The Memphis calendar is full of festivals large and small, but perhaps none is quite as vibrant as the annual Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, which takes place this weekend on five stages in and around downtown's Center for Southern Folklore.
"There are a lot of younger acts this year and also a lot of dancers," says festival organizer Judy Peiser, the executive producer of the Center. "I always want a lot of youth but I also want to respect the local history, and I'm excited about how much so many of the young artists care about that."
The Music & Heritage Fest is arguably the most diverse music and cultural festival in the city. Nowhere else can you see Beale Street blues stalwarts, rappers, indie rockers, folkies, gospel choirs, and many other types of musicians all sharing the stage and do so alongside dance and theatrical performances, storytellers, cooking demonstrations, and other displays of colorful regional culture.
This year, the festival is dedicated to late Sun rockabilly great and onetime fest regular Billy Lee Riley, with Riley's former drummer JM Van Eaton and Sun colleague Carl Mann performing a tribute on Sunday afternoon. Sunday night, the festival closer will be regional soul/blues great Denise LaSalle, who will also be interviewed earlier in the day. Other potential Sunday highlights include Cedric Burnside (blues), Sonny Burgess (rockabilly), and Kate Campbell (folk). Potential Saturday highlights include Star & Micey (folk rock), Vending Machine (indie rock), Preston Shannon (blues), and Al Kapone (rap).
The Memphis Music & Heritage Festival runs 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, September 1st, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday, September 2nd. For a full schedule, see memphismusicandheritagefestival.com.
Ron-a-Thon at Poplar Lounge
Skateboarding and rock-and-roll have gone together since the time of Jan and Dean. But in the 1980s, as both boomed, American punk rock became skateboarding's official soundtrack. And in Memphis, the two streams came together on Getwell at a place called Cheapskates.
Owner Ron Hale had grown up in the store when it was Memphis Speed Shop, a drag-racing shop owned by his father. In 1985, with only $300 in his pocket, he created Cheapskates. Hale had loved skating since he was a kid, so selling skateboards seemed like a natural career move. The store quickly became the destination for Memphis skaters. Hale worked tirelessly to promote the sport he loved, organizing skating exhibitions at the Fairgrounds and Overton Park Shell. A whole generation of Memphis teens and pre-teens dragged their parents to the little checkered storefront to gawk at boards, buy Vans and T-shirts, and just generally hang out and look cool.
But Cheapskates turned out to be more than just a skate shop. Hale was also a drummer and punk fan, so at a time when the only place you could find American punk and hardcore vinyl and cassettes was in the imports section, Hale started selling records by national and local hardcore and skate-punk bands in his store. Many Memphis rockers who grew up in the '80s and '90s, such as guitarist Steve Selvidge of the Hold Steady, the Subteens' Mark Akin, and Jay Reatard, discovered punk through those cassettes and singles at Cheapskates.
After 27 years, Cheapskates has become a local institution. But after a recent hospitalization, the uninsured Hale found himself with a raft of medical bills. Knowing the esteem in which his customers held him, his wife, Jeri, decided to organize a benefit concert for him. "Ron has gone into this kicking and screaming," she says. "But once he saw how jazzed everyone was, he's just letting it play out."
The three-day event, dubbed the "Ron-a-Thon," runs throughout Labor Day weekend at the Poplar Lounge and will feature bands such as Joecephus and the George Jonestown Massacre, Whatever Dude, Memphis Killharmonic, Third Base Ninjas, and many more, as well as comedy by Jane Haze, Kate Lucas, and Mike McCarthy.
"Ron is a quiet, gentle, humble man that I love with all my heart," Jeri Hale says. "He really didn't know the impact he has had on people."