Turn it Up!
Our annual guide to the city's hitmakers.
Memphis music in recent decades has been a constant collision of past, present, and future, and this year has been no different. While the city has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of celebrated local soul label Stax records, the focus has equally been on the future. Looking ahead, what does the California-based relaunch of Stax mean for the contemporary Memphis music scene? What, if anything, does the launch of sometime Memphian Justin Timberlake's new personal label, Tennman, mean for the local music community? Meanwhile, certified legends Isaac Hayes and Al Green are readying new records for prospective late-2007 releases.
However, most local musicians are occupied by the present — busily going about the business of making music. From hard-rockers and hip-hoppers to roots renegades and blues stalwarts, the modern Memphis music scene is a diverse ecosystem of sounds. Here's a quick and dirty guide:
The happy paradox of modern Memphis music is that the city's style is at once utterly traditional and restlessly, sometimes recklessly, progressive. It's roots music without borders. And over the past few years, several artists have emerged who sharply embody this local ethos.
Among them is Amy LaVere, the one-time better half of the rockabilly-identified duo The Gabe & Amy Show, who embarked on a solo career a few years ago and is currently having a bit of a moment. A budding actress with credits in Walk the Line and local filmmaker Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan, LaVere has come into her own musically over the past year. Her second album, Anchors & Anvils, released on the local imprint Archer Records earlier this year, is a big improvement over her debut, This World Is Not My Home, and is an easy contender for Memphis album of the year.
LaVere's evolving blend of classic country, intimate jazz, soul, and pop is all her own, but the diversity and playfulness with which she mixes durable styles is just another variation of Memphis' peculiar soul stew. On Anchors & Anvils, LaVere spins a self-penned update of classic folk murder ballads ("Killing Him") over Booker T.-style organ. She unearths an obscure Carla Thomas gem ("That Beat") from the Stax vaults. And she combines torch and twang ("Tennessee Valentine"). Not bad for a girl who wandered down from Michigan — though Al Green once made a similar journey.
Another young local performer breaking out in 2007 has been Ron Franklin. The rambling Franklin has been an off-and-on standout on the local scene for years, self-releasing solo records and with his bands Ron Franklin Entertainers and the Natural Kicks. But this year, Franklin went legit with his first label-backed recording, City Lights, released on the Memphis-based but globetrotting indie Memphis International.
City Lights looks back to the roots of Memphis music in jug bands and country blues but, as in previous forays into garage-rock, '60s pop, Chuck Berry-style rock rave-ups, and hip-hop-style production, Franklin shows a knack for blending everything he touches with his own easy musicality.
While LaVere and Franklin have impressed this year with their personal roots-music visions, no one on the Memphis scene has been as inspired as Alvin Youngblood Hart. The internationally known "blues" musician calls Memphis home, but his local performances are rare treasures. When Hart does play, almost anything might emerge: gutbucket blues, delicate acoustic blues, stomping boogie-rock, Stax-soul, honky-tonk, even ska. Over the course of five masterful, searching albums, most recently 2005's Motivational Speaker, he has proven to be the most commanding, consistently pleasurable musician to currently call Memphis home.
An artist who shares Hart's virtuoso guitar talent but with musical tastes too sharp to rely on technique is former Commercial Appeal music writer Bill Ellis, who left the paper a couple of years ago to devote more time to his own musical career, under the performing and recording name William Lee Ellis. With a background equally rooted in bluegrass, classical, and '70s rock, Ellis fell in naturally with Memphis' eclectic roots tradition. Ellis zeroes in on the pre-war blues styles of the 1920s and 30s on his most recent album, God's Tattoos.
