There's always been a friendly musical rivalry between Memphis and Detroit: First on the rockabilly and blues fronts in the 1950s, then between soul magnates Stax and Motown in the '60s and '70s. With the current garage-rock exchange, the emphasis is on friendly. Memphis musicians Greg Cartwright and Jack Yarber (who played together with The Oblivians and The Compulsive Gamblers and now operate separately with The Reigning Sound and The Tearjerkers, respectively) have helped Motor City bands such as The White Stripes and The Detroit Cobras make their mark.
"I don't want to downsize the importance of cities like L.A. or St. Louis, but as far as connecting the dots, there's something special about Memphis and Detroit," Cartwright says. "There's a direct connection between Tennessee and Michigan. From the '20s through the '50s, transient musicians traveling up and down the Mississippi River would take a little bit of the Memphis sound and drop it off in Detroit. There were also a lot of hillbillies moving up North to work in the car industry who brought their music with them. Look at Skeets McDonald, or The Masqueraders, who came from the Memphis area and found their first successes in Detroit," Cartwright says. "If you just sit and look at all the connections, it's mindboggling."
Cartwright's personal connection to the contemporary Detroit scene came via The Gories, a three-piece garage band who recorded their seminal second album, I Know You Fine But How You Doin' at Easley-McCain recording studio in Midtown Memphis with Alex Chilton behind the control board. "Since then," Cartwright says, "Mick [Collins, the Gories' frontman] has become one of my best friends."
Chilton wanted the band to come to Memphis, Collins explains. "We honestly didn't care where we recorded it. We did whatever seemed right at the time.
"I'm not one for mythologizing," Collins says, laughing. "I'm sure that plenty of people have relatives in both Memphis and Detroit, but I couldn't say there was a creative thread there because both cities evolved differently." Collins thinks the connection is more people-based than art-based. "Both cities have similar bands with similar ideas at the same time," he says.
In the mid-'90s, Cartwright and Yarber recruited Detroit bassist Jeff Meier -- one of Collins' friends -- for their own band, the Compulsive Gamblers. When Meier joined the Detroit Cobras after the Gamblers disbanded, he took one of their songs, "Bad Man," with him to the new group. "I was psyched that they covered it," Cartwright remembers. "It reaffirmed the feeling that we were all in the same boat."
Then in 1999, the White Stripes opened for the Compulsive Gamblers at a Detroit
venue called the Magic Stick. "After the show, Jack White came up to me asking if I wanted to sell my red Airline [guitar]," Yarber remembers. "I said, 'Sure man, I'll sell it to you.' I was already familiar with their red and white motif. That's why he said he wanted the guitar."
Some months later, Yarber placed a phone call to White. "I called to sell him another Airline, because I remembered him buying the red one. He was a big fan of the Oblivians, and he wanted to record in Memphis. I said you oughta come down to Easley."
In January 2001, the White Stripes arrived in Memphis, where they spent their nights crashed on Yarber's living room floor and their days at Easley-McCain cutting White Blood Cells. "They came to the studio because of the Oblivians and because they knew the Gories recorded there," affirms Stuart Sikes, who was working as an engineer at Easley-McCain at the time.
Today, the Memphis-to-Detroit musical exchange is still going strong: Cartwright recently teamed with songwriter Jackie DeShannon to pen material for the Detroit Cobras' new album, while, last winter, White brought Loretta Lynn into Easley-McCain to mix Van Lear Rose. Meier just finished an album with Nathaniel Mayer at Fat Possum's studio in Water Valley, Mississippi. The sessions featured former Memphian (and current Detroit resident) Dale Beavers.
And Thursday night, Collins will blow through town with his latest project, The Dirtbombs, who've been going strong since 1998. Collins has turned his aural aesthetic inside-out for the band, employing two bass players and two drummers to back his raw guitar sound. Ultraglide In Black (the band's critically acclaimed second album) was a tribute to soul music, but their latest, Dangerous Magical Noise, is all over the place. "Motor City Baby" smacks of Suzi Quatro-influenced glam mixed over a bouncy beat, while "Get It While You Can" is a full-on rocker. "Earthquake Heart" is a delightful mod-meets-soul concoction with Collins' guitar-grinding reaching a screeching apex on the chorus.
"That's one of the many $30 Japanese guitars that I own," Collins says. "I play whatever I didn't break the week before. n Catch the Dirtbombs at The Hi-Tone CafÇ on Thursday, May 20th.