Jack O’Dell, the slinkiest drummer in town, is packing up his drumsticks. By the end of the month, he’ll be in a new home, 10,000 miles from Washington.
I’ve enjoyed watching Jack play, both with the Thrillbillys — a versatile roots rock foursome — and in the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours, the group he co-founded in 2001. With a name that calls to mind a 6-foot-4 sprite — Jack of the Dell — he’s the king of the tasteful groove, with sly flourishes and nary a beat out of place. He’s a good singer too.
What would motivate Jack to move to the literal other side of the globe? A Melbourne singer-songwriter named Suzannah Espie, who Jack met 22 years ago in Texas.
“It is a beautiful, romantic thing,” Jack told me. “Everybody loves to hear this old-fashioned love story, where someone takes a chance, makes a commitment and buys in.”
Jack was born in San Francisco and spent his early years in Berkeley. When he was 10, his professor father got a job at Tulane and the family moved to New Orleans.
“That was quite the culture shock,” said Jack. “I had to get a haircut really fast.”
His father, David, was a James Joyce scholar and amateur drummer. He showed Jack around a drum kit and steeped him in jazz and blues. Being around the music of New Orleans was like “filling a reservoir,” Jack said. “This sounds corny, but it’s true: I would ride my bike around the Tulane campus and stumble upon Professor Longhair doing a free show at the quad.”
After his parents divorced and he moved with his mother, Janis, back to San Francisco, Jack got into punk rock. When they moved to Maryland, he played with Baltimore punk band Null Set.
Eventually, Jack started playing with bands that required he dip into that rootsy reservoir. In 1994, he joined Too Much Fun, providing the bottom end with bassist Johnny Castle as they backed Bill Kirchen, the fleet-fingered guitarist from Commander Cody.
“It was amazing,” Jack said of his time in Too Much Fun. “You’d never experience something like this today. In the early ’90s, every Tuesday Kirchen was at Whitey’s, every Wednesday at Tornado Alley, every Thursday at the Sunset Grille. And every Friday we were at BWI flying to wherever. Then on Monday we’d fly back. We did that for years.”
It was at one of those road shows that he met Suzannah, whose country vocal group, Git, was touring the States and opened a few shows for Kirchen.
“There was kind of this sparky thing between us. But nothing was going to happen, honestly,” Jack said.
Jack had just gotten married, and Suzannah was in a relationship with the man who would soon become her husband.
Still, Jack said, “Apparently, neither one of us forgot it.”
When the pandemic hit and gigs dried up — along with the carpentry that was his day job — Jack started posting videos of himself performing at home. Suzannah saw those, liked them, commented on them, messaged Jack. An online courtship began between the two now-single friends.
“One thing led to another, and it became real,” Jack said.
In January, Suzannah flew here to see Jack for the first time in 20 years. In April, Jack spent a month in Melbourne. In June, he announced the news of the big move on Facebook.
In a weird way, covid came at a good time for Jack O’Dell.
“As amazing as that sounds, it gave me a chance to just be at home and face myself, to sit there with a guitar and write a song, to tell the world how you feel, to be real,” he said. “I’ve wanted to be a songwriter for a long time. I never really gave myself the time or the license to be creative. Covid did.”
Jack’s last shows with the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours are July 13 and 14 at VFW Post 350 in Takoma Park. His farewell to the Thrillbillys is July 23 at JV’s in Falls Church.
And two days after he touches down in Australia, Jack has a gig.
“I’ll be a zombie from jet lag,” he said, “but it’s straight country so I should be fine.”
Update: This column was changed to remove personal family information.