In fact, Case had long been a fan of traditional acoustic music. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., in a house filled with music lovers and performers. "I come from a musical family," he says. "There were a lot of people playing music in my family. There were some older people in my family who were really into like Fats Domino, Berry and all that kind of stuff, so I got into that as a little kid. There was somebody in my family that played stride piano, so I grew up listening to that--'50s singles and 78s.
"In the early '60s, my sister came back from college all into Bob Dylan and stuff like that. I was into the Beatles and the Stones like every other kid, but then I got really into Dylan. And once that happened, I started following down the trail of different things that were influencing that music, and I started really getting into old blues singers. ... At that time, I was 14 or 15, and then I left home at 15. I moved with a bunch of hippies into a house; we had like six people renting the house. We had a band called Pig Nation, and we played around."
Though he had dropped out of high school (he later got his GED), Case was a voracious reader and developed a case of wanderlust. "So I moved out, did that whole thing, and then I used to travel around a lot," he recounts. In early 1973, at age 18, he landed in San Francisco, where he busked for about four years. "I fell in with a bunch of people playing blues and rock 'n' roll, and learned how to play, you know? A lot of people were like, 'How could a punk rocker play blues like that? It sounds as if you've been playing a long time.' Well, I have," he says with a laugh. "For one, I wasn't really a punk rocker; and two, I was playing that stuff starting way, way back.
"It's funny," he says, "I went out there because I was really into all that Summer of Love music ... and it was like seven years too late."
He eventually migrated south to Los Angeles, where he arrived at just the right time to get in on the ground floor of the punk movement. Along with Jack Lee and the future frontman of The Beat, Paul Collins--both of whom also wrote songs--Case formed The Nerves, a prototype of L.A. power-pop, in 1975. Though they released only one self-titled four-song EP, in 1976, the following year, they toured with the Ramones, and in 1978, watched as Blondie scored a hit with a cover of their song "Hanging on the Telephone." ("I didn't write that song, so I didn't get rich like the other guy did," Case remarks.)
Though he and Collins played together in some other bands after The Nerves broke up, by 1978, Case was working labor jobs to pay the bills even as he was still writing songs. "Then I got a gig playing with these guys in a country-and-Western bar," he says, "and that was the Plimsouls. It was one of those five-sets-a-night, five-nights-a-week gigs. ... We started rocking louder and louder, and that was the start of that band."
The Plimsouls released an EP and two albums, but it was a single that gave the group its greatest success. Originally released by Bomp! in 1981, "A Million Miles Away" became a became a hit in 1983, when it was included on the soundtrack to the movie Valley Girl. (It also appeared on The Plimsouls' second album, Everywhere at Once, in '83.)
Even though the future looked bright for The Plimsouls, Case simply wasn't feeling it anymore. He explains: "I'd come from some different kinds of musical paths, and I felt like I sort of abandoned a big chunk of what I was down with. And I was trying to get the band into it, and they didn't want to go. ... We gave the Plimsouls a five-year shot, and it was a pretty good five-year run. But at that point, these songs (on his first solo record) were coming to me, and I couldn't really just turn my back on it. ... If I was getting a bunch of Plimsouls songs, we would have done more Plimsouls, I guess. For some reason, that kind of writing is a lot harder for me; what I do now comes naturally."
For the last 20 years, Case has been pursuing that solo path, releasing album after underrated album full of literate, country- and blues-informed, mostly acoustic folk songs. He's a fantastic storyteller who just happens to have a refined sense of melody and an earthy, comforting singing voice. And he still plays the occasional gig with The Plimsouls.
"To me, it's all part of the same picture. It never really mattered to me what the amplification system was. A lot of my favorite music--the most rockin' stuff--is guys playing solo, like Robert Johnson and Bukka White. They really rock, a lot more than most bands. So that's where my interests are lying at the moment."
One need look no further than Case's new album for proof. Titled in honor of Sleepy John Estes, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, released earlier this month on his new label, Yep Roc, is--a few guest appearances aside--a true solo album. It's stunning in its intimacy and ranks with Case's best work.
"This new record is the kind of record I always wanted to make," says Case, "just completely solo. I mean, Richard Thompson and a couple of other people are on it, but the record is really just solo performances. ... What we're trying to do is an intense form of music, with one guy doing it."