Spotlight: Memphis

Newcomers and legends alike bring national attention to the city famous for its music.

Cover Stars

Craig Brewer's 2009 MTV series $5 Cover — which took as its subject the local music scene — may not have created any stars, but it captured the depth, diversity, and vibrancy of contemporary Memphis music. The dozen artists featured may be only a sample of the current scene, but collectively they offer a good snapshot of what Memphis sounds like today.

Opening and closing the series, roots-pop singer Amy LaVere has worked her way to the top of the local scene with a sound that can appeal to the hippest young clubgoers as well as their parents (and maybe even grandparents). Ably wielding her upright bass, the charismatic interpretive singer became an emerging roots-music star nationally and internationally with her breakout sophomore disc, Anchors & Anvils. She's scheduled to begin recording her follow-up this fall, but in the meantime she's been touring the U.S. and Europe with constant musical companions Steve Selvidge (guitar) and Paul Taylor (drums).

Taylor, who flaunts his "multi-instrumental" chops in $5 Cover, is a musical savant who continues to perfect his own one-man-band pop on the side, captured this year on his album Share It!.

In the series, LaVere's character shares a house with Valerie June, a strikingly modern-looking singer (her face framed by a mountain of perfect dreadlocks) with a strikingly old-fashioned sound. Dubbing her style "Organic Moonshine Roots Music," June draws on such pre-rock influences as the Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt for her gentle acoustic sound. The MTV exposure raised June's local profile at just the right time, as she seems to be coming into her own artistically.

Completing the trio of female musicians at the heart of $5 Cover is Kate Crowder, who leads the theatrical pop band Two Way Radio alongside husband Corey. One of the most unlikely underdog stories on the local scene in recent years, Two Way Radio had their local profile significantly boosted by $5 Cover and went into the studio earlier this year to record their sophomore album with longtime Brewer associate Scott Bomar producing.

Speaking of unlikely, Crowder's character in $5 Cover finds herself courted by Muck Sticky, a gentle hedonist whose quirky rap-rock style has made him a cult fave to a growing contingent of fans most often found at the New Daisy Theatre locally but who congregate online around the globe.

If Muck Sticky brings a hint of hip-hop flavor to $5 Cover, Al Kapone is the series' real hip-hop heart. A foundational figure in the creation of the Memphis rap style, Kapone reinvented himself somewhat in an earlier collaboration with Brewer, penning the songs "Whoop That Trick" and "Hustle & Flow (It Ain't Over)" for Brewer's breakthrough film Hustle & Flow. In $5 Cover, however, Kapone moves into the spotlight, and brings his teen son Young AJ with him. Playing a mattress deliveryman by day and hard-grinding hip-hop artist by night, Kapone's story is a highlight of the series and it launched him back into the spotlight nationally, leading to some high-profile MTV promotional concerts. Locally, Kapone has been seen lately fronting a live band that brings a diverse flavor of Memphis styles — blues, rock, soul — to Kapone's sure rap flow.

In the series, Kapone and Muck Sticky record in a fictional studio they share with other artists, including stalwart local rockers Lucero and Snowglobe. The latter's Brad Postlethwaite is a key player, showcasing the terrific new song "Nothing I Can Do," which is also featured on an EP — No Need to Light a Night Light on a Night Like Tonight — released in conjunction with the series. Specializing in a brand of intensely musical, melodic indie rock rooted in '60s styles, Snowglobe saw a whole scene grow up around them and their Makeshift Music label. The band — co-fronted by Postlethwaite and Tim Regan — has been something of an off-and-on affair in recent years, but plans to release a new full-length later this year. Meanwhile Regan, who splits time between Memphis and Austin, Texas, has been working with his own band, Antenna Shoes, which debuted in 2008 with the album Generous Gambler.

As for Lucero, this one-time alt-country band keeps building and evolving after more than 10 hard-touring years together. Fronted by Ben Nichols, who has an acting role in $5 Cover, the band has worked through their punk and country influences to fashion an ambitious but straightforward rock-and-roll sound, fleshed out by piano addition Rick Steff on their last album (2007's Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers) and now with horns on their forthcoming album. The coming album, recorded locally at Ardent Studios, will be the band's major-label debut for Universal Records.

