genius of his chosen band name. A pocketful of feathers isn’t weighted down by anything, including precedent or the past. Feathers found by chance suggest limitless possibilities. You can keep your find in an eccentric collection, or unleash it to the wind like a cloud of dandelion seeds.
Similarly, the band’s grounding in classic country subtly impacts its commitment to harder rocking music. The country sound is there, but at the same time, it isn’t; it’s an afterimage burned into the band’s cortex — a ghost of the past superimposed on the present.
High school jazz band to The Velvet Underground
In a way, Cline’s musical quest seems almost preordained. He was born in Ohio, but his first memories are of being raised in Matthews. Cline was influenced by his two older brothers, who were in high school marching band when he was still in elementary school.
Forbidden to pick up his first choice of percussion, Cline started playing trumpet at age 10, and soon expanded his musical mastery to other brass instruments. By his high school senior year, Cline was in jazz band, concert band, symphony ensemble and marching band. Cline says he was drawn to music, but was also subtly pressured by peers and parents.
“Your parents are saying, ‘You gotta do this.’ And you’re like, ‘Okay,’” he says.
When he was 16, Cline got a guitar. He learned to play it quickly, mastering the guitar solo from Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper.” In jazz band, Cline met bassist Ryan Collins and trombonist Brandon Hucks. The three friends met to jam every Friday.
Still in his teens, Cline launched reggae funk band Queen City Dub with Collins and Hucks. The band subsequently expanded to a six-piece, playing gigs for about eight years at venues like Neighborhood Theatre and the now-shuttered Chop Shop. (Hucks currently plays trombone with Charlotte band Of Good Nature.)
In the meantime, Cline attended UNC Charlotte where he earned a degree in English. After graduating, Cline took music classes at Central Piedmont Community College in 2013, where he met local jazz master, the late, great Bill Hanna.
“He was a firecracker of a man,” Cline says. “I did his jazz class. Everybody in Queen City Dub took his jazz class at some point.”
In 2016, Queen City Dub amicably split, and Cline also split — for Austin, Texas, where he lived in a musicians’ commune for a few months.Then a friend wanted to move to Colorado, so Cline drove him there for gas money. After spending a few months in the Centennial State, Cline decided not to return to Austin, opting to decamp for Portland instead. He moved in with a friend, living in Portland long enough to play some gigs and experience the epiphany that provided the name Featherpocket.
“[Then] we got kicked out of [our] house and I couldn’t figure out anywhere else to go,” Cline remembers. “So I moved back to Charlotte.”
Back in the Queen City, Cline concentrated on turning the name Featherpocket into a functioning band. The process took four years, and in some cases, it turned into a revolving door.
Cline teamed with banjo player Clint Lemonds and the pair played and wrote songs together. Spencer Bloodworth joined on acoustic guitar and pedal steel. Ryan Collins from Cline’s old band Queen City Dub played bass for a while. Then Clifton Bundick took over on bass, followed by David Hamilton on drums. (Bundick and Hamilton now also play for Of Good Nature on bass and drums, respectively.)
For a while, the band boasted Sunny Ledfurd’s entire rhythm section as its rhythm section — Bundick on bass and PJ Lemmon on drums. In these formative years, Featherpocket was largely an acoustic ensemble.
“When I quit Queen City Dub, I sold all my electric stuff, and just played acoustic guitar for a few years,” Cline says. “I focused on bluegrass.”
While he describes himself as “extremely tired of bluegrass” today, Cline maintains that the style continues to influence his guitar playing.
“Anybody who is a singer-songwriter, [and] is playing acoustic guitar should study bluegrass,” he says. “Tricks like making a D chord sound interesting, you don’t pick that up unless you study bluegrass.”
For the band’s pedal steel sound, Cline commissioned an Albemarle luthier to make one, which he gave to Bloodworth to play on the band’s debut album. Cline also has delved deep into American music history for further inspiration, turning to jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley, and freak folk music of the mid-1960s.
“Judee Sill, Karen Dalton and Vashti Bunyan,” Cline enthuses. “I love the strange unique folk voices.”
He also cites cosmic American music singer/songwriter Gram Parsons as an influence, particularly Parson’s 1973 debut solo album GP.
“That whole record is so warm and perfectly arranged,” Cline says. “Parson has so many instruments on that album but nobody is playing on top of each other. They share the space so beautifully.”
Cline also praises Emmylou Harris’ singing on the album, calling her “one of the greatest singers of all time.” He compares Harris to another influence that may surprise fans of Featherpocket’s former classic country sound — icy Teutonic chanteuse Nico and her work with The Velvet Underground on their self-titled album.
