Keith Sykes is the kind of songwriter who has a few stories up his sleeve. He jokes in a soft country lilt as he recalls now-shuttered music lounges on Beale Street, and his sense of humor — as well as his musical resume — bespeaks a man with stories to spare ...
Like the time in the summer of 1967 when the Murray, Kentucky, native hitchhiked to the Newport Folk Festival, so the story goes, and caught Arlo Guthrie's set. A few months later, thanks to a faithfully reproduced version of Guthrie's signature song, "Alice's Restaurant," Sykes had picked up a regular gig in a Charleston, South Carolina, hotel. In the 50 years since that fateful first contact with Officer Obie and the shrink from "Alice's Restaurant," Sykes has released 13 full-length albums, toured and recorded with Jimmy Buffett, written hundreds of songs for other performers, discovered Todd Snider, and, this year, finally finished his screenplay about a rancher and his talking horses. But more on the screenplay later.
His songs are simple and heartfelt, comforting and spare, like the break in the summer heat that comes with nightfall. Borne along on shuffling rhythms and clean, crisp guitars, Sykes sings wistfully of slipping into the shade and name-checks former band mate Jimmy Buffett in the EP's title track.
"It's called Songs from a Little Beach Town. All the songs are songs that I wrote down in a little beach town called Port Aransas, Texas," Sykes says of the breezy acoustic track. It sounds like something a filmmaker might use to score a scene of someone tooling around town on an old beach cruiser. “When I first started going there, it was still a little fishy place,” Sykes says of his Texas hideaway. But it's still really cool. You can take a bicycle around the whole town in 15 minutes."
Two of Sykes' balmy tunes, written in that same beach town, landed on the tropical rock charts in 2016. "Come as You Are Beach Bar" hit No. 1 and stayed in that position for seven weeks, and "The Best Day" has been in the top 40 since August of last year. "It just blew my mind. ... It's not a big deal chart, but it's the kind of music I like," Sykes says of the rock-and-roll, country, Calypso, and zydeco-infused island hybrid style popularized by artists like Jimmy Buffett.
"They finally came up with a name for it about 20 years ago and called it trop rock. When I was in [Buffett's] band, we called it 'tramp rock,'" Sykes laughs about his time in Buffett's Coral Reefer Band.
Fresh off the release of his newest single, "I Pick You," Sykes will play with a group of Memphis musicians at the Delta Fair and Music Festival next week. "Dave Cousar is an excellent guitar player, and Dave Smith on the bass, he's just one of the best anywhere, much less Memphis," Sykes says. "All these are Memphis guys who I'm just crazy about. Smith, Cousar, and Willie Hall, who I haven't played with for years."
The singer-songwriter's Memphis roots run deep. Sykes used to host a long-running songwriter showcase on Beale Street. "It covered about 10 years all in all; I did nine shows a year. ... I brought in songwriters from everywhere. I had the best seat in the house — that's why I was doing it." During his Memphis years he also recorded I'm Not Strange, I'm Just Like You at Ardent Studios.
"I hate starting stuff and not finishing," Sykes says, without a trace of irony for a man whose songs have collectively sold 25 million copies worldwide. And that brings us back to his screenplay, Horses & Me. "What I did this year, rather than write songs, was write a screenplay. I've started a couple, and I'd always set 'em aside and go back to songs. This year I said, 'Dang, I should finish one of these.'"
The screenplay is about a simple man who works with his hands. He owns some land and some horses, and he spends a lot of time alone. That's when the horses start to talk to him. "He thinks he's insane. 'Cause he's been drinking, you know, imbibing a little bit," Sykes chuckles.
For next week's show, Sykes and his band will perform music from his entire catalog, including the new Songs from a Little Beach Town EP. The album's final and most-recent single, "I Pick You," was released Friday, August 25th by KSM Entertainment.
Keith Sykes & Band at the Delta Fair & Music Festival at the Agricenter International, Friday, September 8th at 8 p.m.