There are other local bands and musicians who serve as secondary figures in $5 Cover. Alicja Trout's raucous rock trio River City Tanlines delivers a blistering performance at a Memphis Roller Derby event. A veteran of high-profile local bands such as the Clears and Lost Sounds, Trout teams with the rock-solid rhythm section of John "Bubba" Bonds and Terrence Bishop in the Tanlines, which has become the vehicle for the guitar goddess side of a prolific and diverse musician. Trout's more pop side gets explored in the band Mouse Rocket, where she shares the spotlight with Robby Grant (Vending Machine). Mouse Rocket's Pretty Loud was one of the best local albums of 2008.

Making a cursory appearance at the Tanlines' derby show after getting his own mini-showcase is Cody Dickinson, the North Mississippi Allstars drummer who set out to put together his own new band when guitar hotshot brother Luther left to tour with the Black Crowes. Though the Allstars are still an active band, Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew are now spending time with the Hill Country Revue, whose new album Make a Move puts a harder, more Southern-rock spin on hill-country blues.

Finally there are a couple of key Memphis acts who serve as the musical backdrop that character dramas play out against in the series — Jack O & the Tearjerkers and Harlan T. Bobo. Both are veterans of the city's widely respected garage-rock scene — especially Jack "Oblivian" Yarber, who got his musical moniker from his stint in the classic Memphis garage-punk trio the Oblivians (alongside Greg Cartwright and Eric Friedl), who reunited this year for a couple of U.S. gigs and a European tour.

Jack O and Bobo share a label (Friedl's local Goner Records), sidemen (including each other), and frequently stages as the two have frequently toured together. As heard on his band's latest album, The Disco Outlaw, Yarber is a master of unpretentious rock forms, whether rooted in country, R&B, or garage-based clamor. As for Bobo, whose third official album is due on Goner later this year, the eccentric, uncompromising songwriter has become something of a local rock bard on the strength of his albums Too Much Love and I'm Your Man.

On the Move

Though $5 cover presents a pretty flawless cross-section of what Memphis sounds like today, it in no way covers all the ground in modern Memphis music. In fact, the two Memphis artists who made the biggest impact nationally in the past year have no connection with $5 Cover — and little in common with each other.

One is a local legend: Al Green, the last truly great true soul singer. The good reverend Green returned to secular music (and producer Willie Mitchell) earlier in the decade with the assured comeback album I Can't Stop and its follow-up Everything's O.K. But last year Green made a bolder bid for contemporary relevance by teaming with producer Amir "?uestlove" Thompson, drummer for Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots, for the album Lay It Down. The result was a triumph, with Thompson replicating Green's classic sound without coming across as too dutiful an homage, and Green responding with a sharp group of songs and even sharper collection of vocal performances. As a result, Lay It Down was arguably Green's finest album in more than 20 years.

The other major player in Memphis music over the past years is young veteran Jay Reatard, who was a rising local star more than a decade ago as a teen punk provocateur and is now a national rising star with an increasingly melodic and eloquent but no-less-agitated post-punk pop style. Reatard has become synonymous over the past couple of years with the dying art of the rock single, releasing a series of highly regarded and highly sought-after vinyl singles. But he returned to long-form this summer with Watch Me Fall, his August full-length debut for venerable indie label Matador.

Two other local bands that have made big leaps in the past year, producing debut albums after a couple of years honing their sound on stage, are Jump Back Jake and John Paul Keith & the One Four Fives. The brainchild of New York transplant Jake Rabinbach, Jump Back Jake plays a mix of blue-eyed R&B and swamp rock impressive enough to be tabbed by the venerable Ardent Music for its return to releasing secular music, with Jump Back Jake's Brooklyn Hustle/Memphis Muscle the resurgent label's first release. More recently, Rabinbach's backing band, led by guitarist Jake Vest, has spun off into another promising local band, the Bulletproof Vests, in which Vest is joined by his elder brother Toby. The Vests' debut album, Attack!, draws heavily on Memphis music history and classic-rock influences from the '60s and '70s.

Like Rabinbach, Keith is another transplant fronting a group of established Memphis players. A Knoxville native, Keith has a tremendous feel for '50s country and rock sounds, mixing honky-tonk and Chuck Berry into a sound that has made him, and his band, one of the city's safest live bets. The band's debut album, Spills & Thrills, got a national release earlier this year.

Showing Our Roots

Memphis advertises itself as "The Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock-and-Roll," but really the city's roots-music connections are both more diverse and more contemporary than that implies. Aforementioned artists like LaVere, June, Keith, and Hill Country Revue embody the progressive, idiosyncratic embrace of roots music that animates so much of the city's current scene, but the network of other artists working their own variation on that theme is vast.

