A year in the life of Memphis music.
If last year in Memphis was the year of Hustle & Flow, Craig Brewer's Sundance-winning, Oscar-nominated, Memphis-music-themed movie, this year in Memphis music has been about the aftermath. In the movie's wake, local rap heavyweights Three 6 Mafia have grown from big sellers to big stars, while other local rap artists continue to benefit from the attention generated by the movie.
Meanwhile, the local blues scene braces for the impact of Brewer's next movie, this fall's juke-joint-rooted Black Snake Moan, where Samuel L. Jackson plays a North Mississippi blues player. And the rest of the city waits to see what will become of Memphis (okay, Millington) native and Black Snake Moan co-star Justin Timberlake's reported interest in using the "Stax" name for a new Memphis-based record label.
But while seismic shifts may or may not be going on around them, most of the Memphis music scene is busy going about its business: making music. The city's scene is a kaleidoscope of hip-hop hopefuls and punk prophets, soulful songbirds and blues belters, traditionalists and envelope pushers, buzz bands and old reliables. Here's a quick and dirty guide to where the action is:
Beats and Rhymes
As Southern rap has ascended to the forefront of the pop-music world, the Memphis scene has often worked in the shadows of regional competitors such as Atlanta, New Orleans, and most recently, Houston. But that all changed this spring. Taking the stage to perform "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp," their contribution to Craig Brewer's film Hustle & Flow, long-time Memphis rap stars Three 6 Mafia and their protégé Frayser Boy became the first hip-hop act ever to perform on an Academy Awards broadcast. Moments later, they shocked Hollywood royalty, the national media, and probably themselves by winning an Oscar for Best Original Song.
The feat duplicated that of another Memphis artist, Isaac Hayes, who took home the same trophy more than 20 years earlier for "Theme From Shaft," and it capped what had been a whirlwind year for Memphis' rap scene.
Three 6 Mafia's big year didn't start or end with their little gold statue. Earlier, "Stay Fly," their epic single from the 2005 album Most Known Unknown, garnered the most airplay and best reviews of their decade-long career. Following the Oscar win, the duo -- Jordan "Juicy J" Houston and Paul "DJ Paul" Beauregard -- became kings of all media, dominating talk shows and magazine coverage.
But the Memphis rap scene doesn't end with Three 6: Old(er) school stars Eightball & MJG have seen a career resurgence of late, following Living Legends -- their fine 2004 album for hip-hop impresario P. Diddy's label -- with a 2006 follow-up, Pure American Pimpin'. Meanwhile, Three 6's biggest local rival, North Memphis rapper Yo Gotti, drew national notice this year for his album Back 2 Da Basics and its lead single "Gangsta Party." Elsewhere, fellow Hustle & Flow alumni Al Kapone and Nasty Nardo have continued to build on the attention their music for that movie afforded them.
On a different side of the Memphis scene are hip-hop artists that define themselves outside the often crime- and party-related content of the city's more well-known rap acts. The trio Tunnel Clones have become a popular Midtown and Highland Strip club act among rap fans looking for something new. Underground rap collective the Iron Mic Coalition have continued to make waves, most recently with member Jason Harris' comical but pointed concept album Hating In Its Finest Hour, which takes satirical jabs at rap culture, among other topics. And rock-rap-soul fusion band Free Sol continues to draw crowds while prepping their next album.
Rock Star: Memphis
The big, bad major-label boogeyman has swallowed up many a promising band over the years, but one band it seems to have worked for is Lucero. The long-time local faves have built up a strong fan base over the years -- first locally, then regionally, then nationally -- with their distinctive mix of indie rock, alt-country, and punk, but they've taken it to another level in the past year through their partnership with major label EastWest. The band vastly exceeded previous sales totals with 2005's Nobody's Darlings, their first record for the label. This fall, the band comes back with Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers, a more ambitious effort recorded this summer in Virginia with Cracker frontman David Lowry producing.
It's also been a good year for the band Lucero, who once opened for The North Mississippi Allstars. The versatile blues-rock band led by virtuoso brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson released their most personal album ever last year with Electric Blue Watermelon, a tribute to the vanishing North Mississippi blues culture the brothers grew up around. Meanwhile, the band remains perhaps Memphis' most popular live act, drawing immense crowds of blueshounds and jam-band devotees around the globe.
Hard rockers Saliva, Memphis' most commercially successful rock band since the Box Tops, seems to have returned from the dead. With the band's last album, 2004's Survival of the Fittest, underperforming saleswise and with lead singer Josey Scott pursuing an acting career, the band seemed to be in trouble. But they've re-emerged on stage in recent months, including playing a massive rock bill this summer sponsored by local radio station 93X. Ready to follow Saliva onto radio playlists nationwide are Breaking Point, a modern-rock band who have garnered decent airplay with their most recent album, Beautiful Disorder, and Egypt Central, a promising metal band that's drawn considerable major-label interest.
