Beale Street is synonymous with the blues, and, this year, the most interesting and vital music at the Beale Street Music Festival is as likely to come from a handful of blues-based musicians — most but not all Memphis-connected — as from the more high-profile rock and rap headliners.
If the modern blues too often feels ossified — riffs and poses handed down from the Blues Brothers and white classic rockers — and self-contained, there are a group of artists on this year's fest bill — North Mississippi Allstar Luther Dickinson, with his South Memphis String Band-mates Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus, Memphis-bred "secret" Valerie June, and Austin hotshot Gary Clark Jr. — whose common threads of relative youth, independence, iconoclasm, and musicality offer a compelling alternative path for the genre. One that looks backward and forward at the same time.
Dickinson will take to the Bud Light Stage on the opening night of the festival with his North Mississippi Allstars bandmates Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew, the long-standing trio rejuvenated by last year's arguable career-best album Keys to the Kingdom. But four days later, Dickinson will preside over the simultaneous release of three roughly connected "side project" albums for three different labels: "Old Times There ...," the second album from the South Memphis String Band; Go On Now, You Can't Stay Here, the debut from the Wandering, a regional roots-music "super group" of sorts that Dickinson organized; and Hambone's Meditations, a
solo-acoustic guitar album that's been a long-standing labor of love for Dickinson.
"The theme of it all is just acoustic music, for me," Dickinson says of his May 8th hat trick. "I don't even keep amps in my house. Alvin, he'll plug up and rock out all day. But I just love acoustic music.
"You know me, I'm not a blues revivalist," Dickinson says when asked about how this trio of releases fits into the current blues scene. "I'm not a blues traditionalist. Until I discovered hill country in the '90s, I didn't listen to any [blues music] made after the '50s. I still don't. That whole gray area was pretty depressing to me, after the heyday of '50s electric blues. It just went wrong as far as I'm concerned."
The solo album, recorded two years ago at the Dickinson family's Zebra Ranch studio, has been in the works for a while, with the album delayed because Dickinson and partner David Katznelson, of Birdman Records, wanted to get the vinyl release just right.
"We'd been waiting to get the right packaging," Dickinson explains. "We wanted the old-school Folkways wrap-around. It's been tricky getting that. With that record, it's all about the vinyl."
The album — a collection of virtuoso musings on blues, folk, and gospel themes — was inspired by late avant-folk guitarists Jack Rose and John Fahey.
"Jack Rose, he's who really inspired me," Dickinson says. "I grew up with Fahey, but he used to freak me out when I was a little kid. A friend turned me on to Rose, and that led me back into John Fahey, which was a huge sigh of relief. Dad always told me, 'Fahey got it, he was the man,' and I just said, nah, that guy's a weirdo."
"Old Times There ...," South Memphis String Band's second album, for the local Memphis International label, is as rowdy and communal as Hambone's Meditations is gentle and introspective.
"For a group of guys who are as like-minded with the acoustic aesthetic as we are, we just cannot seem to get it together. It's like we break up after every couple of shows and every recording," Dickinson says with a laugh about a band where he tends to play the straight man in between the strong personalities of Hart and Mathus.
"Alvin and Jimbo are such characters, and they have so much in common," Dickinson says. "They both worked on the river in their youths, and they're both American history buffs, Alvin especially." (Like Dickinson, Hart and Mathus will also be playing Music Fest with their primary projects: Mathus and his Tri-State Coalition on Friday and Hart's Muscle Theory on Sunday, both in the FedEx Blues Tent.)
That sense of history filters into "Old Times There ...," which draws on early 20th-century acoustic blues and jug-band musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, and the Mississippi Sheiks. Covers such as the Sheiks' "Turnip Greens," Cannon's "Can You Blame the Colored Man" (a sardonic vision of Booker T. Washington meeting President Teddy Roosevelt), and Lewis' "B-L-A-C-K" (recorded as an ebony-and-ivory duet between Hart and Dickinson that mimics a version an elder Lewis did with white Memphis guitarist Lee Baker) stand out on an album that dives into the rich, twisted racial history of America and particularly the South — slavery, war, reconstruction, Jim Crow. Instead of shying away from the messiness at the very roots of American "roots" music, the South Memphis String Band reclaims it all with a knowing irreverence.
"Alvin was going for a racial edge," Dickinson says. "That's his theme for this record."
The album was recorded on the quick, using vintage equipment, at Mathus' Como, Mississippi, studio, with Justin Showah, of Mathus' band, along as a fourth member.
