There's some great dialogue in the 1971 art-damaged road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, a substantial part of which was filmed not half an hour from Memphis at the Lakeland Drag Strip. The film's best line is delivered by Warren Oates as he tends bar from the trunk of his Pontiac GTO: "I've got other items, depending on which way you want to go. Up, down or sideways." It's poignant because it perfectly encapsulates how, for many people, the direction is not nearly as important as the idea of staying in motion.
Jason Molina, the prime mover for the band Magnolia Electric Co., can certainly relate. He's like a fugitive, perpetually moving and changing names; over the years, he's recorded as Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co., and under his own name. Lately, he's been performing about a hundred tour dates a year on three continents. In Molina's songs, as in the tradition of many blues and rock numbers, there's always a beckoning highway, and someone is inevitably leaving someone else behind.
Last month, the prolific Molina released his most intriguing work yet, Sojourner, an extravagant box set that features four CDs, a tour documentary DVD, a map of the stars, postcards, and, finally, of all things, a medallion imprinted with the band's logo. Normally, these grand productions provide a sweeping overview of an artist's career. Sojourner, though it features newer versions of some fan favorites, isn't a greatest-hits package. In part, Sojourner celebrates Molina's productive decade with his label, Secretly Canadian, but mainly, the bulk is meant to be, in Molina's words, "a last gasp, an act of defiance" in the incorporeal digital age of music. The set's container is a literal and figurative "pine box" for the physicality of music.
As Molina says, "I don't download songs." And he's worried about writing and recording a song "only to have it nonchalantly dumped into the ether."
The first disc in the set, Nashville Moon, was recorded in Chicago by Steve Albini and captures Molina and his band at their bar-rocking, Crazy Horse best — tight when they need to be, loose when they don't. That one is followed by Black Ram, which was recorded by head Cracker David Lowry in Richmond, Virginia. Black Ram is darker, moodier, and spartan. The remaining discs are Sun Session, a four-song EP recorded here in Memphis, and Shohola, a solo acoustic set recorded by Molina himself.
The origin of the Sun Session disc is one of those stories that could only happen in Memphis. Sherman Willmott, founder of Shangri-La Records, was planning a shindig to celebrate his 40th birthday last year. Willmott, a fan of Magnolia Electric Co., tried to get the band to play the party.
"Keep in mind, playing birthday parties is not a thing we normally do," Molina says.
However, Molina had befriended Willmott on previous trips to Memphis and was a fan of his work from Shangri-La Records to his more recent projects. Molina knew that Willmott would have musical connections in the city and asked that he arrange some studio time at Sun Studio as payment for the performance. Willmott happily obliged, and Magnolia Electric Co. agreed to come to town. It probably didn't hurt that Molina loves being in Memphis and that he and his bandmates are self-described "barbecue maniacs."
Soon after the band played their party gig at the Hi-Tone Café, they went through the hallowed doors of 706 Union to cut some tracks. Apart from being a musician, Molina is an amateur musical historian. "I'm a fan of Memphis music, from the pre-war blues artists up through the Sun Studio era and on into Stax Records," Molina says.
Molina was inspired enough to write a song, "Memphis Moon," right on the spot.
"I was impressed with his professionalism," Willmott says. "He walked around downtown the night before, just soaking up the city, and then he sat down and wrote a song extemporaneously."
Molina captures the downbeat beauty of the city in a few lines: "Everything is fine/I know it's soon to be fading out/But oh, didn't we shine/Didn't we shine?"
It's no "Walking in Memphis," but it'll do in a pinch. The band also recorded an eased-down version of the blues standard "Trouble in Mind." Buffeted by warm organ tones and crystal-clear guitar strums, Molina mourns, "I'm gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line/Gonna let that big 800 satisfy this mind of mine." It's as devastating and gorgeous as any rendition recorded before.
Molina gives credit for the songs to Sun Studio engineer James Lott. "He would sit there in the booth, playing these beautiful guitar accompaniments to each of the songs," Molina recalls, "but he wouldn't put any of it on tape. He said that he just enjoyed our vibe."
Maybe we can keep luring Molina & Co. to Memphis with our city's rich musical history, the great food, and our genial, Southern humility. It won't matter which way he's coming — up, down, or sideways — just as long as he comes back around.