What's hot in Memphis music in 2012.
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Years ago, Memphis adopted the promotional title of “Home of Rock-and-Roll and Birthplace of the Blues.” Some might think that’s a bold claim, but not only is it true, it doesn’t begin to cover the vast wealth of musical talent that has been spawned in our city. From hill-country blues to hip-hop to traditional music and everything in between, we cover the whole spectrum. Here’s a look at five centers of activity on the current Memphis music scene.
After more than a decade of recording and touring, one-time alt-country upstarts Lucero have developed into something like a Memphis music institution. And, over their past three albums, the longtime quartet — singer/guitarist Ben Nichols, guitarist Brian Venable, bass player John C. Stubblefield, and drummer Roy Berry — have expanded their lineup and, as a result, expanded their sound. Memphis session ace Rick Steff (keyboards, accordion, whatever else he gets his hands on) joined as a full-time member after 2006’s Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers. Then Little Rock-based pedal-steel player Todd Beene came aboard for 2009’s 1372 Overton Park. And on this year’s arguable career-best, Women & Work, saxophonist Jim Spake and trumpeter Scott Thompson became auxiliary members of the band, fully collaborating in-studio and joining Lucero on the road when possible.
Lucero emerged from the three-year gap between 1372 Overton Park and Women & Work reinvigorated. The new album, recorded locally at Midtown’s Ardent Studios, captures the live sound of a band that has always excelled on stage and has now fully committed to a soulful, opulent Southern rock style that seemed a risky move a few years ago. With a virtuoso back line of Berry, Stubblefield, and Rick Steff, this band now moves: The head-nodding boogie riffs and shimmying rhythms of “On the Way Downtown.” The barrelhouse piano and punching horns of “Women & Work.” The swaggering guitar and coiled groove of “Juniper,” the closest the band has ever come to a straight blues song. The barroom soul of “It May Be Too Late.” The near-ragtime lead-in to the Thin Lizzy-goes-Dixie rock of “Like Lightning.” The Presleyan gospel of “Go Easy.” It’s full immersion — the sound of a band that’s now embraced what they’re capable of and that has left self-consciousness behind.
It’s also been, happily, the band’s most successful album to date, debuting in the Top 50 of the Billboard album chart and in the Top 10 of the magazine’s independent albums chart, with the band touring coast to coast nearly nonstop since the album’s March release.
In 2010, 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 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 the album, the younger Dickinsons honored their father by making, for perhaps the first time, music as loose and free and unselfconsciously spirited as he was.
Now, this year, Luther Dickinson has emulated his father in emerging as a ringleader for a rich, iconoclastic regional blues/roots scene, going as far as releasing three roughly connected “side projects” on the same day this spring: Old Times There ..., the second album from the South Memphis String Band; Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here, the debut from The Wandering, a regional roots-music “super group” of sorts that Dickinson organized; and Hambone’s Meditations, a solo-acoustic guitar album that’s been a long-standing labor of love.
Old Times There ..., South Memphis String Band’s second album, for the local Memphis International label, is as rowdy and communal as Hambone’s Meditations is gentle and introspective, with Dickinson and partners Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus drawing on the work of early twentieth-century acoustic blues and jug-band musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, and the Mississippi Sheiks and diving into the rich, twisted racial history of America and particularly the South — slavery, war, reconstruction, Jim Crow.
With The Wandering, Dickinson assembled a quartet of like-minded female musicians from around the region at his family’s Zebra Ranch Studio — Valerie June on banjo, Amy LaVere on upright bass, Shannon McNally on guitar, and Sharde Thomas on fife and drum. Dickinson summoned them all — like the set-up of a blockbuster superhero movie — to Zebra Ranch with the only instruction to bring along a couple of traditional songs or covers they’d be interested in playing. With Dickinson producing and filling in where needed, almost instantly they had a band. Three days later, they had a terrific, warm, loose-limbed debut album, with eclectic material ranging from ’60s/’70s folk-rock and singer-songwriter country to ancient country-blues traditionals, and with all four female members featured on vocals.
If The Wandering has a star, it’s probably LaVere, who has been touring the country on the strength of her terrific 2011 album Stranger Me, a swaggeringly musical suite of break-up songs. On the move, however, is June, who has been splitting time between Memphis and New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville, as she puts the finishing touches on a long-in-coming solo debut album, one recorded primarily in Nashville, in close collaboration with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who co-produced, co-wrote several songs with June, and plays on the record.