Opinion » Viewpoint

Is There an Echo in Here?

The saviors of Memphis music come and go.



Editor's note: The Flyer received many letters from Memphis musicians in response to our September 13th cover story, "Standing at the Crossroads," which detailed the revival of the Memphis Music Commission and Music Foundation. Among the responses was this one from legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson.

Yeah, that's just what we need: "a multi-Grammy-winning producer coming to town to build a studio."

Tell that to multi-Grammy-winning producer Norbert Putnam of the sadly flawed and failed Cadre studio.

Does the name Chips Moman mean anything? The Moman-return scenario was tragic for everybody concerned and all but ended the career of the most successful producer in the history of Memphis music.  

House of Blues studios A, B, and C stand empty. The Three Alarm and 315 Beale studios are gone. Easley Recording is in ashes. Posey Hedges shut his studio down.

Other Memphis studios teeter on the brink of extinction: Knox Phillips will keep Phillips Recording open until it falls over in a heap. Willie Mitchell is going nowhere, thank God. Stax is a museum and a label destined to fail, owned by out-of-towners. John Fry at Ardent has enough money to burn a wet mule. Ward Archer is in the process of renovating the old Sounds Unreel studio into what will be the most modern, world-class studio in a 200-mile radius. God only knows why.

As anyone with any knowledge of the music business knows, studios are going toes up all over the country.

The new ideas touted by the new music "leaders" are just as unrealistic, though not as self-serving, as former commission head Rey Fleming's.

I've seen them come and go — the saviors of Memphis music. And we the musicians will be here when the latest bunch is gone. We will have to live with the fallout and clean up the mess.

Memphis' musical strength is not in studios or venues or festivals. Our strength is our musicians. In the years since the self-destruction of Stax, many a deserving artist has slipped through the cracks: Kevin Paige, Wendy Moten, and Eric Gales, to name three. The great O'Landa Draper was on his way to true superstardom when he suddenly died, far too young.

Music is a business where how good you are doesn't necessarily matter, and sometimes even genius is not enough.

Phineas Newborn Jr. and Shawn Lane both died in relative obscurity and financial distress. How many others have there been? They give up or move away or struggle along against impossible odds.

Witness the success of Cat Power — a mediocre talent who came to town, recorded a successful record with great Memphis musicians, and toured with the recording band. So much of it is dumb luck. Getting a job at Tater Red's on Beale Street will do more good for musicians than a tax break for rich folks with investment capital.

Don't take it personally, Memphis. It's not happening just to us. It's just happening. Studios on Music Row in Nashville are standing empty. The best studio in the state recently went out of business. Artists make recordings at home. Mick Jagger records on a laptop.

I have a near-religious faith in Memphis music. Our music endures. Pop culture is disposable, designed to become obsolete and create a demand for more and more. Art is for the ages.

On a recent trip to New York to play Carnegie Hall with my sons, we had a meeting in the Sony Tower. After the meeting, we rode the high-security elevator down — past six empty floors that used to be the once-mighty R.C.A.

Things are tough all over. Hang on, Memphis. Suck it up and tough it out. As the late, great Charlie Freeman once said, "They don't call it the Bluff City for nothing."

I applaud Three 6 Mafia. I applaud Saliva. Getting out of town is no easy task, but it is necessary. Our music has power worldwide. Once upon a time there was this teen-age truck driver from Tupelo ...

Jim Dickinson has been playing, recording, and producing music in Memphis since the late 1960s.

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