What Hart and Ellis can do with the guitar, Charlie Wood does for the organ. The onetime Beale Street stalwart is probably more identified with that instrument than any Memphis musician since Booker T. Jones. But jazz/soul chops are only the tip of Wood's musical iceberg. A longtime fixture at Beale's King's Palace Café, he left his nightly gig a couple of years ago to concentrate more on recording and producing, which has made the once-sporadic recording artist quite prolific of late. Wood's stint started a couple of years ago with the excellent Somethin' Else, which showcased his soulful vocals, pop-wise songwriting chops, and lyrical wit, all captured to sublime effect on the standout "Memphis," a sing-along-worthy dissection of the city that was at once sardonic and celebratory. He followed it up last year with the more blues-focused, one-man-band (sans horns and harmonica) collection Lucky. This year, Wood has begun fronting a new band, dubbed The New Memphis Underground.
If these contemporary Memphis art-ists are united by a city-specific blend of reverence and restlessness, then the living inspiration for this type of Memphis musician is likely Jim Dickinson, a pro-ducer and player whose regional resume dates back to Sam Phillips' tenure at Sun. In recent years, Dickinson has produced albums by LaVere, Hart, and Ellis. But, on his own, he embodies the city's expansive vision of roots music more than anyone, as best heard on his most recent album, Jungle Jim & the Voodoo Tiger.
Going, Going, Goner
If Memphis' underground rock scene has a center, it's Goner Records — the Cooper-Young record shop that also serves as a record label, online community, host of a semi-annual weekend romp called Gonerfest, and, well, a state of mind.
Gonerfest, which pairs Memphis punk and garage-rock bands with like-minded outfits from across the globe, has emerged as one of the city's most anticipated regular music events, rivaling the Center for Southern Folklore's annual Memphis Music & Heritage Festival as the best recurring small music festival in the city. To get a sense of the madness, you can check out Gonerfest 2: Electric Goneroo, a CD/DVD document of the festival released last year.
As a label, Goner's signature act might be Harlan T. Bobo, a left-of-center singer-songwriter in the Tom Waits mold who has become a local sensation in recent years. Goner re-released Bobo's originally self-released Too Much Love a few years ago. The homemade record became a local phenomenon somewhat on a par with Craig Brewer's indie film The Poor & Hungry at the dawn of the decade. Late this summer, Goner released Bobo's much-anticipated follow-up record, I'm Your Man.
If Goner has a house band, it might be the Final Solutions, a noisy, idiosyncratic punk outfit in the vein of Cleveland cult legends Pere Ubu (from whom the Final Solutions got their name). The Solutions, which released their second album, Songs By Solutions, this summer, are perhaps the most energetic live act in the city, led by the hyperactive vocals of Goner co-owner Zac Ives. On drums is Jay Reatard, a veteran of beloved former local bands such as the Reatards and the Lost Sounds, who struck out on his own — and embraced his melodic side — with the highly regarded solo album Blood Visions.
Reatard's onetime partner in the Lost Sounds, Alicja Trout, has focused recently on her hard-rock trio River City Tanlines, who, with Trout's slash-and-burn guitars leading the way and the sublime rhythm section of bassist Terrence Bishop and drummer Bubba Bonds laying the foundation, may be the city's most locomotive live band.
Rivaling the Tanlines as one of Memphis' best current rock bands is the Tearjerkers, the primary outlet for quintessential Memphis roots rocker Jack "Oblivian" Yarber, who, after years on the local punk and garage-rock scene (most notably with the classic '90s garage-punk band the Oblivians), has really come into his own in recent years with a pair of terrific, rootsy, rock-and-roll records — 2004's Don't Throw Your Love Away and 2006's The Flip Side Kid. To bring it all full circle, Yarber's old Oblivians bandmate Eric "Oblivian" Friedl is the other co-owner of Goner. When not orchestrating things behind the curtain, Friedl has remained active in bands such as Dutch Masters and, most recently, Sector Zero. If this family tree seems pretty gnarled, well, it is.
Bring That Beat Back
Two years ago, local rap-scene pioneers Three 6 Mafia had their biggest year ever, bracketing their biggest crossover hit singles — "Stay Fly" and "Side 2 Side" — around the most unlikely of triumphs with their Oscar win for "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp," their contribution to the soundtrack of Hustle & Flow.
