The most anticipated Memphis-connected artist at this year's annual South By Southwest Music Festival — well, save for Justin Timberlake — may have been one who wasn't on the schedule and barely even played.
In the run-up to the festival, the Times of London proclaimed that John Murry — a Tupelo native who got his musical start in Memphis and now lives in Oakland — "looks set to become one of the industry event's breakout stars." Esquire included Murry in their list of "50 acts you need to hear from SXSW." A few weeks earlier, National Public Radio's World Café had featured Murry as an "artist on the rise." The day the festival began, Twitter verified Murry's account, even though he had fewer than 800 followers. The only problem? Murry not only didn't have an official SXSW showcase, at the time, he didn't even have any shows.
Murry was a reluctant participant and late commitment at this annual music-industry event, coaxed into attending by his manager and publicist but too late to apply for an official showcase. During the festival, he ended up playing four songs at a day party a couple of miles away from the main action (in the middle of being dragged to meet with journalists and booking agents) though he did sit in with friends at a couple of high-profile gigs on Sunday night, as the festival was winding down.
Murry, now 33, first appeared on the Memphis music scene as a preternaturally gifted teenager, already owner of a deep, commanding voice and a literary songwriting sensibility. He spent time in a few aborted bands, played guitar in Lucero for a brief moment, and worked on some terrific solo demos that have never been released. Then he got married and followed his wife's career to Oakland.
He reappeared in 2006 alongside another transplanted Memphis musician, veteran folk singer Bob Frank, with a collection of freshly written murder ballads — World Without End — that got tremendous press, particularly overseas. But the great solo record that once seemed inevitable was still missing.
Late last year, it finally emerged, more than six years in the making, with a limited U.K. release that whipped a portion of the British music press into a frenzy.
The Graceless Age — recorded primarily in Oakland with American Music Club's Tim Mooney, who died last year, but finished and mastered in Memphis with local producer Kevin Cubbins — is the record longtime Murry watchers always knew he had in him, but it's also a record many wish he didn't have the inspiration to make.
The making of the album coincided with and is largely about a battle with addiction and its effects, which threatened to destroy Murry's marriage and very nearly ended his life. It began, like so many of these stories do, with a medical procedure that led to a prescription painkiller addiction.
"Everything that hurt went away, and I became physically dependent on [the pills] very quickly," Murry said in Austin, on the day after his initial performance.
The addiction to painkillers led to a separation from his wife, Lori, and daughter Evie, and that depression pushed Murry into using heroin.
"It was like the painkillers didn't work. I think more than anything I care about Lori and Evie, so that was the most painful period of my life. But it was a Catch-22. I didn't know what else to do. I really felt like there were two options: suicide or using a substance to kill the pain. And then it spiraled out of control. I don't remember a lot of that time."
Over the course of two-and-a-half years of on-and-off use, Murry suffered three overdoses. The last one, which he recounts on the 10-minute "Little Colored Balloons," was nearly his end.
"I had been clean for a couple of weeks and wasn't able to tolerate it, just living," Murry remembers. "I went to this hotel on 16th Street [in San Francisco]. You like pay five bucks and you go into these flophouse dealer hotels. It was a cliché. But [the dealer] shot me with like half a gram, and I told him to go ahead and shoot me with the other half. Shooting a quarter of a gram would have probably killed me since I hadn't been using. All I remember is he said 'don't sit down,' but I couldn't stand up. I was like a rag doll."
Murry's next memory is waking up in an ambulance with an adrenaline needle in his chest and hearing a medic say, "He's not dead."
Murry relapsed again briefly but then moved home to Tupelo for eight months, where he finished The Graceless Age and cleaned up, hopefully for good. He's now approaching four years since the last time he used.
"I knew it wasn't good for me to be around my daughter. But I also knew it wasn't good for me to not be around my daughter. I'll never really forgive myself for that," Murry says.
Back with Lori and Evie, Murry is now a stay-at-home dad when he isn't on tour, as interested in talking about coach-pitch baseball, elementary spelling bees, and Halloween costumes (Evie went as Joan Jett) as his career. But he's got an album to promote, and it's a good one.
The Graceless Age lives up to the grandeur of its title. It's dark, almost unbearably so on "Little Colored Balloons," but redemptive, evoking Bob Dylan, British space rock, and beat poets, and with a faint, unintentional echo of Otis Redding, another Memphis musician who once watched waves beat against the shore of San Francisco Bay and tried to figure things out. Nailing it all into place is Murry's heavy, evocative drawl.
In Austin, Murry told the story of a food truck operator who couldn't understand his order. "She thought I was drunk," he said. But if his mumbling drawl is a curse when trying to order from a boutique taco vendor, it's a musical gift.
