Scoping out the best records and biggest changes in Memphis music at the decade's midpoint.
How the Memphis music biz has changed over the past five years.
Things in Memphis move slower than molasses. Most of the time, you can't notice the changes unless looking from afar, because if you stare at something too long, nothing seems to change. But there have been significant changes in the local music scene in the past five years and not just in the influx of new bands to replace old ones. Rather, a few more significant changes have altered the landscape of Memphis music:
Memphis Gives Itself a Group Hug
The opening of the Smithsonian Rock 'N' Soul Museum as well as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music have allowed Memphis to finally acknowledge its music pedigree. While the Rock 'N' Soul Museum is significant for its scholarly approach and Smithsonian affiliation, the building of the Stax Museum with local government and foundation support on the empty lot where Stax Records once stood was a major step toward Memphis appreciating its non-Elvis soul, R&B, and gospel heritage. Social clubs for professionals such as Mpact and Tha Movement have also included Memphis music as focal points for their civic gatherings, a much-needed boost from the future Memphis movers and shakers.
Information Technology Changes the
The late '80s and early '90s were the halcyon days of the music fanzines. To discover great music outside of the mainstream music press back then, fans had to scour fanzines. These days, Web sites, message boards, and blogs have completely changed the way music information is obtained and shared, and the advent of broadband has provided fast and easy Internet access.
In Memphis in the last year, music-show information has become omnipresent in blogs and message boards. Scenestars.net, Rachelandthecity.com, Pulpfaction.blogspot.com, Livefrommemphis.com, Goner-records.com, Memphisrap.com, and Memphismojo.com all have live-show information that is often more up to date than the information provided by the clubs themselves. The Center City Commission even has a weekly e-mail newsletter pitching the hot downtown shows of the weekend. Consequently, even the most obscure shows have more immediate visibility. Attendance seems to be up all over the city, and the Internet information is certainly one reason.
Rap Comes Out of the Closet
The biggest seller in the music business in the '90s was rap music. But rap was rarely performed in Memphis. Rap in Memphis was almost like Elvis' dirty shaking hips in the '50s: It existed, but nobody discussed it and if they did, it was in a pejorative manner. Now there are a couple of clubs (Premiere and Plush) that host hip-hop acts, and Memphis in May has booked some of the biggest Memphis rap stars. Memphis rap has become a large commercial presence.
On the other end of the hip-hop spectrum, Memphix and its various offshoots and DJ crews have been the catalyst for getting the soul/hip-hop DJ movement into the rock-club scene. They have also combined modern soul acts such as Sharon Jones and Nathaniel Mayer with DJs to bring dance fans to see live bands and live-music fans to dance to the DJs after the bands finish. Their shows create a crossover effect for disparate music fans and a buzz not previously seen in the Memphis market.
Growth of the Music Biz in Cooper-Young
In the last five years, two recording studios, Goner Records, Black Lodge Video, several new restaurants, and at least one new late-night music venue have joined the Young Avenue Deli and the Memphis Drum Shop in making Cooper-Young the capital of the Midtown music and entertainment scene. The organic growth of this neighborhood has evolved in a far more interesting way than the force-fed development of Overton Square and Beale Street, creating an enticing mish-mash of entertainment options. Remember, the music biz comes in many forms: retail, live bands, studios, and DJs. Cooper-Young has almost everything -- more than any other neighborhood in Memphis.
Swing Is Not the Thing
Swing night died a faddish death several years ago. In its place as scene du jour, Goner Records' far-reaching influence (and Web site) has helped spur an immensely successful garage-rock scene. In fact, garage-rock in Memphis is so strong that even the worst garage bands in the country get a better shot at an audience than most other genres of music. Midtown dives such as Murphy's and the Buccaneer have risen from the dead to join the Hi-Tone Café and Young Avenue Deli in providing multiple musical options several nights a week -- a far superior amount of live music than five years ago. At some of these smaller clubs, even a sparse turnout (with buzz enhanced by blogs and Web sites) creates an exciting atmosphere for the live-music experience. •
Sherman Willmott founded Midtown institution Shangri-La Records and wrote April's Memphis magazine cover story on the music of the films Hustle & Flow and Forty Shades of Blue.
By Sherman Willmott
The local music that mattered most
over the past five years.
usic geekery and list-making go together as naturally as baseball fandom and statistics. Over the past few months, the Web has been littered with music sites making "half-decade" lists, an only slightly arbitrary exercise so much fun that we decided to take the cue and compile our own listcentric examination of local music at the decade's midpoint. Since our list is dominated by the Reigning Sound rather than Radiohead, we like it better.
