n the simplest level, My Morning Jacket is a five-piece band from Louisville, Kentucky, solidly built around the vocal and songwriting talent of group leader Jim James. Their sound is lonesome, haunting, classic, but shot through with both a rock and a soul sensibility that pays tribute to the band's roots, but is delivered with much less of a sense of place than a matter of heart and soul. That's how you can account for the reggae vibe of "Phone Went West" and the combined Black Sabbath metal stomp and bar-room swing of "Run Thru" without it sounding like a change of tack.

As one astute fan has put it, "on one hand, the Jacket likes you to sit alone under a big velvety night sky riddled with bright stars, feeling nostalgic for all the meaningful moments, people, and places in your life. On the other hand, they like to rock so hard that shards of glass from broken beer bottles thrown against the chickenwire amidst a bar room brawl only adds to the rhythmic mayhem."

And that voice. Jim's hugely emotive delivery shares the same section of that old country highway with the familiar timbre of Neil Young, yet he sounds right at home here in the world of independent American pop music, alongside contemporaries such as the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous and Galaxie 500/Luna's Dean Wareham. With soul and classic '50s/'60s influences alongside rock and country, My Morning Jacket aren't alt-country, nor indie rock, just classic, roaming American rock'n'roll.

But there are other, deeper levels to this band. In My Morning Jacket's case, a deep well of rich, mesmeric stories, images and memories. To begin with, there's the name. Years ago, while Jim was visiting his old college, his favourite student-hangout bar suddenly burnt down. Among the charred remains, as he wandered around, Jim found a jacket, stitched with the initials 'MMJ'. To Jim, this stood for 'My Morning Jacket'.

Then there's Louisville, specifically the tobacco-rich climes of the state of Kentucky, and the wide, open spaces that have infiltrated the band's sound and vision. To date, My Morning Jacket have recorded three albums (1999's The Tennessee Fire, 2001's At Dawn and 2003's It Still Moves) and numerous EPs in a house out back of a farm belonging to the family of My Morning Jacket founding guitarist - and Jim's cousin - Johnny Quaid, surrounded by fields of green. Enriched by some serious heavy reverb, Jim's visual lyrics are an insight into an extraordinary, vivid world. One that Jim, in Mojo magazine, described as "rockn'roll meets The Muppet Show meets Disneyland."

"In my head, there's this picture, of trying to create a fantasy world - that's why I like lots of reverb, and lots of dark melodies," he admits. "I always loved The Muppet Show, and they did music on there - I'd love us to do something of that caliber. Not necessarily with puppets and cartoons, but something that adults can love but that children can relate to. And that's how we try and make our music sound now. That's the overall goal; with each album, to try and reach some new, fantastically weird place."

Of course, that world of Jim's might be a lonely one if he wasn't so ably supported by his band of soulmates. The core line-up stands at Jim James (vocals/guitar), Two-Tone Tommy (bass), Patrick Hallahan (drums). Joining them on the road are Bo Koster (keyboards), and Carl Broemel (guitar), whom they met through mutual friends.

The band's original line-up, with Jim, Johnny and Tommy joined by drummer J Glenn, released their debut album The Tennessee Fire on US independent Darla Records. They soon found themselves gaining popularity not only in the US, but Europe too, especially in the Benelux countries. European acclaim began in the Netherlands, after Dutch music writer Nanne Tepper wrote a glowing newspaper piece about the album and the band logged several tours of Belgium and the Netherlands (and were the subject of a Dutch documentary film). But with the band's second album on Darla, At Dawn (which celebrate the joining of keyboardist Danny Cash), the band's popularity and acclaim spread through the UK and beyond. After the album was released, new drummer Patrick Hallahan - Jim's best friend since the pair were ten - came on board, and the band turned to their love of, and commitment to, touring. In one six-week spell in 2003, the band toured in America, Canada, Japan, the UK, Ireland and Iceland - testament to the band's commitment to their stagecraft - which comes with some serious hair-tossing action in line with the music's unleashed energy, as well as some genuine heart-tweaking soul sweetness.