The album's lead single is "California," and a staccato video for the song — seemingly inspired by the key lyric "This city's a dream/But I'm wide awake" — nails the mood and meaning of the album. In it, Murry stumbles alone through the San Francisco streets in a technique that seems to slow him down and speed up passers-by. At one point, his wife Lori comes up behind him and pulls him back for a kiss. In another, Evie catches up and takes his hand. The climactic refrain is "I swear it ain't you/It's California I can't stand." Evie, now 8, insisted on wearing a California-themed hoodie in the video, the contrarian-in-training informing her dad, "You may hate California, but I don't. I'm from here. I'm a California girl."
The Graceless Age is being re-released in Europe with a bonus disc and finally gets an American debut on April 2nd. Now Murry finds himself trying to forge a career in a business he doesn't trust and with a family he can no longer bear to leave for long.
He'll tour in England and Europe again in May, returning to the U.S. midway through for a showcase at a radio convention in Philadelphia and a show in New York. Before then, he's coming home to Tupelo for Easter and to Memphis to film a second video, for the song "Southern Sky," with fellow Tupelo native and Memphis filmmaker Mike McCarthy.
While in Austin, Murry got some wise advice from Frank, who is among the many once considered a "next big thing" but who walked away from his best shot in the early '70s. "Bob told me to treat it like a job as long as you don't have to lie," Murry says. "Lori and I have decided to give this a year from the April release. If it doesn't work, I'll drive a UPS truck."
This year, for the first time, the "official" schedule of Austin's annual South By Southwest Music Festival — America's biggest annual music-industry showcase/quagmire — began on a Tuesday night. But since four nights is more than enough, I didn't wade into the mix until Wednesday night.
Amid the mess, there were plenty of locals in town I wasn't able to catch (Manatees, Yo Gotti, Gangsta Boo, North Mississippi Allstars, etc.) and plenty of nonlocals I really wanted to see but wasn't able to for various reasons (Kendrick Lamar, Parquet Courts). But, in addition to checking in on the precarious progress of the Memphis-connected John Murry, I saw and heard plenty. Here's a partial rundown of this year's findings:
8 p.m., Austin Convention Center — There wasn't much Memphis-related on the grid for Wednesday night, but my festival still began with a local connection. The first person I saw, in line to register, was local rapper Skewby with his crew, DJ Crumbz, DJ Charlie White, and producer Go Judo. Skewby only had one show — a 20-minute set as part of an official showcase for StubHub Live on Saturday night — but seemed happy to hang out amid the nice weather, food, and diversity of sounds and people. I'm recommending him next year to conduct an attitude seminar at the festival.
9:30 p.m., Stubb's — An early omen as, even with a festival badge, I quickly gave up on trying to open my festival with punk legends the Stooges or rapper Kendrick Lamar. The lines were too overwhelming. So I went to Stubb's early, where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — a band I'd never seen live — were on the bill. Though the band's new material didn't sink in, seeing them live underscored a couple of things: One, that singer Karen O is both a realization and subversion of the classic-rock "frontman" ideal, and that, paired with nifty guitarist Nick Zinner, they're the best feminist answer we currently have to the Plant/Page, Roth/Van Halen, or even Bono/Edge dynamic. Two, that this singles band already has some enormous anthems under their belt, chiefly "Zero" ("shake it like a ladder to the sun" over Zinner's cathedral guitar), "Cheated Hearts" ("I think that I'm bigger than the sound"), and, most of all, the lovelorn "Maps," which might be the most universal of all indie/alt singles.
1 a.m., Cedar Street Courtyard — Young rapper Angel Haze made some noise late last year with her New York EP and was here introduced by Carson Daly, who touted her "superstar" potential. "Next year this time, everyone will know her name," Daly claimed. Maybe. Haze is a fast, fierce rapper, but I was waiting for a hint of the versatility or playfulness that marks her rival Azealia Banks or even potential commercial model Nicki Minaj, and I didn't see it.
1:20 a.m., Townhouse — I abandoned Haze after three or four songs when I remembered that Canadian rapper — no misprint! — Buck 65 was playing around the corner, and seeing him at a shotgun sports bar at the end of the night was one of the weird, wonderful little moments that make the hassle of the festival worthwhile. Buck 65 — aka Richard Terfry — was at the back of the bar, on a small stage, performing before a rapt audience of about 30 fans. Twice that number was hanging around the bar, paying no attention and with likely no idea who he was.
"I'm the legendary Buck 65 from Nova Scotia. I'm the biggest asshole on the face of the earth," he proclaimed. I can't vouch for the latter, but as for the former, it was half a spoof comment on his surroundings and half the stone-cold truth. Terfry is a cult artist, but his raspy delivery and literary wordplay — think Leonard Cohen raised on hip-hop and with a sharper sense of humor — mark him as one of the most distinctive "singer-songwriters" of his generation. At Townhouse, he was performing solo — playing his backing tracks through a smartphone and stopping between verses and oddball dance moves to scratch records on an adjacent pair of turntables, playing indelible back-catalog songs such as "The Centaur," "463," and the crowd-pleasing "Wicked N Weird."