On the softer side, the Gamble Brothers Band continues to draw crowds locally and regionally with their unique blends of Southern soul feel, jazz-level chops, and pop songwriting instincts, while college-rock faves Ingram Hill continue to build on the success of their June's Picture Show album.
The Underground Is Overcrowded
There's so much interesting rock music going on around midtown Memphis that clubgoers can barely keep up. In fact, it's hard enough just to keep up with Alicja Trout.
A central figure in celebrated Memphis post-punk band Lost Sounds, Trout's talents have exploded in many different directions since the Lost Sounds blew apart. Currently, Trout leads three key local bands. The best of them might be the hard-rocking River City Tanlines, in which Trout unleashes her inner guitar goddess alongside perhaps the city's finest rhythm section -- Terrence Bishop and John "Bubba" Bonds. Trout gets more personal with the dark, new-wavey Black Sunday. And she lets her pop sensibility shine in Mouse Rocket, a collaboration with Vending Machine's Robby Grant.
Though the much-beloved Reigning Sound have departed, Memphis remains a garage-rock capitol, thanks mainly to the hard work of Goner Records, a Cooper-Young-based record store that also serves -- via its popular Web site -- as a homebase for like-minded garage and punk fans nationwide, many of whom have made pilgrimages to town to attend the now semi-regular Goner Fest concert. And when not working behind the scenes, Goner co-owners Zac Ives and Eric Friedl make a mighty racket with their own bands, Final Solutions and the Dutch Masters, respectively.
Other garage-rock notables include former Oblivian Jack Yarber's excellent Tearjerkers (which also features Bishop and Bonds), whose Don't Throw Your Love Away is one of the best local records of the last couple of years. Yarber also moonlights as a drummer for the Natural Kicks, a garage-rockin' three-piece led by singer Ron Franklin, who recently recruited former Reigning Sound rhythm section Greg Roberson (drums) and Jeremy Scott (bass) for a new version of his band Ron Franklin Entertainers.
Another underground rock scene to watch is Makeshift, a Midtown-based record-label-cum-collective that released its fourth scene-sampling compilation -- Makeshift #4, natch -- earlier this year. Individual bands recording under the Makeshift umbrella include buzzed-about guitar bands the Glass and Augustine, who've been ripping up clubs such as the Hi-Tone Café and Young Avenue Deli. Another major player on the Makeshift scene is label co-founder Brad Postlethwaite, who has started concentrating more on his solo career since his band Snowglobe has become a part-time entity. Plenty of interesting newer acts are also working with Makeshift, including the sunny pop band Walkie Talkie, eclectic rockers Antique Curtains, and longtime sideman Paul Taylor, who made his solo debut this summer with the album Open Closed.
Beyond that, there are tons of indie and alt-rock bands making waves around town. Most exciting might be the Secret Service, a loud, fun, straight-up rock band featuring Big Ass Truck/Bloodthirsty Lovers guitarist Steve Selvidge. Their debut album, The Service Is Spectacular, is a great blast of noise and fun. Other bands worth keeping an eye on: The United (formerly Crippled Nation), Noise Choir, Chess Club, the Lights, and Arma Secreta.
On Memphis' relatively self-contained metal/punk scene, plenty of heavy bands are making waves. A rising star on this scene is Nights Like These, a young hardcore metal band that recently released a debut album -- The Faithless -- on Victory Records, one of the genre's most significant labels. Likewise, black metal band Epoch of Unlight, who recorded for genre cult-favorite label The End Records, may have more fans outside of Memphis than in it. On the more mainstream end of the metal spectrum, bands such as A Life Away, On a Dead Machine, and The Adversary could be coming to a radio dial near you. And on the underground punk scene, bands as disparate as (more hardcore) Bury the Living and While I Breathe, I Hope and (more pop) 7$Socks and Brooklyn U.K. are leading the way.
The Old School
Despite all the new sounds around, there are still plenty of artists keeping Memphis' roots legacy alive, be it blues, soul, rockabilly, or country. Legendary local producer Jim Dickinson -- whose own roots date back to Sam Phillips' Sun Records -- does it all on his 2006 album Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger, an invigorating song cycle recorded at Dickinson's North Mississippi home studio with an intimate backing band that included his North Mississippi Allstar sons Luther and Cody, as well as Alvin Youngblood Hart, Paul Taylor, and Amy LaVere.
LaVere, who plays country and rock-abilly with her band Amy & the Tramps, showed another side this year with her more delicate solo album, This World Is Not My Home. Hart, who is often thought of as a blues artist, showed his immense versatility with the blazing Motivational Speaker, a rock-oriented record that also delves into Stax-worthy soul and left-of-center country. Another local artist with a broad approach to roots music is former Commercial Appeal music columnist William Lee "Bill" Ellis, who left his post at the paper to devote his time to music. Ellis' love for early folk- and gospel-blues is evident on his recent album God's Tattoos.