The godfather of the group is Jim Dickinson, the longtime Memphis musician, producer, and storyteller who has been unusually prolific in recent years via his partnership with producer/label owner David Less and Less' Memphis International label. This year's Dinosaurs Run in Circles is Dickinson's third solo album in four years and again presents his loose, spirited tone, charmingly flat sound, and palpable intimacy as Dickinson and co-conspirators Sam Shoup and Tom Lonardo work their way around a batch of vintage tunes.

With Dickinson's youngest son, Cody, splitting off from the North Mississippi Allstars to form Hill Country Revue, the elder son Luther also has a new side band, the South Memphis String Band. Inspired by the city's rich jug-band history, the South Memphis String Band is a true roots-music supergroup, uniting Dickinson, Memphis-based blues/roots genius Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Mississippi's Jimbo Mathus.

The bulk of the local blues action, however, still centers around Beale Street and neighboring downtown venues such as the Center for Southern Folklore. Among the acts keeping the blues alive are straight electric blues stalwarts Daddy Mack and Eric Hughes and harmonic master Billy Gibson.

From the Mississippi side of the equation, the style popularized by late legends Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside is being ably continued by inheritors such as Kenny Brown, a Burnside protégé, and the Juke Joint Duo, an exciting young blues act led by Burnside's grandson, Cedric.

And other interesting roots-connected acts abound: Singer Susan Marshall ably mixes soul, jazz, and pop into a very Memphis-oriented sound, especially on her career-best 2009 album Little Red. The Bluff City Backsliders evoke the jug band history with local performances that have been increasing in regularity, while Backslider Jason Freeman has recently put together his own promising blues band, the Midtown Lowdowns. And Murfreesboro girl-group country act Those Darlins, who spend enough time around Memphis to be claimed, are rising stars with a recently released debut album garnering terrific reviews.

Emerging Bands

change has been afoot on the Memphis rock scene with bands like Jump Back Jake, the One Four Fives, and the Bulletproof Vests leading a burgeoning group of interesting newish bands.

Among the more promising newer bands are a couple of inter-related acts — the Barbaras and the Magic Kids, both of whom are connected to the local Goner label and unite a garage-rock aesthetic with a taste for lighter, more soulful Sixties pop (girl-groups, Phil Spector, Beach Boys, etc.). The Barbaras' long-rumored debut album, for California-based garage/punk label In the Red, is supposed to be released sometime this year. Similarly captivating on stage and idiosyncratic on record is The Warble, an arty folk-rock quartet whose homemade debut Spacetime Breakfast was one of 2008's most interesting local records.

Young guitar-heavy trio the Dirty Streets are a much buzzed-about new band with a serious classic-rock jones that have made them a favored live act in local clubs, while Girls of the Gravitron has become a fixture with a rambunctious, experimental pop sound.

Working a very different style are the City Champs, an instrumental jazz/soul/funk trio that have perfected their sound on the city's rock-club scene. Led by jazz-trained guitarist Joe Restivo, the City Champs have provided incidental music to $5 Cover and released a terrific debut album, The Safecracker.

Other bands to keep an eye on: Oracle & the Mountain, whose moody, ambitious rock has graced the stage of the Beale Street Music Festival; Sore Eyes and Joan Red, young bands whose radio-friendly modern-rock sounds are steadily winning converts; and Star & Micey, whose spacious, rootsy, song-oriented sound has a lot of potential.

Rhyme Time

The Memphis rap/hip-hop scene never really capitalized on its Hustle & Flow moment. Three 6 Mafia's long-delayed post-Oscar album, Last 2 Walk, never generated a hit as vibrant as their previous "Stay Fly," and the duo may be more recognizable lately as celebrities than as musicians.

But the scene has been diversifying even if it hasn't generated the expected hits. Yo Gotti has surpassed Three 6 Mafia as the most prolific of the city's hardcore rappers, alternating official releases and mix-tape music. Veterans 8Ball & MJG — keeping busy in the studio both on solo and duo projects — have followed Al Kapone's lead, not by forming a live band but by adding occasional live shows in local rock clubs to their repertoire.

Meanwhile, former Three 6 associate Mr. Del is pushing gospel-themed rap — "holy hip-hop" —  on his 2009 album Thrilla. And upstart Teflon Don, with his single "Shawty So Fine," is making waves. And theatrical, comedic "aristocrunk" rappers Lord T & Eloise returned last year with their sophomore album, Chairmen of the Bored, and an evolving line-up and live show.

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