After the set, he talked excitedly about the David Lynch tribute band (Silencio) he had already seen and his plans to see hip-hop heroes the Ultramagnetic MCs at a reunion show the next day. ("That's one I can check off my list. They're playing Critical Beatdown!") At a fest most performers seem to perceive through a business or social prism, Terfry's enthusiasm for other peoples' art was charming.
8 p.m., Metal & Lace Lounge — Local hard-rock band Hosoi Bros made their official SXSW debut by opening a showcase for Blackout Booking. The band's engagingly unpretentious style made an unlikely fan, getting a shout-out in one of the typically metal-averse All Songs Considered "Late-Night Dispatch" podcasts on NPR later in the week.
9 p.m., "Mouth By Mouthwest" — An off-the-grid Memphis-music conclave developed on San Antonio Street, a little south of the main action, where an Austin dentist/music fan had opened his shop to what is apparently an annual gathering of musical patients. Amy LaVere was playing, with former Memphian and current Austinite Tim Regan (Snowglobe, Antenna Shoes) playing guitar in her band. (Regan's wife, Memphis native Kelley Mickwee, had seen her country-folk band the Trishas finish third in the "band of the year" category at the Austin Music Awards the night before.) The North Mississippi Allstars' Luther Dickinson, who is producing LaVere's next solo album, was among other Memphis-connected musicians there between gigs. The Allstars, who have a new record in the works, had headlined a showcase at the Parish the night before and Dickinson was scheduled for a solo headlining slot at St. David's Bethell Hall later that night. The next day, Dickinson, brother Cody, and mother Mary Lindsay were scheduled to speak on a panel about the life and career of the late Jim Dickinson.
10 p.m., Stage on Sixth Patio — The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section proved that not even the original players can redeem "Mustang Sally" from wedding band/bar band overkill, but this set was saved when songwriter/sideman legend Spooner Oldham joined the band to sing "I'm Your Puppet."
12:30 a.m., Bar 96 — Hail the conquering hero: Atlanta rapper Killer Mike credited SXSW for helping relaunch a career floundering after the onetime Outkast protégé was dropped from a major label contract. Now, operating in the indie sphere, he might be more popular than ever, with his last album, 2012's R.A.P. Music, among the genre's recent best. Onstage at Bar 96, Mike got political, revealed that Memphis legend 8Ball is one of his wife's favorite rappers, and frequently went a cappella to underscore his lyrics. "That's what MCs do when they have technical difficulties. They keep rapping," Mike said, before pantomiming the panic of sucker MCs when their pre-recorded vocal tracks drop out.
Noon, Hotel Vegas Patio — New Memphis concern Ping Pong Booking & PR made its SXSW debut with an east Austin day party that started with acoustic trio the Memphis Dawls, Austin-based Goner Records artist John Wesley Coleman, and local indie-pop band Toxie. Ping Pong is a joint venture of Hi-Tone Productions owner Jonathan Kiersky, recent transplant Bonnie Khandpur, and Madison Farmer, a Jonesboro native who attended NYU and moved to Memphis a couple of years ago to become the publicist for Goner.
8 p.m., Beerland — Toxie, of which Farmer is a member, also opened the Goner Records showcase, which, per recent tradition, was not part of the official festival schedule. Farmer and Goner co-owner Zac Ives — also conducting other label business in town — presided over a lineup that also included locals Manatees and Ex-Cult and was headlined by No Bunny.
9 p.m., Vice Bar — There were literally thousands of performers in Austin last week, but I can't imagine many came to town with better new songs than Ashley Monroe. A Nashville hopeful as a teen, Monroe watched her intended debut album shelved and then spent a few years in the country wilderness before resurfacing as a member of Miranda Lambert's girl group the Pistol Annies. That got her another solo album deal, and the result, the recently released Like a Rose, is an early album-of-the-year contender.
Monroe's sound — especially vocally — is a little more pure country than Lambert's, but her songwriting — she wrote or co-wrote the whole album — is so rich and nervy by mainstream country standards that deserved stardom still seems dicey. Playing the last show of her first SXSW, Monroe drew almost entirely from Like a Rose, with the only exceptions the Lambert hit "Heart Like Mine" (which Monroe co-wrote) and a closing take on Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind." This meant gems like the set-opening "Two Weeks Late" (about both the rent and her period), the rowdy "Weed Instead of Roses" (a Valentine wish), and the album's autobiographical title song ("I was only 13 when Daddy died/Momma started drinking and my brother just quit trying").