"We made the first record at a radio station after our first tour. We did that first tour with two songs from another project, a photo, and a MySpace page. It was just a hustle," Dickinson says. "During that tour we were at a radio station, and they said take your time, do whatever you want. So we stayed all afternoon and made a record. And Memphis International wanted to put it out. But we didn't read the contract. They had an option for a second record and picked it up. So we made this record, under duress. But I'm really glad we did it. I think it's way better than the first record."
The Wandering's Go On Now, You Can't Stay Here, which is being released via Dickinson's own Songs of the South imprint, is the most recent of this trio of projects. It started when Dickinson and his wife were musing over a photo of Valerie June.
"I was looking at a picture of Valerie June playing her banjo, and I thought about Amy [LaVere] playing her bass, her upright. And that made me think about Sharde [Thomas, Otha Turner's granddaughter and the leader of the Rising Star Fife & Drum band] playing her drums. And then Shannon [McNally] was the logical guitar player/singer. The idea just kind of brewed," Dickinson says. "I called them all up, and it kind of fell into place. I didn't really know Valerie at all. Some of the girls knew each other. I was a fan of Valerie, but I didn't really know her."
The four women met up at Dickinson's Zebra Ranch studio earlier this year.
"I told everybody, just bring three or four traditionals. That's the perfect common denominator," Dickinson says. "Dad used to say that was the best way to make a record: Get a bunch of people in the studio who don't know each other."
Instantly, they had a band. Three days later, they had a record.
The eclectic material, all covers, features each of the four women on lead vocals at least a couple of times: the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sittin' on Top of the World" (with Thomas on lead), the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman" (a palpably compassionate lead vocal from LaVere bolstered by harmonies from McNally and June), Kris Kristofferson's "Lovin' Him Was Easier" (McNally), and Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" (June) among the highlights.
"The way Amy and Sharde groove is just unreal. Sharde's such a cool, understated drummer, and Amy is so heavy on that upright. And Valerie's banjo parts are like the secret weapon. They play really quiet and let Valerie have the space to pop through," Dickinson says. "And then they started singing together, and it sounded so beautiful. It just made me so happy. I hadn't even planned on playing on the record [Dickinson plays mainly mandolin and guitar], but it was so much fun I couldn't resist.
"That's terrible as a producer to put yourself in the band," he says with a laugh.
The Wandering will hit the road soon after Music Fest for their first tour, working their way up north and back down south, with a local debut on May 19th at the Levitt Shell.
"I think it really has potential," Dickinson says. "I hope that band has wings. I hope they stay together even if I'm not involved. Anybody can fill my spot."
"We just went in and let the tape roll," June says of the Wandering sessions. "I like the way they work at the Zebra Ranch. You look back, but you don't look back too long."
For June, a "best kept secret" for too long on the Memphis music scene, hitting the road with the Wandering will be a new experience after a fruitful year developing her solo career.
"It should be pretty fun," June says. "This will be my first band experience."
In the meantime, June — who will perform in the FedEx Blues Tent on Saturday — has been putting the finishing touches on a long-in-coming solo debut album, one recorded primarily in Nashville, in close collaboration with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who co-produced (with Los Angeles producer Kevin Augunas), co-wrote several songs with June, and plays on the record. Two additional songs for the album were cut in early spring in Los Angeles, both featuring Booker T. Jones, one co-written with the Stax icon. (Tying it all together: Mathus played guitar and mandolin on the album.)
"It's a blend of a lot of what I do in a solo show, which is roots music — blues, folk, and country, with a hint of gospel," June says of the work-in-progress album. "A blend of that with a more soulful note that Dan and Kevin brought to the table."
June struggled some with the full-band sound Auerbach was pushing, having grown so used to her solo/acoustic sound honed through solo touring. She was concerned about having music on her debut album she wouldn't be able to fully replicate on the road.
"I had a meeting with Dan and he said, 'You don't want to put a record out because you can't play the songs?'" June says. "And I said, right, I can't play the songs. And he said, 'Why don't you go home and sit down with your guitar and learn how to do your version of these songs, just like you would with a Jessie Mae song or a Carter Family song. Just do that. Just play it that way.' That sounded good. I thought maybe I could do that. So I listened to it and thought I could do that, but I could also record more songs similar to what I do and have more of a balance as well."
The result is a relatively even mix of solo and full-band recordings that June has made peace with.
