"We've always wanted to do something in Memphis," says Andrew Trube, half of the band Greyhounds.
Trube will have his chance, as Ardent Music has signed Greyhounds, adding to a growing roster and reflecting the ambition of new management at the label.
Trube and Anthony Farrell play guitar and organ in JJ Grey and Mofro.
"Anthony and I have been playing music for 15 years and touring hell's half-acre — everywhere," Trube says. "The sax player in Mofro, Art Edmaiston, is from Memphis. Over the years, I've become friends with people like Memphis musicians Scott Bomar and Howard Grimes. Just meeting them and hanging out, we knew we had to do something here.
"Reed hollered at us. But he had no idea how deep a connection we had with Memphis already. We'd already gone through Ardent a couple of times. It's funny how it worked out. Serendipitous."
"Reed" is Reed Turchi, label director since 2011 at Ardent Music, the secular label associated with Ardent Studios. The label has a venerable history and ... a not so venerable history.
Ardent Records began through studio founder John Fry's association with Stax Records in the late 1960s and '70s. Stax was initially distributed through Atlantic Records but broke with them in 1968. In 1972, Stax president Al Bell signed a deal with Clive Davis and CBS records that lasted until 1977. Stax's bankruptcy notice from January 26, 1977, lists the label's assets, including five albums and eight singles under the Ardent imprint. Two of those albums, #1 Record and Radio City by Big Star, represented the apex of the label's output.
In the early 1990s, Ardent Music was revived alongside a now-contemporary Christian-oriented label, Ardent Records. The Christian label was and remains a huge success, mainly through platinum-selling band Skillet. The secular side was something of a mess:
A solo Alex Chilton album felt exactly like a contract obligation. Ardent's attempt to work with the genuine freaks Neighborhood Texture Jam belongs in the studio-lore hall of fame. Finally, the disaster known as Techno Squid Eats Parliament proved to be the camel-crushing straw, and the label was shuttered. (Unless you have a heart condition, go read the allmusic.com entry for Techno Squid Eats Parliament. Seriously.) The label was soon shuttered until 2008, when Jump Back Jake became the first release of the current incarnation of Ardent Music.
Enter Turchi, who was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill when he first began releasing records.
"There's an old lineage between Chapel Hill, Memphis, and north Mississippi," Turchi says. "While I was at Chapel Hill, I worked a lot with Bill Ferris and on his Memphis, Oxford, Chapel Hill trajectory.
"While I was working with him, he let me know that he had these old recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell that were sitting there in the archive at Chapel Hill. I was really into that stuff and still am. I asked him about putting it out, and he was game for it. The tapes were just collecting dust. We started a label called Devil Down, just to put that out into the world. That got more attention than I had ever expected. I've done eight releases on that. All of those were during my last two-and-a-half years in Chapel Hill, when I was spending a ton of time, almost every other weekend, in north Mississippi with Kenny Brown, the North Mississippi Hill-Country Picnic. Mary Lindsey Dickinson introduced me to John Fry. That was the summer of 2011, and it went better than anybody expected."
The label has held on to the Big Star releases and to neo-folkies Star & Micey. Since Turchi's arrival, the label has added two more acts: Greyhounds and Admirers. Admirers is the project of Mikey James, a producer with a penchant for finding engineers he admires and working with them, the latest being legendary Ardent Studios eminence John Hampton.
But Greyhounds seemed destined to be on Ardent and in Memphis. The partnership is interesting in the sense that Greyhounds has plans to use previously recorded material in addition to using the studio's human and electronic assets.
"I met them a couple of years ago in passing," Turchi says of Greyhounds. "The first thing I was doing at Ardent is to try and find bands that were a good fit. The label is not defined by a genre, so there wasn't a sound that I was looking for as much as a band that we could work with and would benefit from us working with them. Obviously, the Ardent label is not going to be putting out bedroom recordings. We wanted to work with people who are interested in the unique things Ardent offers, which include the Memphis scene and obviously the studio. I started playing their music around the building and everything kept going positively. They were interested in working in Memphis and had talked seriously about doing a record here. The only reason they weren't signed to a label is that they are spending a lot of time in JJ Grey and Mofro. Greyhounds was their thing before that, but since joining that band they haven't had to pay rent with it. I read through their Facebook posts, and people want more Greyhounds. Now that we are helping them grow, they are really excited about getting the push. They were afraid it was getting pushed into a side project."
Trube is excited about the opportunity to salvage earlier material and about the prospect of recording at Ardent with Memphis' best talent.
"[The older material has] never been properly released," Trube says. "So it lets us tell the story of what we're about and then move forward with new stuff. Hoping to get a bunch of the old guys and not necessarily make a Memphis-sounding record, but hand them our tunes and say y'all play them however you interpret them. Sound like you.
"Ardent is sort of like the mortar. It's the catalyst for all of this stuff to happen. To work with those people ... We get to use that lathe in there. I mean, come on, that place is radical."