“It’s a literary album,” Cline says. “Listening to it is like reading a great book. It transports you into that world, 1960s New York with a weird cast of characters better than a movie or any other piece of art could. I really admire the fearless unapologetic songwriting and self-expression on that album.”
Tall Boys, milquetoast music and Greazy Keyz
Two years ago, Cline turned to teaching guitar, ukulele and piano at The Piedmont School of Music and Dance and nonprofit Arts Plus.
“Aside from the basics of music, I try to teach critical thinking skills,” Cline says. He hopes to inspire his students to be curious, and to see what they can discover through their own explorations. Cline feels the exploration process also helps students gain confidence.
Cline’s own confidence took a big hit with the COVID outbreak and corresponding lockdowns. He responded with the apocalyptic Featherpocket single “Catastrophic Cataclysm.”
“Like everyone else, I was being bombarded with crazy shit for a year straight.,” Cline says. “I … bottled all that up, put it into one [song], and then [tried] to never think about it again.”
The only song he wrote in 2020, Cline doubts he’ll play “Catastrophic Cataclysm” anytime soon.
“Nobody wants to relive that,” he says. “I tried to do it solo at Petra’s and I broke down in the middle of it.”
Featherpocket’s transition to a more electric and rocking approach was accelerated by a side gig Cline took six years ago. He was playing an open mic at Petra’s when he saw alt-country singer/songwriter David Taylor’s set. Taylor was a fan of Cline’s guitar playing and asked Cline to join Taylor’s fledgling band David Taylor and The Tall Boys. Cline initially declined because he didn’t like Taylor’s crop of songs.
At a later show, Cline saw Taylor play again. This time Cline appreciated the new tunes and eventually became one of the Tall Boys. Cline, who continues to play with David Taylor and The Tall Boys, drew inspiration from Taylor’s songwriting chops.
“David writes big, good choruses, and he writes good simple songs,” Cline says. In fact, a new Featherpocket single called “Edible” was inspired by Taylor’s songwriting style.
“It’s Featherpocket doing The Tall Boys, basically,” Cline says. “I learned a lot from David and everyone else in the band, too. That band got me back into playing electric guitar.”
Cline’s extracurricular playing emboldened him to embrace Featherpocket’s new sound. The band completely rearranged older acoustic Featherpocket songs.
“The live version of Featherpocket now is by far the best live version of Featherpocket that’s ever existed,” Cline says.
One thing the band is not, however, is an Americana act.
“I don’t categorically dislike Americana,” Cline says. “It’s just that the genre as a whole is the most bland, uninspired milquetoast thing to come out of music.”
To that end, Featherpocket drummer Phipps is discouraged from playing train beats, a staple of many Americana songs that Cline calls one of the most overused drum grooves in country music, an uninspired four-four shuffle that creeps into enjoyable rootsy music like Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” or cringeworthy fare like The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
In the meantime, Cline continues to gather input and inspiration for the evolving Featherpocket.
“I’m always hyper-fixated on one song, and I usually listen to [it] a sickening amount of times,” he says.
Right now, that song is The Strokes’ lean and stealth-attack romantic gem “12:51” from the NYC foursome’s criminally underrated second album Room on Fire.
“I can’t even tell you why I think it’s so perfect, but it is,” Cline says.
He also continues to draw inspiration from seeing local shows several nights a week.
“Charlotte’s got a really great community of people who are smart and hard-working,” he says.
Featherpocket is currently working on five singles, with three close to completion. First out of the gate in May will be a song that works as a twangy farewell to the classic country rock of the old Featherpocket. The song, entitled “I Don’t Know Why,” plays like the intro to animated sitcom King of the Hill, but with singing, Cline says.
“It’s extremely campy, but it’s fun,” he says.
The band is also gearing up for a March 17 show at Petra’s with Clementine Was Right and Hiram. For the gig, Featherpocket’s power trio will be augmented by Jason Atkins, aka Greazy Keyz, on keyboards. Atkins often sits in with the band, as he does with many acts around the city.
“We love playing with him,” Cline says. “He’s such a great supporter of the music scene. It’s awesome that someone so talented is willing to participate with so many bands, and elevate us.”
Cline says the crowd at Petra’s will encounter a Featherpocket with a punk-rock attitude
“[We’re] trying out new and different stuff — different grooves and approaches — trying to keep it fresh [and] not doing the same thing over and over again,” Cline says. “At the shows, my favorite thing is when we’re really getting it, and everybody’s dancing and having a good time. We try to provide a soundtrack to that as often as we can — maybe sometimes to a fault.”
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