10:15 p.m., Beerland — Among Memphis bands on the official SXSW schedule, Goner-signed punk band Ex-Cult (whose lead singer, Chris Shaw, is a current Flyer intern) may have been the newsiest, hitting town on the strength of a recently released debut album and a strong touring stretch with garage-rock wunderkind Ty Segall (who also produced the album).
Ex-Cult played midway through the Goner showcase then had to head immediately a few blocks east for their official showcase for Panache Booking, but the band held nothing back. With drummer Michael Peery driving the action at the back and singer Shaw offering a charismatic presence up front, the heart of this sound-over-songs band came from the dynamic two-guitar-and-bass trio that flanked Shaw. Alec McIntyre cradled his guitar high at his side, like a weapon, and played in a crouch, like a soldier primed for danger. Natalie Hoffman seemed to play the bass with her whole body. Facing each other stage right, they oscillated in a kind of magnetic repulsion, with guitarist J.P. Horrell, whose creative playing has graced numerous local bands in recent years, completing the attack stage left.
There's a certain alchemy with these kinds of arty post-punk bands, where volume and speed cohere into something more — Ex-Cult could look to Australian labelmates Eddy Current Suppression Ring for a prime example — and after touring with Segall and three-days-a-week practices, they seem to have found it. It's admirable, because it's difficult to do and so easy not to really try.
8:30 p.m., Brass House — After seeing the first few songs from Hi Rhythm at Stage on Sixth, I wandered south a few blocks to catch up with local folk-rockers Star & Micey. The fates smiled on this decision, because just as I walked in the door of the club, bone-weary from four days of hoofing it around Austin, the band was singing the lyric "We've come a long way, from Memphis, Tennessee." Soon after, guitarist Nick Redmond did a full, standing backflip off the stage and onto the floor, sticking the landing. Then drummer Jeremy Stanfill left his kit, grabbed a banjo, and joined the rest of the band on the club floor for a big finish, singer Josh Cosby hitting gospel notes and then the whole band dropping to bended knee, serenading the crowd.
Playing an opening set a little bit off the main drag, it was far from the biggest crowd I saw all week, but it was easily one of the most enthusiastic. It was the band's 16th and final show in five days in Austin. "We're exhausted," a smiling Cosby said afterward.
9:30 p.m., Cedar St. Courtyard — Star & Micey had been tabbed as a "sleeper pick" by the weekly Austin Chronicle in their festival preview. The only other Memphis act among the Chronicle's preview picks was Valerie June, who played the "Heartbreaker Banquet" at Willie Nelson's ranch on Thursday and closed her festival with a short set, weathering technical difficulties that kept her from using her banjo and finishing a cappella. June has released two seven-inch singles in the past few months — "Workin' Woman Blues" and "You Can't Be Told" — and her full-length debut, Pushin' Against a Stone, is finally slated for release May 6th in the United Kingdom, in Europe, and via iTunes.
11 p.m., Stubb's — After striking out twice on trying to see Lamar, I decided to bypass a third attempt and end my festival where it began, in the comfortable environs of Stubb's, which is spacious and outside. Standing in the short line to get in, I heard a woman behind me ask a SXSW staffer who the headliner was at the venue. When he answered "Vampire Weekend," she responded, "People still like Vampire Weekend?" Ah, indie rock — on to the next one.
Despite the big, enthusiastic crowd and the fact that the band is, actually, very popular, I suspect a lot of "serious" music fans agree with her assessment. I'm fully prepared to do cultural battle on this front, but that wasn't the time and this isn't either.
Before Vampire Weekend, however, was the Los Angeles sister band Haim, one of the more frequently buzzed-about acts at the festival and one of the few that stood out on pre-fest mixes I'd perused. Live, the pop/R&B elements on the band's early singles and EP gave way to full-on Seventies/Eighties rock, with one statuesque, grimacing sister (man?-)handling her bass in the manner of Kiss' Gene Simmons and another evoking Joan Jett as a guitar-shredding bandleader, and all three sisters — often at the same time — banging on auxiliary drum kits. The live sound was so different from what they've released so far it's hard to know what to expect going forward, but this was a memorable set.
Vampire Weekend followed with what was closer to a full concert — complete with multi-song encore — than the typical 40-minute SXSW set. I'd seen the band live in the same venue around the time their 2008 debut album launched, and they arrived this year a much more confident live band, delivering the most commanding performance I saw all week.
Rather than last year's model, I hear the band as the latest in a lineage that includes the likes of Steely Dan, Talking Heads, and Pavement — all dynamic, adventurous, brainy bands that were/are collegiate in a way that fits their particular time and place. Every song here sounded like a familiar hit, including — most impressively — the new ones, which also hinted at further explorations in the band's already expansive palette: Fifties rock-and-roll on "Diane Young" and folk-pop on "Unbelievers."