Twenty-some years ago, not long after moving to Memphis, I attended my first Mid-South Music and Heritage Festival (since renamed the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival), staged by the Center for Southern Folklore.
For the first time in my life, I was exposed to genuine rockabilly, blues, folk, and soul music. I began to understand the branches that extended, like some vast Americana family tree, from the mid-'80s acts I was familiar with, like the Stray Cats, Salt-n-Pepa, and the Violent Femmes, to those who had toiled much harder — and for much longer and for a much smaller payoff — like Billy Lee Riley, Rufus Thomas, and Mudboy & the Neutrons.
At the time, of course, I hardly realized that the performers at the center's annual festivals were giants of their genres, artists who made the history books even if they no longer landed at the top of the charts.
Things change. Today, thanks in large part to the impression that the festival made on my tender psyche, I make my living recording the stories that comprise the Memphis music scene. More than ever, it seems, part of my job description is documenting a death roll that, most recently, was amended to include two colossal names: Riley and Mudboy co-founder Jim Dickinson.
Even so, tradition marches on in the form of the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, which, as always, heralds the arrival of Labor Day weekend.
When I caught up with Center for Southern Folklore director Judy Peiser a week before festival time, she had a heavy heart. Upon pausing to contemplate the gaping holes caused by the absence of the ever-dependable Riley and Dickinson, she said:
"Things are definitely mutating. It's gotten so hard to do a festival every year because of the people who aren't there anymore, people who had a major effect on what we do. I grew up listening to the music I started presenting, and now I'm presenting music that's one generation removed. People like Jim and Billy Lee weren't playing off records — they were playing off life."
Peiser sighed, recalling moments she spent with Dickinson, co-producing bluesman Mose Vinson's solo CD Piano Man. She remembered the blues sets that Riley often delivered, peppered with his classic Sun rockabilly hits such as "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll" and "Red Hot." She sounded dismayed at the thought of anyone other than Thomas, the minstrel performer turned Stax Records mainstay — billed as "the World's Oldest Teenager," he died in 2001, when he was 84 years old — performing "The Funky Chicken."
"Life goes on," Peiser finally said. "Sure, there was Michelangelo, but there were also a lot of people after him."
This year, she is starting several new traditions at the festival, a free two-day event that will be held on five stages located in and around the center's headquarters at 119 S. Main Street.
Her staff has booked new acts like Midtown favorites Two Way Radio and John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives, Tempeh Four (a progressive jazz band formed by freshmen and sophomores from the University of Memphis), and Lisa Lambert and the Pine Ridge Boys, a harmonizing bluegrass group whose members' average age is 80.
Those four bands bookend a solid weekend of performers who include chitlin-circuit soul star Bobby Rush, the Memphis Klezmer Allstars, blues guitarist Super Chikan, and country act Greg Hisky & His Whisky Dixie Flyers, as well as former Negro League ballplayer Joe Scott, quilter Hattie Childress, the Millennium Maddness dance team and drum corps, and a plethora of ethnic dancers, chefs, crafters, and storytellers.
There will be a void, but Riley's fellow Sun alumni Eddie Bond and Sonny Burgess will likely pay tribute to his memory, and Dickinson's influence will undoubtedly be felt via musicians such as vocalist/bassist Amy LaVere, multi-instrumentalist Paul Taylor, and rapper Al Kapone, who all benefited from Dickinson's touch as a producer.
"We've been lucky enough over the years to have these people, these amazing performers, who made the music special. That's what makes this so hard," Peiser said, pointing to the 2009 festival poster, which honors three more fallen Memphis musicians: saxophonists Evelyn Young, who died in 1990; Fred Ford, who died in 1999; and "Fat" Sonny Williams, who died in 2008.
"It's hard to see these changes, but we have such an amazing heritage of music here that the change is interesting," she said. "My raison d'être is to hear great music, no matter who makes it or wherever it is."