The Top 10 Musicians
A guide to 10 artists defining Memphis music today — and some related artists worth checking out as well.
Harlan T. Bobo
At once soft-spoken and theatrical, this one-time sideman has emerged in recent years as arguably the city’s most admired songwriter and live performer, releasing a trio of terrific, personal albums — the lovelorn Too Much Love (2005), the prickly I’m Your Man (2007), and last year’s Sucker.
At a precise moment stuck between what he himself calls a “slippery past” and an “uncertain future,” Harlan T. Bobo crafted, with Sucker, a beautiful, shivering hymn to hard-won contentment. From joyfully tongue-in-cheek title to righteous opening (“Sweet Life”) to swooning climax (“Drank”) and every bull’s-eye musical choice in between (classic-sounding soul- and folk-rock, locomotive country, carnivalesque pop, Paris café music), Sucker never missteps and says what it needs to say in less than half an hour.
Bobo is also known to put his music across with often extravagant, creative live shows: He’s performed with self-built staging that functions in 3-D or replicates the “Garden of Eden,” among other conceits, and has brought the Memphis Symphony Orchestra into Midtown rock club the Hi-Tone Café to back him up. A recent project has him donning makeup in the “kid’s band” Luv Clowns.
Related Recommendations: Joining Bobo among local artists recording for the ascendant Memphis garage/punk label Goner Records are Jack O & the Tearjerkers and The Limes. A frequent Bobo tourmate, Jack “Oblivian” Yarber adds an increasingly assured old-school R&B edge to the garage-punk template, most recently on his 2009 album The Disco Outlaw. The Limes, led by songwriter Shawn Cripps, debut their hazier take on the genre with last year’s label debut Rhinestone River.
Producer and bassist Scott Bomar founded this vintage/retro soul band in the late ’90s as something of a tribute to classic Memphis soul players, many of whom have since joined the band at one time or another. The current incarnation of the Bo-Keys — which released its second album, Got to Get Back!, this summer — includes guitarist Skip Pitts (a longtime Isaac Hayes sideman), drummer Howard Grimes (Al Green and Hi Records), keyboardist Archie Turner (ditto), trumpeter Ben Cauley (Otis Redding), and sax player Floyd Newman (B.B. King).
Got to Get Back! showcases the band’s mastery of different shades of the classic Memphis sound, echoing Booker T. & the MGs, electric blues, and ’70s funk, with vocal turns from classic Memphis artists such as Otis Clay and William Bell.
Related Recommendations: The stellar instrumental trio The City Champs record for Bomar’s Electraphonic label and feature a guitar-keyboard-drums sound rooted in jazz-funk. Lead by Jason Paxton, Glorie takes instrumental music into artier, more ambient rock territory.
"I had to hit ’em with that modern-man sound,” Cities Aviv — aka Gavin Mays — raps on “Float On,” a late 2010 single included on his recent debut album, Digital Lows. For this unique local rapper, the “modern-man sound” incorporates electrobeats, jazz piano loops, and hip-hop golden-age turntable-and-sample songcraft, but also video-game loops, bird noises, spaced-out indie rock, and big snatches of Steely Dan. With his left-of-center musicality and sure, declarative flow, Cities Aviv is something new in Memphis music, more reminiscent of national underground/indie rap styles than any mainstream or Memphis precedent. His partnership with veteran DJ Redeye Jedi and punk-rock past have made Cities Aviv a stronger live performer than most of his rap-scene compatriots.
Related Recommendations: Last year, quick-minded, sharply skilled young MC Skewby became the first local rapper ever to be recognized in the hip-hop magazine The Source’s venerable “Unsigned Hype” column and already has two terrific “mixtape” albums to his credit with Proving You Wrong Since 1988 and More or Less. If you’re looking for the next artist to break out of Memphis’ suddenly fertile hip-hop scene, try frequent Cities Aviv collaborator Royal’T, a big, gregarious kid with a honeyed vocal flow.
June, who spins an idiosyncratic take on pre-rock/acoustic country, folk, and blues styles, has been operating on the margins of the local scene for several years, getting a bit of a spotlight as a secondary player in Craig Brewer’s $5 Cover series. But June, long one of the local scene’s most promising and most hidden artists, has spent much of the past year on the road, building fruitful new connections and polishing her sound. And, after strong performances at the International Blues Challenge, the Folk Alliance Conference, and Austin’s South by Southwest Music Festival and with a true debut album on the horizon, June seems primed for a breakout.
Related Recommendations: Two other young artists who flaunt genre expectations: The itinerant indie rocker Bosco Delrey recorded part of his recent debut album, Everybody Wah, locally with producer Doug Easley and shot the video for his song “Space Junky” at South Main’s Earnestine & Hazel’s. Delrey lives on the road — where he shows off his blend of glam-rock, Sun-evoking rockabilly, and electronic music — but has been calling Memphis home. This summer, young drummer Ryan Peel debuted a single for Scott Bomar’s Electraphonic that blended classic Memphis soul with modern pop in a manner reminiscent of the city’s most successful recent musical export: Justin Timberlake.
