The Memphis Sound
A four-cornered map of the local music scene.
illustration by Nancy Mardis | Memphis Urban Sketchers
Elvis may have left the building, but plenty of multitalented younger artists continue to emerge from Memphis. Their efforts help to cement our city’s longstanding reputation as the “Birthplace of Rock-and-Roll” and “Home of the Blues,” but just about every musical genre is covered by the men and women who take the stage here — and across America. Here’s a four-cornered map of the current Memphis music scene. |
Bass-thumping singer Amy LaVere and songwriting savant John Paul Keith have been two of Memphis’ finest musicians for a while now, so when they paired up for the first time late last year there was reason for excitement. And that anticipation was rewarded in the form of the Motel Mirrors, a side project in which LaVere and Keith write and perform (neo-)classic country duets. The Motel Mirrors have graced Memphis bars in recent months and are set to release a debut EP later this year.
In the meantime, both LaVere and Keith have full-length solo albums on tap. Keith’s third album, Memphis Circa 3 a.m., was recorded with his ace backing band the One Four Fives and is set for a September release. LaVere is putting the finishing touches on a new album she recorded with the North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther Dickinson.
More than a decade after the blues-rock Allstars debuted, Dickinson is emerging as something of a ringleader of a newly vibrant regional roots/Americana scene. In addition to a follow-up album in the works to the band’s 2011 Keys to the Kingdom, and his work on LaVere’s solo album, Dickinson has fingerprints on other projects: After garnering a Best Folk Album Grammy nomination for last year’s instrumental Hambone’s Meditations, Dickinson is readying a full-fledged solo album while also working with such side-project bands as The Wandering (which includes LaVere and other female roots artists), Sons of Mudboy (with other second-generation Memphis musicians), and The South Memphis String Band (with fellow blues/roots iconoclasts Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus).
The most energetic and entertaining live band in Memphis these days might be Star & Micey, a folk/bluegrass/roots-pop band whose sound is also built on the vocal interplay of all four members (Nick Redmond, Josh Cosby, Geoff Smith, and Jeremy Stanfill). The band can most recently be heard on last year’s I Can’t Wait EP. The other side of the folk/harmony coin, gender-wise, is The Memphis Dawls, where Holly Cole, Krista Wroten, and Jana Misener blend acoustic instruments and their voices into a roots sound that’s marked them as one of the city’s bands on the rise.
On the singer-songwriter end of the Americana spectrum, the best-kept secret in Memphis is One Four Fives sideman Mark Edgar Stuart, who released a spectacular debut solo album this year, Blues For Lou, a funny, personal, and deeply touching snapshot that deals with the death of his father, Stuart’s own battle with cancer, his marriage, and other topics. It’s a top contender for best local album of 2013. Equally of note is Grace Askew, whose bluesy sound and smokey voice has made her an artist to watch on the local scene and who reached a wider audience this year as a contestant on the television series The Voice. Askew returned home this summer with a new EP, Empty Rooms.
Rockers of All Stripes
This year marked the full return of one of the signature bands in modern Memphis history, the scene-launching garage-punk trio The Oblivians. This summer the band — Greg Cartwright, Jack Yarber, and Eric Friedl, each of whom writes, sings, and swaps instruments — returned with Desperation, their first album in 16 years and one that matches the quality and urgency of their earlier work without betraying the natural evolution of growing older.
While the Oblivians reclaimed their long-abdicated throne atop the city’s punk/indie scene, plenty of other action exists. The young band Ex-Cult released an eponymous debut late last year on Friedl’s Goner label and have honed their arty, guitar-heavy punk sound into something precise and powerful, especially live, while members of that band have spun off worthwhile side projects such as Moving Finger and NOTS. Tiger High, led by Cartwright’s former Reigning Sound bandmate Greg Roberson and young guitar hotshot Jake Vest, brings psychedelic and surf elements to bear on their fine second album, Catacombs After Party. And another veteran force, bandleader Alicja Trout, continues to lead one of the city’s most reliable riff-rock bands in the River City Tanlines.
At the rootsier end of the rock spectrum, longtime stalwarts Lucero still lead the way, spending most of this year on the road touring behind their expansive 2012 Southern rock testament Women & Work. This year, onetime Lucero tourmates The Dirty Streets are making a move with their polished third album Blades of Grass, which the power-trio recorded at local studio Ardent and which adds more soul and folk elements to the band’s blues-rock foundation. Emerging this year are Dead Soldiers, a promising outfit who specialize in Southern gothic rock with bluegrass elements. And Deering & Down — which pairs the charismatic vocals of Lahna Deering with the nifty guitar work of Neil Down — remain a sure crowd-pleaser.