In conducting a smaller, more hand-picked equivalent to the local music poll that typically graces our annual music issue, we started with a core of regular Flyer music writers, Chris Herrington, Chris Davis, Andria Lisle, and Andrew Earles, and then invited six Memphians who listen to a lot of local music and whose opinion we respect: Shangri-La Records founder Sherman Willmott, Cat's Music Midtown manager Steve Walker, Goner Records owner Eric Friedl, WEVL disc jockey Hayden Jackson, Easley-McCain Recording engineer Kevin Cubbins, and former Flyer music editor Mark Jordan. We thank them all for their participation.
We had everyone submit a list of their 40 favorite local records of the half-decade, then compiled the lists into the composite list below. Our 10 voters named 135 records. Here are the top 40.
1. Too Much Love -- Harlan T. Bobo: Bobo's first solo effort was a treasure chest overflowing with melancholy gems and sunny offbeat love songs. It's romance distilled: tattered, delirious, fragile, sly, and disarming. Breaking and entering never seemed so sweet; blue skies never seemed so vastly overrated. Too Much Love should never be scored with stars but with valentines. -- Chris Davis
2. Time Bomb High School -- The Reigning Sound: Finding the perfect balance between noise and nuance, ex-Oblivian/Compulsive Gambler Greg Cartwright crafts his testament: not so much a tribute to the overlooked era of pre-hippie '60s rock and soul as an invocation, concocted out of record-shop dust. An act of loving, genius craftsmanship that absorbs and reinvigorates its earlier pop sources as much as Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" or DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. -- Chris Herrington
3. Cloud-Wow Music -- Shelby Bryant: Giddy, personal, airy, effortless, and effervescent, Cloud-Wow Music is cotton candy for the ears and candied apples for the mind's eye. Simultaneously innocent and worldly, Bryant's sonic smile forms a tragicomic bridge to a magical land where Syd Barrett is king, hormones sing, and everything you see is yours to keep until somebody takes it away. -- CD
4. Too Much Guitar! -- The Reigning Sound: Could this be the hardest, heaviest record ever made that can truly be slotted as soul music? Ollie Nightingale and Eddie Floyd gone punk-rock. Letter-bomb valentines to Hank Ballard and Sam & Dave. All sound and fury; zero posturing. A rocketship of a record that's loud at any volume. -- CH
5. Doing the Distance -- Snowglobe: A 44-minute rock symphony marked by its excited creativity, casual density, and palpable camaraderie. No other local record in recent memory sounds so huge yet so intimate. -- CH
6. Break Up Break Down -- The Reigning Sound: Sure, Greg Cartwright rocked harder with the Oblivians (and even on later Reigning Sound recordings), but his songwriting skills and his gift for crafting simple, thoroughly infectious melodies are best represented on this Reigning Sound debut, which concocts a folk-rock paradise where the Byrds and Crazy Horse make beautiful music together. "I don't require that you be true to me, just as long as you come home," Cartwright moans as the album downshifts into full-on honky-tonk. And now that he's abandoned Memphis for Ashville, North Carolina, we know exactly how the poor boy feels. -- CD
7. The Royal Sessions -- The Bo-Keys: Listening to The Royal Sessions, it's easy to imagine that Stax Records never had a date with the bulldozer. That's all you need to know. -- CD
8. The Hell You Say -- Cory Branan: No one has written sharper songs about Memphis life. Over the past five years, no one in Memphis has written sharper songs -- period. -- CH
9. That Much Further West -- Lucero: Just another bunch of Southern boys dreaming of nights in NYC, and they make those dreams reality here, breaking free of the "local band" designation with this debut on national indie Tiger Style, which also happened to be their grittiest, most consistent record. -- CH
10. Black-Wave -- Lost Sounds: One listen to this epic sonic assault and it's clear that the band's nemesis is its own hometown: lifeless bar-band blues, suburban sprawl, pressure to conform, the crush of violence and poverty safely overlooked by half the city. All reasons to kill, but the Lost Sounds confront it all with the only weapons at their disposal: shrieking guitars, whiplash drums, panicked keyboards, outraged voices. -- CH
11. Our Land Brains -- Snowglobe: A little more folkish, a little less confident than Doing the Distance, this debut is no less lovely or dreamlike: horn overtures leading into righteous campfire sing-alongs; an introduction to a band representing something new for Memphis music. -- CH
12. Mouse Rocket -- Mouse Rocket: Lost Sounds' Alicja Trout takes her ostensible side project center-stage with a poppier, more straightforward rock record that's also filled with sardonic humor and sly smarts. -- CH
