Time flies when you're having fun," says Nancy Apple, in reference to the upcoming ninth birthday of her Pickin' Party, a weekly jam session and song-swap at Kudzu's, a sturdy bar in the Edge district east of downtown. But she could as easily be speaking about her career as a whole.
Apple, sometimes known as "Cadillac Cowgirl," Memphis' "Queen of Country," or "Princess of Twang," has long been a fixture on the local music scene, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. Over the years, she's developed a workaholic reputation for the time and energy she dedicates to her numerous projects. At different times, Apple has played many roles, including songwriter, solo artist, band leader, backing musician, producer/engineer, record-label owner, community radio deejay, and music journalist.
Amazingly, she has been able to juggle all these roles despite an ongoing performance and tour schedule that would be daunting to even the most eager new act ready to hit the highways.
"I like to work. Staying busy keeps the devils in my mind away," Apple says. "All of it does not make much money, but I like to stay busy... and insurance is for sissies anyway."
Among the many projects Apple currently is working on are a pair of new albums under her own name (one acoustic and intimate, the other more rocking with full-band arrangements), a new Steven Bacon album to be released on her label, Ringo Records, and a collaboration with emerging local hip-hop artist Teflon Don. But first, she will ring in an impressive ninth consecutive year of the Pickin' Party.
Nancy Apple's Pickin' Party began in 2000 out of necessity. Frustrated by an inability to maintain a regular "songwriter night" gig at any of the local clubs, Apple began hosting musician and songwriter friends on Thursdays at her own home for informal jam sessions and potluck. When the crowds started to become more than she could handle, Kudzu's stepped in.
"I tried to get something going on at several other clubs, but it didn't happen," Apple says. "I was able to get a few songwriter nights started, but nobody really wanted to stick it out or pay us very well. So I started doing parties at my house, but sometimes they got too big — especially when it rained and we had to go in the house. There wasn't enough room. But then Jo, the sweet waitress who worked at Kudzu's at the time, invited me to do something weekly there. I said I wanted to do this Pickin' Party in the round format, and they pretty much let me do what I wanted."
Since its inception, the Pickin' Party has served as a training ground for aspiring local writers and players and a welcome pit stop for traveling troubadours, all under the watchful eye of Apple, who takes the time to nurture and support whatever talent comes through the doors.
"I don't know if I have mentored anyone from Kudzu's exactly," Apple says. "But I know I've asked a few folks to head back to the woodshed or made suggestions here and there that might help their songwriting, and when they came back it seemed to do them some good."
Which is not to say the Pickin' Party is solely for amateurs. Over the years, the event has featured countless recognizable and noteworthy names, including Keith Sykes, Reba Russell, Teenie Hodges, Cody Dickinson, and the late Cordell Jackson, to name a few.
For Thursday's birthday bash, Apple has an extra-special program planned. Current Pickin' Party regulars will be joined by a group of "originals" (Apple's affectionate term for veterans of the weekly event), and Apple will be recording it all for posterity and maybe even a future release. Rumors also have been circulating about birthday cupcakes and balloons.
"It's going to be a great night, definitely bigger than the usual Pickin' Party," says Apple, who sees no end to the event coming anytime soon.
"There's no telling how long it could go on. Maybe as long as I can drive myself there and play."
Nancy Apple's Pickin' Party takes place every Thursday at Kudzu's (603 Monroe). The ninth birthday show is Thursday, March 5th. For more information, visit NancyApple.com.