The next step for June — a West Tennessee native now splitting time between Memphis, Nashville, and her primary residence in Brooklyn — is finding a label.
June finished mixing the album a couple of weeks ago and recently turned it in to her manager. She's been courted by several labels, with interested industry reps trying to reconcile June's risky originality with her considerable commercial potential. June is currently weighing multiple label offers, from both European and American outlets, and hopes to make a decision in the coming weeks.
"I think it's hard for people to understand what I do because of the skin I'm in," says June — as much a country artist as a blues one and not at all the neo-soul artist her image suggests to some — of her struggles negotiating the music industry despite so much interest in her. "The Civil Wars, the Alabama Shakes — with those bands the music matches the image. Labels want to make money, and to do that they want to be able to relate it to something else. People haven't been able to do that with me, because what I'm doing is original. They don't know if it will work. But I know it."
This uncertainty could lead June — who recently married a Hungarian artist — to release the album overseas first.
"Europe seems to work for me, maybe because they don't have the [racial] history of Americans. We have offers there and they're very good and the money's right. So we're just waiting on the finished product. If we decide to go with the European label, it's only going to come out there first. And we'll build interest over there. I know with this record who I am and what I'm worth. And I know what I want out of a label. Until we see that, I think being independent here is the best thing for me."
June says she hopes to have label stuff sorted out before the summer, but, she says, "I'm excited I've gotten this far."
Meanwhile, June has been back in town rehearsing. She's assembled a band featuring plenty of notable local musicians (Jason Freeman, Paul Taylor, Hope Clayborn) expressly for the Music Fest show but is hopeful she can use at least some of this new backing unit for future solo shows.
And with Dickinson on the road with the Allstars and Thomas — who will play with June at Music Fest — in college in Mississippi, June, LaVere, and McNally have been working together, recently going through what June calls a "48-hour crash course" to learn some of each other's songs so the Wandering can turn its 38-minute album into a 90-minute live show.
Texas' Gary Clark Jr. — who performs in the FedEx Blues Tent on Saturday — stands apart from Dickinson's and June's projects for a few reasons: He's not Memphis-connected, his music is more electric than acoustic, and his commercial potential is more tangible. But, like them, his current music has a creative excitement and niche-defying reach that fruitfully explodes the confines of the blues genre.
It's been a long time since a young blues player had this kind of potential. A decade ago, Hart and Corey Harris were emerging artists who boasted as much talent, but their personalities and interests were too esoteric to command as much mainstream interest. White guitar specialists Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd had crossover potential but fit safely within a certain blues-rock archetype and never excited critics or aesthetes. Clark is the first young blues artist with the chance to unite art and commerce in a major way since, I dunno, Robert Cray?
Clark signed to Warner Bros. Records after some explosive, high-profile festival performances, and the label took the unusual step of putting out a four-song calling card, The Bright Lights EP, last year, ahead of an upcoming full-length.
The Bright Lights EP is an impressive showcase of Clark's range and command. The title track, on which Clark asserts, "You gonna know my name by the end of the night," is a slow-burn blues-rock testament. "Don't Owe You a Thang" is a sharp, quick-footed blast of juke-joint boogie. These electric cuts are followed by a couple of equally compelling solo/acoustic tracks: "Things Are Changin'" is an intimate, finger-picked soul ballad. The epic "When My Train Pulls In" is country blues with jazz shadings.
Interviewed last fall, before an appearance at the Levitt Shell, Clark said the forthcoming album, which he was still working on, would lean more toward the band (of Gypsies) style of the electric cuts on the EP. "Blues, rock-and-roll, and soul music, that's what I'm going for," he said.
"I would like to branch out a bit, but that just comes from being inspired by a lot of things. The blues is definitely my foundation," Clark said when asked about taking his sound into the wider pop world. "If there's an opportunity to do that, I'm up for it."
Blues You Can Use At
Beale Street Music Festival:
North Mississippi Allstars
Bud Light Stage • Friday, May 4th • 6:10 p.m.
Jimbo Mathus' Tri-State Coalition
FedEx Blues Tent • Friday, May 4th • 6:15 p.m.
FedEx Blues Tent • Saturday, May 5th • 7:10 p.m.
Gary Clark Jr.
FedEx Blues Tent • Saturday, May 5th • 10:45 p.m.
Alvin Youngblood Hart's Muscle Theory
FedEx Blues Tent • Sunday, May 6th • 3:40 p.m.
Levitt Shell • Saturday, May 19th • 7:30 p.m.