Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Memphis on the Downbeat: Loud, Live and Better Than Ever

One of the things that I've resolved to do in 2014 is devote more space on this blog to Memphis, THE GREATEST CITY IN THE WHOLE UNITED STATES.  (C'mon, really, pick a fight with me about that claim. You will lose.)  As I've said many times before, in private but more often in public, there is very little I love in this world more than Memphis, which falls just behind my family and Philosophy on the list of Things For Which I Would Riot In The Streets. What I know the most and the best in Memphis is the local music scene, so I was a bit surprised when I realized that I've written precious little about it on this blog before.  Imma fix that.  Post haste.

Last summer, as RMWMTMBM readers know, I made my first documentary film (with my very talented student, Sophie Osella) entitled WORKING IN MEMPHIS, which told the story of a number of present-day working Beale Street musicians. (You can watch the documentary in full here.)  Contrary to a lot of people's beliefs, living and working as a musician in Memphis is NOT an easy road.  We tried to show a little of that in our documentary, but we also wanted to show how much love, passion and commitment our local musicians have for Memphis, for Memphis' history, for the blues and for each other. The "legend" of Memphis is that we are the home of the blues, the birthplace of rock-n'-roll, and of course that's true.  But if you think that's the story of a bygone past, you're very sorely mistaken.

In Robert Gordon's excellent book It Came from Memphis and also in his newest (and equally excellent) book Respect Yourself, he quotes an unnamed local sage as saying: "Memphis is a town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does."  True that.  It seems to be woven into the character of Memphians to encounter the world as if the deck is already stacked against them, which most Memphians know it almost always is.  Even still, we endeavor anyway.  We make a little something out of nothing, and then we make a little something go a loooong way. We get up, we show up, we go to work (or we make work where work can't be found), we scrap and scrape and hustle.  We're all heart, grit and grind.  We believe in the impossible.

Yeah, maybe it's true that nothing ever happens here, but that's all the more proof that the impossible always does.  Why?  Because everything that happens here ought to have been impossible... at least according to the experts and their studies, their endlessly-disparaging ratings and rankings, their calculations of every available statistical set of social, political and economic data, all of which indicate that it would've been better for Memphis to slide off its bluff and into the Big Muddy years ago.

What most people outside of Memphis don't know, unfortunately, is that our long-cultivated, historically-refined and greatest home-grown resource, which we now call "grit and grind" but which used to go by the more conventionally-known name "civic engagement," is alive and well and downright thriving here.  Today, the 901 is nothing short of a massive cultural compost station, nourishing (cheaply and organically, like composts do) a truly unbelievable garden of artistic, intellectual, political and communal activity.  There are a ton of blogs/sites where you can read about Memphians' ingenuity for making-something-out-of-nothing-- check out Crosstown Arts, Livable Memphis, Greater Memphis Greenline, I Love Memphis, Memphis Gun Down, Stax Music Academy, Levitt Shell, DittyTV and Bike/Ped Memphis just for a (very limited) sample-- but, in my view, there just aren't enough that focus exclusively on contemporary Memphis music, which is and has always been our mainstay.

So, over the next couple of months, I'll be featuring a number of  Memphis bands/artists on this blog in a series I'm calling "Memphis on the Downbeat." (If you don't know what a downbeat is, take a second and read my good friend Zandria Robinson's excellent piece "Playing on the One": Memphis Soul from Teena Hodges to Tonya Dyson!)  Just to throw you a bone, I'll let you know that almost all of the musicians featured in my WORKING IN MEMPHIS documentary will show up here over the next several weeks, including Chris McDaniel, Earl "the Pearl" Banks, Vince Johnson, Eric Lewis, Clyde Roulette, Ms Zeno, The Memphis BluesMasters, Suavo SilkySmooth Jones, Brad Birkeedahl, Don Valentine, The Memphis Three and Ghost Town Blues Band.... not to mention a lot of other hardworking musicians that you didn't see in the documentary. I'll also be featuring a few Memphis musicians/bands who are no longer local, but who still love, support and want to pay credit back to the 901 music scene.  (There are gonna be some BIG ONES among that last group!)  As many of you know, the International Blues Competition will be taking place here in Memphis in just a couple of weeks, so I'm hoping that I can catch some great performances/photos to share from that as well.  At any rate, stay tuned here for an insider's peek into Memphis music over the next several weeks!

And don't ever forget: Memphis is a place where the impossible happens.

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