While garage-punk and Southern rock continue to fuel much of the guitar-band action in town, other bands are pushing the template in different directions. Fast Planet combines electronic music with live instrumentation for a commanding sound. Hi Electric plays heavy but melodic alt-rock in a manner that evokes the best of the ’90s. Glorie keeps it instrumental with a “soundtrack”-rock sound. And two local-scene vets, Robby Grant (Big Ass Truck, Vending Machine) and Dave Shouse (Grifters, Bloodthirsty Lovers), have collaborated on a sonic performance art project called mancontrol.
Blues, Beale, and Beyond
With his raspy, soulful, powerful voice and strong guitar work, Patrick Dodd has emerged in the past few years as perhaps the leading artist on the Beale Street blues scene, but Dodd — like Askew, R&B singer Kris Thomas, and Visible Music School student Sarah Simmons — broke out to a larger, national audience via his successful stint on The Voice. Back in Memphis, Dodd is an even higher-profile live act now and continues to hone his “future blues” sound.
If Dodd is the brightest star on the local Beale/blues scene, he’s far from alone. The Ghost Town Blues Band, the Eric Hughes Band, and Fuzzy Jeffries & the Kings of Memphis are ace blues bands while Will Tucker and Preston Shannon present a generation-spanning contrast as guitar-wielding blues bandleaders. On the vocal end, the bluesy Barbara Blue and the roots/soul Susan Marshall are two of the best bets. And soul/funk/jam institution FreeWorld just celebrated their 25th anniversary as a Memphis music fixture. Outside of the Beale arc, longtime blues/roots enthusiast Jason Freeman broke out late last year with his blues-rock solo debut, Hex & Hell.
On the soul side, Stax-era stars The Bar-Kays remain a sought-after concert attraction, keeping classic Memphis soul alive, while The Bo-Keys, lead by bassist and producer Scott Bomar, bridges the classic soul era and a younger generation of Memphis musicians. And the instrumental jazz/funk trio The City Champs keep the spirit of Booker T. & the MGs and other instrumental Memphis groove acts alive. On the jazz end, Grammy-certified sax great Kirk Whalum is a key figure both in the spotlight and behind the scenes via his work with the Soulsville Foundation.
Among the artists expanding the parameters of the Memphis sound are Marcella Simien, whose experimental pop has a zydeco flavor, and Columbian native Marcela Pinilla, who fuses Latin styles with funk and soul elements on her recently released debut album, Passion.
On the hip-hop side, a lot of familiar faces remain atop the local scene. Three 6 Mafia founder Juicy J has found new energy of late as a solo artist while fellow co-founder DJ Paul has corralled some of the group’s earlier members (such as Gangsta Boo) for a relaunched offshoot group, Da Mafia 6iX. Hard-edged MCs Yo Gotti and Don Trip remain signature figures on the local scene, the latter finding a fruitful recording and touring partnership with Nashville rapper Starlito. Meanwhile, younger rapper Young Dolph is following in their path and scene icon 8Ball returned with last year’s solo album Life’s Quest.
Ex-Pats and Part-Timers
Everyone knows about Millington’s Justin Timberlake and alt-rockers MGMT, fronted by White Station High School’s Andrew VanWyngarden. Timberlake returned earlier this year with the blockbuster album The 20/20 Experience and MGMT will follow later this year with an eponymous third album.
But Timberlake and MGMT aren’t the only one-foot-in-Memphis artists making waves at the moment. Florida’s Shinedown has proven to be one of the most durably successful hard-rock bands around over the past decade, with the band’s Memphis-based guitarist Zach Myers playing no small part. And, recently, three singer-songwriters who got their start in Memphis more than a decade ago have been the subject of long-overdue breakthroughs. The striking folk/blues singer Valerie June stays on the move — living in Brooklyn, recording in Nashville and Los Angeles, touring overseas, and maintaining a foothold in Memphis — but will release her official U.S. debut, Pushin’ Against a Stone, later this year amid heavy anticipation and, already, loads of media attention. The Oakland-based roots-rocker John Murry finished his debut album, The Graceless Age, back home in Memphis and released it this spring to rapturous reviews, especially in England, where Murry has become a noted cult artist. He’ll soon begin work on a follow-up, Far From California. And, finally, the now-Nashville-based Cory Branan emerged last year from a long recording hiatus for his well-received first album for a non-local label, Mutt, which was released by the venerable Chicago “alt-country” indie Bloodshot Records.