While not relying on radio and video outlets to establish themselves, the band have taken their music directly to the people and toured in 'Heavy Rotation' instead. "In the studio," Jim reasons, "you're making something that lasts forever - we're thinking of what it'll sound like in 30 years from now. Live, we want that to be there too, but we're on the road every day, loading equipment in and out of vans, and not getting any sleep, so when we're out there playing, we're ready to have fun, and have a good time. And we hope that audiences do too. It's hard when you only have 45 minutes to encompass everything you're about, you're kinda thrown up there. But when we headline, we like to break it up more, do some acoustic songs, I'll do couple by myself, and touch on everything, slow and rocking."

In line with the various musical tributaries feeding My Morning Jacket's fertile fields, over the years they've toured with a seriously eclectic range of bands - among them Guided By Voices, Doves, Foo Fighters, Burning Brides and Beth Orton, and Jim on a solo-acoustic collaborative basis with Bright Eyes and M Ward - as Jim says, "it gets the blood flowing, to play on each other's songs, play covers, and collaborate. It's a different environment than what you're used to." No matter what their musical orientation, other artists and musicians clearly love, and empathize with, this band.

The range of co-touring partners also serves to show how My Morning Jacket's music has united generations of music listeners. From the beginning, the band has had fans from 18 to 50-plus, creating a cross-cultural community of people beyond the confines of any one demographic. Theirs is a timeless music - both in its sound, and in the fact that people will doubtless listen to the band at any stage in their lives - and free of boundaries.

The next watershed was reached with the release of It Still Moves, the band's first album since signing worldwide to Ato/RCA. To Jim, the album had "a more forceful nature than its predecessor, with more cohesive playing" compared to its predecessor's "little more scattered" feel. Their reward was an even wider fan base, and their best album reviews yet. With news spreading, the band continued to tour even more virulently. However, such commitments had one serious downside, namely the departure of Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash. Both members simply found the benefits too high a price to pay. In written statements, Johnny likened his scenario to a favourite show horse that he grew up with on the family farm, who "could feel the energy and the excitement of the crowd" but couldn't handle the pace. "I've got pictures and ribbons and lots of good memories, but it's time for me to go home now," Johnny concluded.

Danny agrees: "The lifestyle of a touring musician is not the one for me. I've spent a lot of the past several years missing my family and friends back home. As much as I love the band and the music we make, it's just not worth sacrificing my home life."

It's a tough one, but the band is philosophical about their decision: "John and Danny are great friends and we will miss them dearly, but I think they made the right [decision] in leaving and I really hope and believe that things will still be fine in My Morning Jacket world. Life's too short to live it unhappy."

In terms of the new line up, Jim says that Carl and Bo - both recommended by mutual friends - are "working out great. You never know what you get when you try out someone knew, and we didn't have much rehearsal time, but they've done an excellent job." As anyone who has seen the new line-up on stage - no detriment to the departing guys, but it's been a seamless transition.

The situation actually leaves things suitably open-ended for the band. It means that Jim's songs/vocals and Patrick and Tommy's cemented/family rhythm section - can be flexible when it comes to future records and scenarios. The band, though, will be what it is, and their feel and their worldview will probably stay the same, even as it constantly evolves. Who knows, there may very well be new line-ups to look forward to.

One thing that will definitely change is that My Morning Jacket won't be recording in the same farmhouse. Jim hasn't decided where to shift their studio to, but he says he's ready for a change. "I love that place, and it has lots of good memories, but it'll be good to find somewhere else. I'm excited." In other words, different environments get the blood flowing.

At the time of writing, the band were leaving for their first tour of Australia, to be followed by a number of summer festival appearances, and finally, the next album. "The record will know what it wants to be when it comes," is all Jim will say about it, words that will come as no surprise. This band is about the mystery of the moment, and nothing will change that. Welcome to their world.

Martin Aston, March 2004