On the blues front, a rising star is harmonica man Billy Gibson, whose debut album with his Beale-bred Billy Gibson Band was nominated in the "best new-artist debut" category in this year's Blues Music Awards. Gibson's labelmate on the local Inside Sounds imprint, the Daddy Mack Blues Band, has also been making waves nationally. Down on Beale Street, the Eric Hughes Band, Barbara Blue, and Preston Shannon, among others, are keeping the beat alive. And in North Mississippi, R.L. Burnside protégé Kenny Brown is carrying the torch for the region's celebrated hill-country sound.
A couple of other artists to watch are the Bo-Keys, led by film composer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) Scott Bomar and featuring former Stax session stalwarts Willie Hall (on drums) and Skip Pitts (on guitar), and country/folk/bluegrass outfit the Tennessee Boltsmokers.
Have Guitar, Will Travel
Nashville may be better known as a songwriter's haven, but Memphis also boasts plenty of troubadours showcasing their songs, with or without a band to back them.
The best of the bunch might be Harlan T. Bobo, the onetime indie-rock sideman who took the city's music scene by storm a couple of years ago with his homemade, self-distributed debut Too Much Love, an aching song-cycle about an obsessive relationship. The Bobo story began to penetrate beyond Memphis in the past year, with the national release of Too Much Love by local label Goner Records and a well-covered performance by Bobo at the Goner showcase at this year's South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
If Bobo has a rival on the local scene it's Cory Branan, who moved to Nashville recently, but seems to play shows in Memphis more regularly than when he lived here. This year, Branan followed up his much-loved 2001 debut album The Hell You Say with the locally recorded 12 Songs, a batch of songs that cement Branan's penchant for being literary without being pretentious and moving while still being funny.
Beyond Branan and Bobo are plenty of ace singer-songwriters: Makeshift cohorts Blair Combest and Holly Cole are regulars on the local scene, while soulful, folk-flavored songstresses S.J. Tucker and Valerie June are offering something new to the coffeehouse scene. Also look out for Jamie Randolph (formerly of the band Retrospect) and folk-rock band the Central Standards, who made their big-stage debut this year at the Beale Street Music Festival.
Among more established acts, Keith Sykes, godfather of the Memphis singer-songwriter scene, continues to play, perform, and bring songwriting buddies to town. Following his lead, alt-country booster Nancy Apple plays ringleader for songwriters' nights at a number of venues around town while featuring her music and that of other under-the-radar performers on her Ringo Records label. After recovering from doomed major-record-label relationships in the past, local veterans Rob Jungklas and Jimmy Davis have settled in as local performers with plenty to say.
There may not be a more versatile singer in Memphis than Susan Marshall, a sought-after session hand who's also a fine artist in her own right. Whether belting out the blues, wailing through a rocker, or turning down the volume to put across a torch song, as she did on her most recent album, Firefly, Marshall makes it all sound good.
Jazz-trained singer Lynn Cardona has made her mark in the past year by releasing a debut album, Lovin' You, and playing regular gigs around town, most recently at Midtown restaurant Fresh Slices. Neo-soul duo Men-Nefer blend gospel, jazz, and R&B into a promising attempt to reboot Memphis' soul legacy. And the idiosyncratic Candice Ivory, who splits time between Memphis and New York, has taken her vocal jazz roots and branched out into an eclectic mix of rock, new wave, and soul.
But upstarts like Cardona and Ivory have a ways to go to match the reputations of veteran singers such as Joyce Cobb and
Di Anne Price, who sing rings around jazz and blues standards regularly at local restaurants and clubs.
Jazz & Jam
After a decade of playing nightly at Beale Street's King's Palace Café, piano man Charlie Wood retired from the strip this year to concentrate on recording -- both his own music and that of others. But Wood, whose soulful organ sound and sharp songwriting are reminiscent of Mose Allison, went into this transition with a bang in the form of Somethin' Else, a career-best album that features "Memphis," a brilliant, funny, and perceptive tribute to his hometown.
But if Wood is harder to find live these days, plenty of other jazz and jam artists are there to fill the void. Saxophone player Hope Clayburn has been hosting a regular Thursday night jam session at Midtown's Full Moon Club with an eclectic mix of musicians, rappers, and singers joining her each week. Jazz-soul band Will Graves Soul has brought its smooth sound to a variety of downtown clubs. FreeWorld remains standard-bearers on the local jam scene, with younger bands Yamagata and the Mini-Van Blues Band chomping at their heels. And jazz artists as diverse as guitarist Ed Finney, piano and vocal duo Chris Parker & Kelley Parker, and crooner Gary Johns are also significant players on the local scene.