Not so long ago, a protracted and occasionally bitter feud broke out on the website message board of local record store/label Goner Records, where some Memphis music fans meet to scoff and quibble. The spat in question began with a friendly enough question that's all too familiar for 9-to-5 working stiffs who love hearing live music: "Does anyone benefit from the shows starting so late?"
The Goners' claws came out on all sides. Self-absorbed musicians were blamed, as were flaky club owners. And so was the mysterious group known as "the kids" who don't "trickle out" until 11 p.m. One commenter copped a "love it or leave it" attitude and grumbled that old heads who can't hang should get over it, learn to love emo, and party in the 'burbs. One informed commenter — a bartender who'd slung drinks at Murphy's, the Hi-Tone, and the Buccaneer — was contemptuous of the question itself. "I saw I don't know how many attempts BY BANDS to start shows at 9:30 or 10," he explained. "At 10, NO ONE would be there. So you push it back a little. At 10:15 ... maybe 10 people are there. Now the second band has just watched the first band play to no one, and they're almost as bummed out as the first band is. So they don't expend any energy trying to hurry up and get on stage. The next thing you know, you're back on your regular schedule because people are still only just starting to come in at 11:30."
Old Goners insisted that earlier shows would result in bigger crowds and an expanded scene ... eventually. Grouchier Goners said the old Goners were stupid. Meanwhile, as the battle raged online, Memphis' early scene continued to grow, evolve, and even thrive in places as obvious as coffee houses and bars and as unlikely as an East Memphis backyard. Even regular hipster hangouts like the Hi-Tone and the Buccaneer were already well into the process of figuring out how to cater to music fans who can't stay out until 3 a.m. On a school night.
"It's funny that the Goner oldies are the ones getting worked up about this, because they are the worst offenders," jokes Hi-Tone booker and barkeep Dan Holloway, listing early-starting shows he's booked for a diverse cross-section of bands and audiences, from the punks of Against Me! to honky-tonk pioneer Charlie Louvin. "It seems that the hipper the show, the later the show," Holloway says, adding that he's been having a lot of success with Sunday matinees featuring bands like the Mersey-inspired Jeffrey & the Pacemakers.
Hipness is relative, as anybody who ever spent an early Friday night at Otherlands Coffee Bar while Roy Brewer ripped through a cover of Carl Perkins' "Honey Don't" can attest. While Brewer, the musicologist and virtuoso string player with a flair for classical music, flamenco, and rockabilly ran through his April 24th set, music promoter James Manning relaxed on Otherlands' patio and bragged about the gifted clientele that frequents the coffee shop's early weekend shows.
"It's become a regular hangout for a lot of musicians," he said, just as former Satyrs frontman Jason Paxton walked out to the patio to finish his beer and talk about a new band he's started, the first musical project he's undertaken since he quit the scene completely to go to college earlier in the aughts. He's followed by his former Satyrs bandmate Angela Horton, who's been taking in the show while working out details for Delta Girls Rock, a weeklong summer camp/crash course in how to start a rock-and-roll band for teenage girls. Horton has also played Otherlands recently with her new band, the Midtown Lowdowns, which is fronted by blues specialist Jason Freeman. Dan Montgomery, the Bukowski-esque songwriter from Jersey who made Memphis his home nearly a decade ago, sips a coffee over Manning's right shoulder. Banjo-picker and pedal-steel player Richard Ford, a stalwart of Memphis' roots-music scene, sits near the door looking in at Brewer.
"This is a place where they can come and see some music before they have to go out and play," he says. Manning has turned Otherlands into an intimate, comfortably lit showcase for acoustic sets by musicians such as Lucero's Ben Nichols and Peter Holsapple, the dB's founder and occasional member of REM and Hootie & the Blowfish.
"This is also a pretty kid-friendly environment, and we let kids in for free," Manning says of his smoke-free shows that seldom end later than 10 p.m.
Although Manning has watched his early shows grow, he offers a reasonable explanation for why Memphis is a late-starting scene. "You've got so many musicians who work in bars and restaurants," he says. "They may not get off work until 10 or 11 p.m. It's hard to start things too early."
Manning's explanation for Memphis' late starts is echoed by Two Way Radio songwriter and sideman Corey Crowder, who works alongside other rocker/parents like Vending Machine's Robby Grant and Alicja Trout of the River City Tanlines to organize the kid-centric Rock-n-Romp concerts, which take place in backyards across Memphis throughout the summer. "Memphis' late-night scene is a result of the bar and restaurant culture," says Crowder, allowing that he and his wife Kate probably couldn't be a part of the local music scene if their parents weren't such generous babysitters.
Over the span of 16 concerts, Rock-n-Romp has catered to audiences with diverse musical tastes by showcasing rockers like the Warble, Harlan T. Bobo, and the Barbaras alongside punks like Pezz, Giant Bear's haunting chamber pop, and the Nashville country of Those Darlins.
"Rock-n-Romp is the only place where you can hear adult music in a 100-percent kid-friendly environment," says R&R co-founder (and Flyer contributing writer) Stacey Greenberg, noting that audiences have grown to about 200 people per show.
"We rule," Greenberg says. "Everyone wants our secrets!"
"It is so essential to have environments like this where someone can enjoy a full night's entertainment without being a zombie at work the next day or having to find a babysitter for their 8-year-old," says Anne Freres after her band Black Max played a packed Sunday matinee show at the Buccaneer on a double bill with the Brooklyn-based folk-art combo Balthrop, Alabama. Her position is shared by Michael Graber, the mandolin/kazoo player for Bluff City Backsliders who recently had nothing but good things to say about his monthly lunchtime gigs at the Center for Southern Folklore while taking in a set by Misti Rae Warren and her big blue guitar at an 8 p.m. show at Memphis Mary's. Graber had stopped in to check out the scene prior to the Backsliders' first gig there.
"The show at Memphis Mary's was more than decent," Graber said following his own early-Thursday-night debut.
"While not standing-room-only, we had people at every table. Even better, the swing-dancing community has discovered the band, so all those toned, sweaty bodies were heating up the place in rhythm. They prefer an early show, as most of them are white-collar professionals."
Cheryl Payne, the music enthusiast who brought bands like the Mekons and the Ben Vaughn Combo to Memphis in the early '90s then vanished from the scene for over a decade, says she's had a great sense of accomplishment even though she's yet to bring in a crowd larger than 60 people to a Memphis Mary's show. And she should. In its brief existence, Memphis Mary's has presented a host of local talent as well as Jason Ringenberg of Jason and the Scorchers fame and Paul Intveld, the honky-tonk and early-rock torchbearer who sang Johnny Depp's songs in John Waters' rock musical Cry-Baby.
"Everybody who plays here wants to play here again," Payne says of the intimate space lit with flickering candles and exotic vintage lamps, where crowds are small but especially attentive.
So while the usually savvy Goners debate whether or not early shows can happen in Memphis, early shows keep on happening: jazz, blues, punk, country, vaudeville, and straight-up rock-and-roll. The early scene may never overtake Memphis' post-midnight rambles, but it's firmly entrenched and growing.