In the aftermath, Three 6 struck quick, with cameos on television shows Entourage and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip setting up their own hip-hop Beverly Hillbillies-style reality series for VH-1, Adventures in Hollyhood, in which Three 6's Juicy J and DJ Paul moved to glitz city with camera crews in tow.
This year, Three 6 will see if their music can equal their increased celebrity with the release of a new album, The Last Walk. And, as always, the Three 6 empire expands beyond the core group. Juicy J's older brother, Project Pat, got out of jail (on a parole violation) and released his first new album in four years last year with Crook By Da Book: The Fed Story, which boasted the hit single "Good Googly Moogly." This year, Three 6's pale-skinned protégé, Lil Wyte, tries to make a leap from regional sensation to national force with his third album, The One and Only.
But as large as the shadow of Three 6 Mafia looms, there's still plenty of other activity. The old-to-the-new-school duo Eightball & MJG pre-date Three 6 on the local scene and released another major-label record this year with Ridin' High. Three 6 rival Yo Gotti has continued his ascent from local player to national notable in 2006 with Back 2 Da Basics, his second album for national indie TVT. This year, it looks like longtime local rap hustler Kia Shine is making that leap with the release of his major-label debut Due Season. Elsewhere on the local rap scene, Memphis veteran Al Kapone hasn't been able to parlay his Hustle & Flow fame into a national relaunch as a recording artist, but has remained the scene's most reliable live act, whether performing with R&B revivalists the Bo-Keys or with a new live band he's been developing this year.
On the other side of local hip-hop/rap, there's also plenty of action. Popular hip-hop/rock/soul fusion act Free Sol has been in the studio this year working on material that may be released via Justin Timberlake's new label. The indie rap scene is still led by the duo Tunnel Clones. And the most celebrated new entrant has been Lord T. & Eloise, a white rap trio who have captivated local clubgoers with their satiric, self-created subgenre, "Aristocrunk."
The Rest of Rock
On their sixth studio album, Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, Lucero — perhaps the city's most durable rock band — debuted a sound big enough to fill the arenas they don't quite play. The drums boom; the guitar riffs reach for the rafters, and, in an unexpected twist, rock-and-roll piano (courtesy of local session ace Rick Steff) comes rising out of the mix. After years of hard touring, the band keeps getting better.
It's an improbable feat, and one matched by Lucero's longtime pals the North Mississippi Allstars, who have earned their reputation as a live act that combines jam-band reach with a true feel for downhome blues. Led by the brothers Dickinson — guitarist Luther and drummer Cody — the Allstars have also improved as songwriters and recording artists as witnessed by their career-best most recent album, Electric Blue Watermelon.
The years have been a little less kind to the city's most successful hard-rock band, Saliva, who, at their peak, reached heights Lucero and the North Mississippi Allstars could only imagine, but who have, perhaps as a result, been more subject to the whims of changing mainstream rock trends. Nevertheless, the band made a convincing comeback this year with the hard-charging Bloodstained Love Story.
But the stealth stars of local rock might be Ingram Hill, a pop-rock band that built a loyal audience through intense touring on the college circuit and has since landed appearances on national television programs and on Hollywood movie soundtracks. The band's second nationally released album, Cold In California, is scheduled for a late-summer-2007 release.
On the local club scene, the collective centered around the local indie label Makeshift Music remains one of the creative cores. Makeshift's signature band, Snowglobe, has reformed recently, but also makes its mark through spin-off acts such as Brad Postlethwaite, Antenna Shoes, and Jeffrey James & the Haul. Other Makeshift acts of note are the bracing guitar bands the Coach & Four and the Third Man (formerly Augustine), the sunny pop band Two Way Radio, and idiosyncratic one-man-band Paul Taylor.
