The first thing you notice about McKinley James’ extraordinary new EP Still Standing By is the serious mix of Motown soul and blues-based guitar playing. It doesn’t sound like the type of “blues” you get from traditional purveyors of the genre, but instead from a guitarist who understands chord theory so well you could swear you’re hearing a horn section sometimes. That’s because he leads a duo, and while guitar stores reverberate with licks from ham-fisted modern bluesmen when they don’t know shuffle from shinola, McKinley would walk into that guitar store, plug in, and summon the spirits of his own idols, nearly forgotten pioneers like Otis Rush and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Still Standing By is his third EP, all of them fine listens, and here’s the thing… McKinley is 19 years old. Already a veteran before he’s old enough to drink.
Still Standing By is a six-song feast. Produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach at his Easy Eye Sound studios in Nashville, it’s soul music with a dash of blues growl, all written by McKinley himself (with Patrick Sweany on “Whatever It Takes [For Love]). “Stuck in the Shadows” sets the tone for the disc. “My early influences, there were no horns,” he says, “and so especially with a trio – I love the sound of horns, but you have to fill in the space without them.” In this way he channels the great Chuck Berry, whose patented double stops were written to take the place of horns he didn’t have either.