The Memphis Sound
A four-cornered map of the local music scene.
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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.