Music » Music Features

Big Overseas

Memphis ex-pats John Murry and Valerie June impress U.K. fans, critics.



A cold autumn rain set the mood when Guardian writer Laura Barnett ducked into a grimy London pub to catch a performance by Valerie June, the Memphis-bred but New York-based folk singer who has been in the United Kingdom for nearly two weeks touring behind "Workin' Woman Blues," the first single from Pushing Against a Stone, her debut full-length studio recording for Rob da Bank's U.K.-based boutique label Sunday Best.

In a glowing review of the performance, Barnett noted all of the obvious things that everybody first notices about June, from the precariously high heels to the "megawatt smile," the honeyed drawl, and the loose, attention-grabbing pile of Medusa dreadlocks framing her face. But at the top of the second paragraph, before any mention of songwriting skills or soul-piercing voice, the critic describes her subject as a "dab hand" — Brit slang for expert — at guitar, ukulele, and banjo. Perhaps now, June, a self-taught instrumentalist who's always been her own worst critic, will recognize what others have known for a long time: She's a real player. Then again, maybe she won't.

"I still can't believe it," June insists in a telephone conversation from London. "So far, I've only seen [The Guardian] story on the internet. But I know it will feel real when I finally get to see a copy in person. I'll get that same feeling I got when I saw myself in the Memphis Flyer."

In addition to all the good press, June has appeared twice on the BBC2 television show Later with Jools Holland, delivering stark, powerful performances of a pair of songs from her still-unreleased album.

The hint of success and the opportunity to work with artists like producer Kevin Augunas and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys hasn't gone to June's head. If anything, she's become an even more self-conscious performer.

"I know living in New York has changed my live performance and not in good ways," she worries, in typical fashion. "I practice in my apartment, so I'm always afraid of being too loud. Then I play a show, and it's like, why am I whispering?" To get her voice back in shape prior to the tour, June spent time visiting her parents in the more bucolic environs of West Tennessee, where she took her amp out in the yard and let things rip.

If June's performances of "Workin' Woman Blues" on Jools Holland sounded especially heartfelt, it's partly because she'd been at home singing in the yard and partly it defines a past that's still fresh and alive in her imagination. That became especially clear to her just before leaving for London, as she drove over the Mud Island bridge to a business lunch at Paulette's. "I was halfway up that hill and couldn't stop thinking about all the times I'd made that same trip with buckets and brooms to clean other people's houses."

"Workin' Woman Blues" is currently available for download and is being released as a 7" later this year.

"It's my first one," June squeals, excited to finally have a piece of vinyl with her name on it.

John Murry is nothing if not direct.

"If my record is really so good, then why am I still broke?" he asks, and not rhetorically. The Tupelo native and former Memphian, now based in Oakland, knows he's been moving some product since The Graceless Age, a frank and frankly gorgeous collection of songs about addiction, loss, and longing, was nominated for the Uncut music award for "most inspiring and rewarding musical experience of the past year," alongside artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, and Jack White.

"How would you feel if you were told your only competition is Bob Dylan?" Murry asks, referencing a column by Uncut writer Allan Jones. "Ridiculous," he says, is the only acceptable answer. "As for being on a list with Jack White, I'd prefer to be listed alongside [Memphis rocker] Jack [Yarber], the dude whose hat [White's] wearing quite poorly," Murray says, owning up to all the Memphis sounds informing The Graceless Age, which was recorded and re-recorded over a period of years with the assistance of longtime friends and collaborators such as Kevin Cubbins (John Paul Keith & the 145s), fellow Memphis ex-pat Bob Frank, Chuck Prophet (Green on Red), and Tim Mooney (The American Music Club), who died in June, a month before the album's European launch.

In Europe, The Graceless Age has been reviewed like a lost collaboration between Brian Wilson and the Velvet Underground, and most writers have dutifully pointed out Murry's dark and deliberate echo of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." But it's also no accident that backing vocals on The Graceless Age sound like mid-20th-century Memphis, and the distorted vibes shimmering throughout Murry's aching, epic ballad "Southern Sky" reflect the tense soundscapes of Jason Paxton's band Glorie and the horror-show crunk of early Three Six Mafia.

"All that Three Six stuff was being passed around when I was in Tupelo," says Murry, who admits to having been obsessed with Paxton's music. "And I think we all know that if [the Reigning Sound's] Greg Cartwright had been born in 1940, he'd have been the king of the Brill Building."

Murry expresses a lot of gratitude for Nick West's U.K.-based Bucketful of Brains label and an equal amount of contempt for established U.S. labels that initially turned him down. Murry embarks on a European tour in January and plans to release The Graceless Age in the U.S. on his own Evangeline Recording Company label next February.

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