Kevin Cubbins, executive director of Beale Street Caravan, says it was time for the long-running radio show to change directions.
"About three years ago, we redefined our mission. We turned everything on its ear. We were NPR's blues radio program. I felt we would be better served, and be better aligned with our funder's mission, if we focused more on the city of Memphis.
Cubbins says the thinking was that the change would "keep our messaging simpler and more effective and allow us to expand the genres we aired. Instead of just blues, that meant soul, gospel, hip-hop, and rock-and-roll. A lot of people thought we were nuts to do that, but in a 12-month span we went from 230 stations in the U.S. to 404. I think the message is so much cleaner and easier to get into. 'I Listen to Memphis' is just another step. The mission of Beale Street Caravan is sharing the music and culture of Memphis with the world."
The response has been overwhelming. "People absolutely love the music from this town," Cubbins says. "Sometimes I wish all the local artists could see all the feedback and responses that we get, so it would change our opinions of ourselves. What we have here is so vibrant, so authentic, and so original. There's just nothing like it anywhere else in the world."
NPR's audience has grown significantly in recent years, as the organization has embraced the digital world by adding video components to its programming. Cubbins says "I Listen to Memphis" is Beale Street Caravan's entry into new media. The web series films Memphis music artists playing live in front of their hometown crowds.
Christian Walker, who plays with Memphis punk legends Pezz, was tapped to direct. In a gruelingly short schedule, Walker and his crew filmed 10 acts in 10 Mid-South music venues. "Some places have historical significance, some places only have significance to Memphians," says Cubbins. "Our international audience is going to hear about Wild Bill's for the first time."
Midtown punks HEELS played in front of what's left of the Buccaneer, the underground music club that burned last year. Motel Mirrors filmed at the Galloway House on Cooper, where Johnny Cash played his first gig. "That sanctuary sounds incredible," Walker says. "That could be Memphis' Ryman." Rev. John Wilkins recorded the classic "May the Circle Be Unbroken" with his daughters in his Como, Mississippi, church. "His dad was making blues records here in the 1930s," Walker says.
Marcella Simien's performance was captured at the P&H Cafe. "We called Spooner Oldham from Fame Studios in Florence. He played on so much amazing stuff, and wrote or co-wrote so much of it. So we did two videos for her: 'I'm Your Puppet', which he wrote, and 'I'd Rather Go Blind.' Marcella does that song anyway, and Spooner played on the original Etta James version. I think if we do this again, we want to do a lot of more of those mash-ups."
Cubbins says adding video to the Beale Street Caravan formula was a steep learning curve for the combined crews. "I met some of the smartest people I have ever met in my life. I didn't know the depths of talent we have in the Memphis film scene."
"I Listen to Memphis" premieres this week, with Cedric Burnside playing in Royal Studios. The 10 videos will be released weekly throughout the summer. Cubbins says he hopes the series not only reaches music fans around the world, but also helps Memphis discover its own rich music scene. "Get off your couch and go see a band," he says. "If you don't do that, you're missing out on the coolest part of our culture. It's like living in Florida, and never going to the beach."