Walk into any record store in the world, and chances are good that Lamar Sorrento's work is somewhere in the room. As one of the more popular outsider artists of the past decade, Sorrento's paintings adorn the covers of blues compilations, Sonny Rhodes CDs, and the newest disc from David Lindley. Marty Stuart and Lucinda Williams both have Sorrento originals in their extensive folk-art collections, and his work has graced the pages of The Oxford American and No Depression magazines.
But how many art collectors know that Lamar Sorrento is also an accomplished musician? Counting Gear, his brand-new release, the Memphian has recorded four full-length albums, including two under his real name, James Eddie Campbell. His band, The Mod Saints, boasts the best cult pop musicians Memphis has to offer, including the Crime's Jeff Golightly (rhythm guitar), Easley-McCain Studio producer Doug Easley (guitar), and Big Star alumni John Lightman (bass) and Richard Rosebrough (drums).
"I come from a long line of nonmusical people," Sorrento says with a laugh when asked about his past. "I grew up on the poor side of town. I went to Messick High School, where I played trombone in the high school band. I only took music because I found that I could skip gym if I was in the band. I hated the trombone," Sorrento admits, "but it got me out of gym class."
"I started writing my own songs in the '70s, but it took a decade before anyone would let me sing in a band. I was so incredibly shy and such a bad singer," Sorrento laments. "I'm not a very good singer even now, but I had to work pretty hard to become 'not very good.' Johnny Rivers was my main influence. I could listen to him and conceivably do what he did, where a Beatles record was so intimidating."
Sorrento's nasal vocal style is an acquired taste, but he makes up for any lack of God-given talent with sheer determination and unbridled enthusiasm. "I live my life and I pay my dues/I wanna win but I still lose/I can't get a girl so I drink booze/What's a poor white boy like me gonna do?" he sings on "Poor White Boy," one of Gear's best tracks. The lyrics are tongue-in-cheek, but Sorrento delivers them with the off-the-cuff panache of a long-lost garage rocker. You can hear it live this Sunday at 3 p.m., when Lamar Sorrento and the Mod Saints play a free show at Shangri-La Records.
"That's me as a teenager on the cover of Gear," he says, pointing to his self-portrait. "This isn't a concept album, but it's based on thoughts I had as a teenager that I'm still thinking today." Sorrento pauses. "You don't really change much from being a teenager to being 50," he says. "You just look worse."
Two turntables and two microphoneS were the order of the day last Friday afternoon, when rappers Effingham and Wheatstraw did their own Shangri-La Records "in-store" out front in the parking lot. "I get up on stage so you can call me your highness/Scientists try to guess my flyness," Wheatstraw quipped on his signature number "The Wheatstraw Joint," while Effingham exhorted the kids in the audience to "Activate your soul/Activate your mind/Activate your body."
The two have come a long way since their first meeting at a house party. Wheatstraw, a native Memphian, was originally unimpressed when he met Effingham, who'd moved here from Van Buren, Missouri.
"I thought he was just a country boy," Wheatstraw recalls. "Then he started rapping Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, and I was blown away." After making their onstage debut in New Orleans, the duo performed at the Hi-Tone Café in January. "I have to give mad shouts to Clanky's Nub," Effingham says. "They got us boozed up, and before I knew it we were rapping on stage."
A show at the Hard Rock Café a few weeks later was "on point," as Wheatstraw would say, and by St. Patrick's Day, when they rapped at the Young Avenue Deli, Effingham and Wheatstraw were becoming a bona fide local sensation.
"We've got something -- I just don't know what it is," Wheatstraw says, as Effingham adds, "We realize we're just two dudes rapping. It's fun, but we take it seriously." While they don't see themselves as competition for Gangsta Blac or Three 6 Mafia, they do hope that players on the local rap scene realize their homage is heartfelt.
"I'm dirty and I'm from the South. Who else has the right to say that but me?" Wheatstraw challenges, his Olympic-style medallion shining in the afternoon sun.
"I like to stay clean," argues Effingham. "People who think we're making fun of hip-hop need to realize that we're putting way too much into this for it to be a joke." Catch Effingham and Wheatstraw on Monday, May 12th, when they rock the Young Avenue Deli along with DJ Buck Wilders.
Andria Lisle will be signing copies of her new book about local music, Waking Up in Memphis, on Thursday, April 17th, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Burke's Book Store. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.