13. The Delicate Seam -- The Bloodthirsty Lovers: The Grifters and Big Ass Truck didn't seem to have much in common. Here's proof otherwise: the Grifters' David Shouse and the Truck's Steve Selvidge explore their jones for the delicate architecture of art-rock guitar. -- CH
14. Start With the Soul -- Alvin Youngblood Hart: The sharpest guitar player in a city full of them sets the blues aside and takes its baby, rock-and-roll, out for a stroll. -- CH
15. Don't Throw Your Love Away -- The Tearjerkers: Jack Oblivian redefines roots music as country-boogie, blues, punk, and cock-rock collide on his band's brand-new second release. -- CD
16. Makeshift #3 -- Various Artists: A definitive snapshot of a time and place, the artier edges of Midtown Memphis, circa right now. -- CH
17. Concorde -- The Glass: Gorgeous, lurking, and romantic, the Glass -- like their kinsmen the Satyrs -- represent a lighter, lovelier but no less haunted or haunting shade of goth. Concorde aches, pines, shrieks, and wallows in the glorious uselessness of life. -- CD
18. Romeo Hood -- The Preacher's Kids: If Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers had been raised in the Pentecostal church and educated in a Tupelo whorehouse, they might have sounded a lot like Mississippi punk Tyler Keith. Romeo Hood is third-generation Chuck Berry: angry, paranoid, working-class punk stripped down to its bare and beautiful bones. -- CD
19. "Shake Hands With Shorty" -- The North Mississippi Allstars: The hypnotic drone of hill-country blues meets the nimble jamming of the Allman Brothers. The result: a definitive local group is born in the surest connection of art and commerce from a Bluff City guitar band since the Box Tops. Conclusion: Yep, this record should probably be a lot higher on this list. -- CH
20. From Senegal to Senatobia -- Othar Turner: From Senegal to Senatobia pits drum-corps precision against expressive African percussion with Turner's fife whistling over the top of it all. And North Mississippi Allstar Luther Dickinson brings along his slide guitar. -- CD
The Next 20: The Bloodthirsty Lovers -- The Bloodthirsty Lovers; A New Commotion, A Delicate Tension -- Viva L'American Death Ray Music; Lost Sounds -- Lost Sounds; I Can't Stop -- Al Green; I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down --R.L.Burnside; Crystal Gazing, Luck Amazing -- The Compulsive Gamblers; Bad Mood Rising -- The Tearjerkers; Wrecked -- Halfacre Gunroom; The Satyrs -- The Satyrs; Grateful To Burn -- Andy Grooms; Rat's Brains & Microchips -- Lost Sounds; Wild Emotions -- Preacher's Kids; Everything's OK -- Al Green; Launch Pad Rock -- Eighty Katie; Disco Eraser -- Final Solutions; I've Lived a Rich Life -- Jeffrey Evans; Big Lonesome Radio -- Mark Lemhouse; Unlimited Symmetry -- The Coach and Four; Lucero -- Lucero; Arkadelphia -- Rob Jungklas. •
A tip sheet to some of this summer's locally connected releases.
Welcome to The Memphis Flyer's annual Music Issue, timed to coincide, as always, with the Beale Street Music Festival, the city's busiest weekend of music every year. It should be even busier than normal because the Memphis Grizzlies' playoff games will share downtown space with the Music Fest. (And if you think I'm mad at the National Basketball Association for making me miss the Roots on Sunday night, you're right.)
You won't find a more comprehensive guide to the festival than our pullout included in this issue. As for the rest of this year's Music Issue: Well, it looks a little different. The local-music poll that's filled this space for the past four years is on hiatus, victim to an ill-timed paternity leave for the election commission of one. The poll will likely return next year, but for now we've tried to assemble a mix of local stories that tap into the future, present, and (immediate) past of Memphis music.
Over the next couple of pages, we offer a tip sheet on some of the many locally connected records that should be showing up in stores this summer. On page 26, we use the current decade's midpoint to take stock of what's changed and what's mattered most in Memphis music over the past five years. Shangri-La Projects' Sherman Willmott, a longtime local-music watcher, surveys the big changes. Then he joins our regular stable of music writers and a few invited guests in naming the best local records of the decade so far.
As for the present, Bianca Phillips dives deep into the burgeoning all-ages punk scene (page 32) that is uniting the long-divided music scenes of Midtown and East Memphis. Andria Lisle is in London (page 22) where Memphis music got the grand treatment with an "It Came From Memphis" concert series. And Andrew Earles (page 20) checks in on local recording studio Easley-McCain as its owners continue to sort through the damage of a March fire.
We think it's a good package of pieces, and we hope you agree. Have fun at Music Fest, and we'll see you again this time next year. -- Chris Herrington
Sorting through aftermath of the Easley-McCain Studio fire.
