While Memphis folkies tend to slip under the radar -- their heyday, after all, was in the '60s, when they ruled the scene at the Bitter Lemon coffeehouse -- there are still a few local musicians holding on to the tradition: Bob Franks, Andy Cohen, and, of course, Sid Selvidge. Selvidge studied under blues great Furry Lewis back in the '60s, and it shows: His honeyed tenor has far more soul in it than the average folkie, and he can bend his frets as well as any Beale Street player.
Selvidge's interest in music began even earlier, when he was growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, following the river north to Memphis for college, where, save for a short sojourn in St. Louis, he's been ever since. "Memphis is my home. I've lived on the river my whole life. It informs everything I do," he says.
Here, he fell in with Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker, Jimmy Crosthwait, Alex Chilton, William Eggleston, and fellow folkie Horace Hull. In 1963, according to Robert Gordon's It Came from Memphis, Selvidge and Hull were hired by Dickinson for the First Annual Memphis Folk Festival, held in Overton Park. The show, Gordon points out, "laid a cornerstone for the four Memphis Country Blues Festivals that were to come."
"It's kinda weird," Selvidge muses, when asked about It Came from Memphis, which documents an oft-overlooked period of the local music scene. "I'm not a self-promoting kinda guy," he demurs. "But I'm glad that it keeps the music going. It keeps our culture alive."
Selvidge himself has done whatever necessary to keep that culture alive. He's worked as a disc jockey, run a record label (Peabody Records, which boasted a roster of such stars as Cybill Shepherd, Chilton, and Gimmer Nicholson), written an opera, and released four solo albums. (His 1970 debut, Portrait, was released on Stax subsidiary Enterprise Records.)
But it took years for Selvidge to return to the studio to record his latest full-length, A Little Bit of Rain, available now on Archer Records. "When you do records like I do, you're not gonna make a lot of money. If you get too much product out there, you'll be competing with yourself," Selvidge says, making a reference to his 1992 album Twice Told Tales, which was released by the Elektra/Nonesuch label as part of their American Explorer series.
"I thought that as long as there was a good CD out there, that was fine. But then Elektra remaindered the whole series, and I started thinking it could be time to make another CD. Ward Archer told me that he wanted me to make an album for his label, and I told him if we can make it right, I'll do it."
It's no surprise that Selvidge brought in old friend Dickinson to produce the album. Dickinson and Selvidge had performed for years as Mudboy & the Neutrons, a fantastic ragtag blues and folk outfit that also included Crosthwait and Baker. But in '96, Baker was killed, and although the rest of Mudboy remained close friends, they couldn't bring themselves to perform together.
"There were a number of ghosts that needed to be taken care of between us," Selvidge says. "I don't think Ward understood the production process. To him, it must've seemed like all we did was sit and talk, but we got the job done. It wasn't the easiest thing to do without our friend, but he was certainly there."
On the title track, a seldom-heard Fred Neil number, Selvidge eloquently sums up the group's loss with these words: "If I should leave you/Think about the good times/Long days filled with sunshine/And just a little bit of rain," his voice taut with emotion. It's a stark, stunning introduction to the album, and, in the liner notes, Selvidge calls it "the ultimate goodbye song." He doesn't name Baker per se, but the underlying reference is obvious.
"I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse, but in Memphis, you have to be such a generalist to make it in the music biz," Selvidge says, when asked about his role as executive director for the nationally syndicated radio show Beale Street Caravan. "I started off in radio, on WDDT in Greenville. When the opportunity for Beale Street Caravan came along, I had to laugh. It brought everything full circle. I felt like Tim McCarver after he stopped catching for the St. Louis Cardinals. He started doing the play-by-plays," Selvidge says with a laugh.
"If you're put on earth to make music, you can't just turn your back on it. But by definition, there's absolutely no money in folk singing," Selvidge says. But then he hastens to add a final thought. "Memphis is a scrappy town -- the music holds on. It's the only place I know of in America where there's a chance for something unique to happen."
Sid Selvidge will be performing at Shangri-La Records on Friday, April 25th, at 5:30 p.m.
You can e-mail Andria Lisle at firstname.lastname@example.org.