Typically, it takes a bunch of outsiders to tell us what makes Memphis great. But musically, at least, we've been on a roll lately, singing the praises of such homegrown talents as Cory Branan, Lucero, The Porch Ghouls, and The North Mississippi Allstars long before they were "discovered" nationally. Memphis music always seems on the edge of renaissance, as bands like the Grifters, Big Ass Truck, and Saliva have done their share of publicity for the city over the past decade or so. Today's scene is more disparate than ever, with no Sun or Stax to serve as an epicenter. But, as the musicians themselves proclaim, they have more in common than you might think.
Take the Porch Ghouls, the latest local band to leapfrog to a major label. Discovered by Aerosmith's Joe Perry on a Sun Studio tour (three outta four Porch Ghouls worked at the rock-and-roll hotspot at the time), they've just released a promo-only disc, available at independent record stores around town. The Reigning Sound's Greg Cartwright produced the four tracks (included on their upcoming Sony debut) at Easley-McCain Studio late last year. Since then, the Porch Ghouls have been up and down the East Coast on an extended promotional tour, clocking frequent-flier miles while rubbing shoulders with rock superstars.
"We just got back from New York," Eldorado Del Rey, the group's frontman, recently told me. The Porch Ghouls got to peek into the star-studded practice sessions for Salute to the Blues, a Blues Foundation benefit held at Radio City Music Hall. "We played a show at the Mercury Lounge," guitarist Slim Electro added. "It went great. It was a showcase for the people who are gonna be working our album at Sony. We also did a photo shoot with Ross Halfin, which Joe Perry set up while we were there." The Porch Ghouls' album, tentatively titled Bluff City Ruckus, will be available in April.
Local alt-country heroes Lucero also recently fronted a soldout show at Manhattan's Mercury Lounge. Riding high on the success of their sophomore effort, Tennessee, the band has been on "the craziest high," bassist John Stubblefield told me last Saturday. Pressed for details, he said, "The new record put us over the top. At most shows, the audience sings along to the choruses. A crowded room of 500 kids screaming their lungs out is pretty insane," he added.
But being on the road has had tumultuous effects on Lucero: Guitarist Brian Venable quit the band after a Young Avenue Deli gig last December, which Stubblefield remembered as "the most emotional show ever in front of a hometown crowd."
"Tonight is a pivotal time in Memphis music history -- Steve Selvidge's first and last local appearance with Lucero," Stubblefield said shortly before taking the stage Saturday night. "Steve toured with us for a dozen dates, but he chose not to fully commit," he said, musing that "if somebody feels that they're not gonna be happy six months down the line, it's important that they're honest and that it's an enjoyable experience for everybody."
Following Selvidge's exit, Lucero plans to woodshed with Todd Gill of Fayetteville, Arkansas' Paper Hearts, before heading west to SXSW. "We just canceled a West Coast tour which really blows, but whatcha gonna do?" Stubblefield lamented. "We'll be debuting our new guitar player in Austin, which is pretty heavy. Last time I was in Austin [with Big Ass Truck], a fella named Ian Montone came up to us wanting to be our lawyer. We passed on him, and now he's the White Stripes' manager," Stubblefield says with a laugh. Lucero is now fielding offers from their current label MADJACK and the New York-based Tiger Style Records for their as-yet unrecorded third album.
Meanwhile, Tennessee's producer, Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, has just returned from London where he and brother Luther Dickinson mastered their third release, Polaris, also out this spring. "Kevin Houston and Cody and I went over for a few days," Luther said from his Midtown home. "We mastered the album at Abbey Road, but before that we spent a day at Air, George Martin's studio." Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher dropped in at Air, adding background vocals to the title track and another song, "One To Grow On."
Artemis, the Allstars' label, is already distributing five-song samplers from Polaris, which Cody Dickinson produced at the Dickinsons' Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater, Mississippi. Poppier than the Allstars' previous offerings, Polaris features an updated version of Junior Kimbrough's hill-country anthem "Meet Me in the City," with vocals from Dwayne Burnside, a now-permanent member of the group.
You can e-mail Andria Lisle at firstname.lastname@example.org.