Outside the Makeshift circle, rock-and-rollers the Secret Service (whose debut The Service Is Spectacular was named the best local album of 2006 by a panel of Memphis Flyer music critics) is one of the city's must-see bands, with former Big Ass Truck guitarist Steve Selvidge finding in the band perhaps his finest vehicle, the wilder, louder side of his guitar sound. Selvidge's former Big Ass Truck bandmate Robby Grant, under the moniker Vending Machine, is also one of the best bets on the local club scene. Grant released perhaps his finest album early this year in the form of Vending Machine's King Cobras Do, a warm, intimate, indie-pop gem.
Other local bands to keep an eye on: The Lights, the Wallendas, Giant Bear, Arma Secreta, and Evil Army.
Blues, Beale, and Beyond
Craig Brewer's blues-themed Black Snake Moan didn't have the impact on local blues as his Hustle & Flow did on rap. But that only means Memphis' contemporary blues scene serves local fans, visitors, and ardent blues fans rather than the kind of mass audience that watches the Oscars.
Beale Street still talks seven nights a week with such stalwart resident performers as Barbara Blue, Ruby Wilson, Preston Shannon, and Eric Hughes. But there's also plenty of action off the strip. The house band at North Memphis juke Wild Bill's is as hot as ever, and a trip south to Clarksdale's Ground Zero Blues Club is a sure-fire bet.
Among the local blues acts making waves are Inside Sounds labelmates Billy Gibson and the Daddy Mack Blues Band. Harmonica master Gibson was a recent nominee for an annual Blues Music Award, while bandleader Daddy Mack has been prolific of late, connecting the dots between British '60s rock and Delta blues with Free Ride and returning to the basics with the recent Bluestones, which was produced by Gibson. Both Gibson and the Daddy Mack Blues Bands are emerging names on the blues circuit and among the media avenues specific to the blues.
A little further away from Beale and blues, jazz vocalist Di Anne Price remains the city's finest interpretive singer and warrants seeking out wherever she happens to be playing. And young singer Lynn Cardona blends jazz and neo-soul at a variety of music clubs and coffee shops.
Songwriters and Such
Allegedly, Cory Branan lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, now, but the longtime Memphis fave plays so many shows in town he's still an honorary local. As talented a songwriter as Memphis has produced since Todd Snider launched his career here more than a decade ago, Branan's funny, conversational style was last heard on record with his 2006 album 12 Songs, but his unpredictable live shows often take his terrific songs in different directions.
Elsewhere on the local guitar-and-voice scene, Makeshift cohorts Blair Combest and Holly Cole deliver warm, intimate singer-songwriter sets both live and on record, while coffeehouse regular Valerie June — who blends folk, soul, and even ancient country elements — has emerged as one of the scene's best-kept secrets. These newish artists share space locally with some longtime fixtures: Keith Sykes, perhaps the godfather of local singers-songwriters, continues to play, perform, and host visiting artists, as does Sykes protégé Nancy Apple, who also helps other local artists find audiences via her Ringo Records label. And, occasionally, local audiences are lucky enough to hear folk-scene legend Sid Selvidge set aside his day job as producer of the syndicated radio program Beale Street Caravan and pick up an acoustic guitar.
And plenty of other local artists approach this most direct of music from other angles: The bluegrass/folk group the Tennessee Boltsmokers blend original songcraft with fine acoustic musicianship. Honey-voiced chanteuse Susan Marshall always sounds great whether belting out torch-song soul or Gram Parsons-style alt-country. And Deering and Down, a recent addition to the local scene, separate out the guitar and vocal chores with a collision of inventive, classic-rock fretwork and soulful singing that's one of the city's more exciting new sounds.
But, as vast as the preceding breakdown may seem, it really only skims the highlights of a vast, diverse music scene in a city that probably produces as much music per capita — live and recorded — as any city in the country. How Memphis music continues to evolve — how an imposing past and an active present collide in the form of an uncertain future — is a story that demands tracking.