The birthplace of several important alt-rock records (most recently the White Stripes' White Blood Cells) and a key component in the creative matrix that drives Memphis' Midtown-based indie-rock scene, Easley-McCain Recording Studio, located at 2272 Deadrick Avenue, was dealt a horrible blow when a blaze wiped out the studio's control room, waiting area, and sections of the second floor, which was being used for storage and a smaller studio area.
The March 2nd fire, discovered by engineer Kevin Cubbins, spared the tracking room (or "big room"). The door was closed, and the wall that separates this room from the remainder of the studio acted as a firewall. The cause of the fire hasn't been determined, but investigators have narrowed its origin to the area of a wastebasket and electrical outlet. "I don't know, and I don't think they really know yet," says studio owner Doug Easley. "It wasn't arson. Use that as your big quote. It wasn't arson."
Little compares to the despair of watching something close to you burn uncontrollably, but an adage holds true: It could have been worse. "It's only equipment. People aren't replaceable. I'd much rather go to a storage unit than go to a bunch of funerals," Easley says.
"We're sorting out what was burned and destroyed and what was burned and can be cleaned or salvaged," says Davis McCain, Easley's longtime partner. "Unfortunately, the destroyed pile is getting bigger."
But six weeks later, Easley and McCain aren't just sorting through the damage. They're also sorting through the ramifications of insurance negotiations.
"It's amazing how little communication goes on [with insurance companies]. As long as they can hold onto their money, they're happy," Easley says.
The process isn't helped by the enormous amount of work required to catalog the damage, a process that has required equipment dealers to help value some of the studio's more esoteric items.
"Every piece is a line on a form, then there is a value that you have to give it,
and then [the insurance company] wants to know where you got that number," Easley says.
"We're just digging out from under this incredible mound of charred stuff. If the process seemed slow at the beginning, it's really slow now," McCain adds.
Despite the damage, work continues for Easley-McCain. Some remote work is taking place. For instance, Cubbins headed up to a rented cabin in Arkansas last week to finish an album with local band the Glass, a project that began at Easley-McCain. And Easley makes clear that, whatever the impact on the studio itself, the fire has also had an impact on local musicians now short a recording outlet.
"People are always saying, 'Let's do benefits.' It's a nice gesture, but there's no way to know right now what they would be funding," McCain says.
"I thought we should have a reverse benefit. Everybody who ever came
to the studio, they'd come to a show, and they'd get $5 at the door and free beer," Easley adds. "We always tried to make it an all-inclusive thing, where people went to have a good time and where a lot of great things emanated from. In retrospect, it's been a great run for us, but we didn't do it by ourselves."
The studio's future is still in flux, pending the slow process of sorting out damages and insurance claims. At present, Easley and McCain are pricing rooms for temporary rental and ferreting out locations for in-progress projects. "I've been looking for places to continue some projects I had going," Easley says. "Though it's premature to say exactly what, we are continuing in one form or another. I'm not retiring."
From Memphis to London
I never thought I'd be talking Memphis music in a sushi restaurant on the River Thames, but, come lunchtime on Saturday, April 9th, that's exactly what I did. Beginning Sunday, April 3rd, London's Barbican Arts Centre launched a month-long Memphis music festival -- named "It Came From Memphis" after Robert Gordon's book -- and, for one action-packed week, I got to help Gordon, Barbican programmer Bryn Ormrod, and a few dozen musicians bring a little Southern hospitality across the pond.
Everyone I met in London was gracious, eager to hear about Memphis, and ready to party all night long. Many of the music fans knew even more minutiae than I did, wanting to dig deep with questions about the glory days at American Studio, the truth about Alex Chilton, and obscure releases on tiny labels such as Fernwood and Barbarian.
Journalists wanted to focus on the seedier side of Memphis. One story in Time Out London opened with a description of the rats that currently inhabit the Hotel Chisca on Main Street (where Dewey Phillips once broadcast his Red Hot & Blue radio show), while articles in London's daily newspapers bypassed the typical tourist fare for grittier sites such as Wild Bill's and Willie Mitchell's Royal Studio. Meanwhile, bona-fide pop stars such as Spiritualized's Jason "Spaceman" Pierce and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie seemed to be on cloud nine while soaking up the Southern scene.
Imagine: Halfway around the world, people actually "get" Memphis music.
Although the festival -- with nights honoring Memphis studios Ardent, Hi, Sun, Stax, and a detour to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio located just a few hundred miles away in northern Alabama -- lasted all month, my own trip was fast and furious. I was in on Thursday and out on Monday, just long enough to catch two nights at the Barbican: a Muscle Shoals concert anchored by guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, and organist Spooner Oldham, all original house players at the studio, and a Delta blues concert that starred T-Model Ford, Kenny Brown, Little Milton, and Bobby Rush.