John Paul Keith & the 145s
"I’m an old familiar tune that you used to hum/ Set your watch back, baby, when you see me come,” John Paul Keith sings on the title track to his 2011 album, The Man That Time Forgot. Keith, even in a city that’s a magnet for tradition-minded musicians, is particularly adept at a wide variety of “roots” forms — Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly-style rock-and-roll, Tex-Mex and honky-tonk country, garage rock, early ’60s soul, folk rock, smoky jazz-blues, and Marshall Crenshaw-style power pop — and his new album’s title hints at this mastery, previously displayed on his band’s locally beloved debut Spills & Thrills. Typically backed by the veteran rhythm section of drummer John Argroves and bassist Mark Stuart, Keith & Co. might be the city’s tightest and more enjoyable current live band.
Related Recommendations: Youngsters Star & Micey, who record for the local Ardent Music label, spin a little bit of a different spin on roots-rock, with a stomping folk-oriented sound rooted in spirited performances and group vocals. The band’s drummer, Jeremy Stanfill, is a promising rootsy rocker on his own.
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.
LaVere returned this summer with her third album, Stranger Me (again on the local Archer Records label), and rather than playing it safe, she’s evolved with a bolder, noiser, more confident album that confirms LaVere as easily one of the most compelling artists Memphis boasts at the moment.
Related Recommendations: Two other rootsy female singer-songwriters have also benefited lately from fleshing out their music. Grace Askew’s smoky, bluesy sound is enlivened by a new backing band, the Black Market Goods, on an eponymous new album. And Holly Cole has increasingly traded the solo-acoustic format for two fruitful bands, the country-rock Holly & the Heathens and the chamber-folk Memphis Dawls, each of which has also released an eponymous debut in the past year.
A Memphis staple for more than a year now, the once country-rock band Lucero have never stopped touring or growing, and their last album, 2009’s 1372 Overton Park (their first for major-label Universal Republic) built on the piano-based expansions of the previous Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers by tastefully incorporating a soulcentric horn section devised by Memphis stalwart Jim Spake. On disc and on the road, Lucero worked their growing sonic palette with aplomb, hooking longtime fans on what they didn’t even know they wanted. What’s next? The band has recently been working on demos for their next album for Universal. We’ll have to wait and see.
Related recommendations: Rootsy youngsters The Dirty Streets, who have toured as a Lucero opener, specialize in a classic-rock facsimile that draws on such ’60s and ’70s blues-rock stars as Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Humble Pie. The band lives up to its name with their grimy, swaggering attack. A somewhat like-minded new band, Tiger High is the latest project from brothers Jake and Toby Vest (formerly the Bulletproof Vests), teaming with drummer Greg Roberson (ex of the Reigning Sound) and bassist Greg Faison for a sound built on ’60s rock hooks and riffs.
The breakout Memphis act of 2010 nationally, the Magic Kids did Memphis proud on an indie rock debut album named after their hometown, which showcases their genial, ramshackle deployment of myriad traditional, pre-punk influences. The album’s earnest romances play out against a Memphis presented as a relaxed, sunny playpen, with locations such as the Summer Drive-in and Skateland name-checked.
Related Recommendations: Ace indie-pop established and emerging: Mouserocket brings together two venerable local-scene fixtures, Alicja Trout (Lost Sounds, River City Tanlines) and Robby Grant (Big Ass Truck, Vending Machine). The band released a new album, Cicada Sounds, earlier this summer. Bake Sale is a band of early twentysomethings whose exuberantly minimal sound has made them arguably the local scene’s most promising new rock band.
North Mississippi Allstars
After something of a hiatus in which the brothers were busy working on separate projects, Luther and Cody Dickinson (along with bassist Chris Chew) returned to North Mississippi Allstars action earlier this year with Keys to the Kingdom, the band’s first album since 2008’s Hernando and the first since the August 2009 passing of their father, revered musician/producer Jim Dickinson.
On Keys to the Kingdom, the younger Dickinsons honor their father by making, for perhaps the first time, music as loose and free and unself-consciously spirited as he was. Appropriately, Keys to the Kingdom is a jaunty, defiant album about mortality and loss, featuring such family friends as Mavis Staples, Ry Cooder, and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Related Recommendations: With daring production from Jeff Powell and inspired contributions from a host of ace local session players (perhaps most notably cellist Jonathan Kirkscey and guitarist Steve Selvidge), veteran songwriter Rob Jungklas delivered one of the most overlooked local albums in years with 2009’s Mapping the Wreckage, an album rooted in Jungklas’ dissonant art-blues sound and piercing, poetic lyrics. Luther Dickinson’s South Memphis String Band-mate Jimbo Mathus put his own spin on Mississippi blues and rock this year with his album Confederate Buddha.
North Memphis rapper Yo Gotti’s announced album for major-label J Records, Live From the Kitchen, has been delayed so long and for so many times — latest date: September 6th — that it’s hard not to wonder if it will ever come out. But Yo Gotti doesn’t seem concerned. The gruff-voiced North Memphis rapper has risen to the top of the local rap mountain with a more realistic, less cartoonish style than previous kingpins Three 6 Mafia, and the label delay hasn’t stopped him from selling out clubs around the country or making his mark with underground mixtapes and mainstream singles such as “Five Star,” “Women Lie, Men Lie” (a collaboration with New Orleans superstar Lil Wayne), and the new “We Can Get it On.”
Related Recommendations: Elsewhere on the local rap scene, Memphis pioneers 8Ball & MJG keep going strong, releasing a new album with last year’s Ten Toes Down. And the next star coming up could be Don Trip, whose “Letter 2 My Son” was a YouTube sensation last year and has since been signed by a subsidiary of the major label Interscope Records.