Just how did the Barbican pull off such a festival anyway?
"Two years ago, I was on my way to Austin, Texas, and I stopped off in Memphis," says Ormrod. "I knew about Graceland, Al Green, and Stax beforehand, but in Memphis, I had an epiphany. Thinking about characters like Charlie Feathers and Furry Lewis, it struck me that there's an incredible story here. I was interested in the social history of Memphis, and I saw an opportunity to dig a bit deeper and peel away the layers. My job is to tell the story of music from different parts of the world and tell how it impacts what's going on in the U.K.," he says, explaining that he produced a similar festival, "Beyond Nashville," at the Barbican in 2001.
A fortuitous meeting with Irish documentary filmmaker Paul Duane at a North Mississippi Allstars concert led Ormrod straight to Robert Gordon.
"Paul had raised seed money from the Irish film board for an It Came From Memphis documentary, and he and I shot a teaser two-and-a-half years ago," Gordon says. "He gave Bryn a copy of my book, and, last winter, I received an e-mail saying they're going to do this festival." Gordon ended up becoming the festival's curator. "It was the best possible situation, because all I had to do was come up with the ideas," he says. "And because the Barbican is subsidized by the City of London, we had plenty of artistic freedom."
Ormrod appreciated Gordon's portrayal of the underground, alternative universe of Memphis music. "We didn't want to tell the obvious," he says. "What seemed important were the stories about people such as Jim [Dickinson] and Furry -- crazy avant-garde people that seemed to be a part of the energy. You can go to Memphis as a tourist and get a sense of the big parts of history, but it's not easy to discover the hidden things. Black history is still underrepresented in Memphis, even though it's the bedrock of everything that's going on."
Initially, Gordon and Ormrod conceived of a festival anchored by legends such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Alex Chilton. While negotiations with each of those musicians fell through, they seemed pleased with the final line-up: Jimmy Crosthwait, Dickinson, and Sid Selvidge performing as Mud Boy & the Neutrons and Memphis expatriate Tav Falco, the North Mississippi Allstars, Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, and the Tearjerkers performed on Ardent night. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section backed singers Mavis Staples, Bonnie Bramlett, George Soule, Donnie Fritts, and Tony Joe White, while the Hi Rhythm Section backed Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, and Percy Wiggins. Ike Turner, Billy Lee Riley, Cowboy Jack Clement, and Sonny Burgess & the Pacers headlined Sun night, and Booker T & the MGs and the Bo-Keys performed behind Mable John, Eddie Floyd, and William Bell on Stax night.
All in all, the Barbican purchased upwards of 150 airline tickets to bring Memphis music to London.
"The only thing I'd like to have done differently is have more contemporary sounds," Ormrod says. "I would have loved to have the Reigning Sound or an Oblivians reunion, and jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn would've been nice. But we got Jim Dickinson, a guy with a history that really connects different stories together. You can link up so many characters -- Tav, Dickinson, and [photographer William] Eggleston -- in the same crazy web of understated music that's proven to be so influential."
Between 1,500 and 2,000 music fans attended each performance, while countless more took in afternoon shows on the free stages in the Barbican's mammoth lobby, went to lectures, or viewed Memphis-centric screenings in the "It Came From Memphis" Film Festival.
"You wouldn't have had a crowd like that in Memphis," Selvidge confirms. "Those Londoners really respond to the myths behind the music -- the stuff Robert wrote about in his book." Explaining that he'd like to put together a similar concert series in New York's Lincoln Center, Selvidge jokes, "It Came From Memphis has had more lives than a cat. By my count, Robert's got six more incarnations to go."
"London's Channel Four is very interested in funding the It Came From Memphis documentary," Gordon confirms. "As always, there's more of an interest in Memphis outside of town."
While the Barbican audience loved certain acts, such as Selvidge's a capella rendition of "Bo Weevil" and Ike Turner's hard-boiled blues ("He had the devil on both shoulders," Ormrod notes triumphantly), one performance didn't go over so well. Robin Denselow, music critic for the Guardian newspaper, described soul-blues singer Bobby Rush as a "battered playboy, [with] suggestive lyrics directed at his teenage dancer."
From my own seat in the audience, I felt a collective gasp when Rush unveiled a giant-size pair of woman's underpants while the Brits, aghast, reacted with silent embarrassment. "They were stunned," Gordon says. "Nothing in their society had prepared them for it, and they simply didn't know what to do."
By Andria Lisle