Rock City: Memphis
Embrace the blues (and punk and hip-hop) with Spin's guide to Memphis.
Historicallyhailed as the home of the blues, birthplace of rock (thanks to SunStudio), and the capitol of soul, Memphis has also proven a haven forgarage punk, hip-hop, and a thriving studio scene. It has nurturedenvelope-pushers from B.B. King to Project Pat. Urban mayhem, lowrents, and a deeply ingrained allegiance to all things eccentriccontinue to make this Mid-South metropolis a mecca for American music.
Widely considered the “Father of Color Photography,” William Egglestonis also a longtime stalwart of the Memphis music scene, whose druggy’70s underbelly he chronicled in the vivid experimental film Stranded in Canton. Eggleston’s arty images have been used to great effect on dozens of album covers by bands such as Big Star, Primal Scream, and Jimmy Eat World.
Originally a garage-punk cassette imprint launched by Eric Friedl (of Oblivians fame) in the early ’90s, Goner Records has grown into a full-scale operation that’s home to up-and-comers like Atlanta’s Carbonas and Chicago’s CoCoComa.
Thelabel has also expanded its enterprise to include a retail store in thehip Cooper- Young district and an annual Gonerfest extravaganza thatdraws dirt-hungry bands and fans from around the globe.
Veteran rap duo 8Ball & MJGare best known for their pioneering Dirty South skronk, but the pairhave also been busy fostering the next generation of local hip-hopstars. Pulling would-be talents from neighborhoods like their nativeOrange Mound, these mini-moguls record them at their jointly ownedstudio and release the results on their nationally distributed labels, 8Ways and MJG Muzik.
Guitarist/raconteur Jeff Evans and motormouth drummer Ross Johnsonare known for their decades of service in the trash-rock trenches. Morerecently, they’ve formed a kind of absurdist musical-comedy duo thathaunts various dives around town. Their marathon shows mix jagged blueswith caustic diatribes — if the White Stripes started writing dickjokes, they’d be on the way to ripping off even more Memphians.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a true Tennesseean who will utter a bad word about the King — with the exception of Jimmy Denson.Denson grew up with Elvis and supposedly shielded a teenage Presleyfrom neighborhood bullies. These days, he takes any opportunity to spinuproarious tales about Elvis as a demonically possessed mama’s boywhose “eyes looked like two pissholes in the snow.”
The Hi Tone Cafe
1913 Poplar Ave., 901-278-8663
Oncea karate dojo used by Elvis Presley, this venue has become the city’spremier midsize club, hosting everything from rockabilly to rap acts.Elvis Costello staged a series of intimate shows here in 2004(resulting in his Club Date — Live in Memphis DVD), while the regular concert calendar is studded with sold-out appearances from the likes of Daniel Johnston and Neko Case.
The View Sports Bar & Grill at the Executive Inn
3222 Airways Blvd., 901-332-3800
More than the average big-screen-and-hot-wings joint, this SouthMemphis hotel hangout has become a haven for the city’s R&Bveterans. Many famous (and infamous) local figures, including reclusivesoul queen Carla Thomas, often turn up onstage unannounced.
CC Blues Club
1427 Thomas St., 901-526-5566
Anantidote to the rote tourist blues found on Beale Street, this uptownMemphis juke joint is where the true fans go to get their dose ofhometown blues. CC’s is a haven for whiskey drinkers and seasonedmusicians playing for genre-savvy audiences of “grown folks.”
1368 Monroe Ave., 901-278-0909
Thiswonderfully grungy nautical-themed bar has been operating uninterruptedsince 1967 on the edge of Midtown. Fashioned like the galley of apirate ship, the Buc boasts a series of weekly residencies, includingturns from boogaloo band the Grip and bluegrass ensemble Devil Train.
1702 Madison Ave., 901-726-1101
Ayellowing, smoke-encrusted beer den, the Lamp radiates ample Southerncharm and first-name hospitality, courtesy of longtime bartender MissShirley. Cat Power shot her “Lived in Bars” video here, and Shirley’skitchen fries up a dangerously greasy burger to soak up all that Pabst.
Tucked away on an anonymous stretch of road in South Memphis sits Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studio,an institution responsible for a staggering amount of seminal soulmusic. Poppa Willie’s place continues unabated today as a workingstudio (he recently cut tracks for John Mayer), and Mitchell himselfstill can be found holding court in the Royal lobby most days.
Founded in 1957, Staxhelped along legends like Al Green and Aretha Franklin. The originalStax building was bulldozed in 1989, but it has since been rebuilt asthe Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which features keepsakes from Otis Redding and Ike and Tina Turner, and even houses Isaac Hayes’ 1972 Cadillac El Dorado.
In a town full of legendary labels, possibly the most colorful was Barbarian,a veritable insane asylum run by music biz fantasist Jim Blake in the’70s. Specializing in non-singers and oddball acts, Barbarian recordedeveryone from wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler to screeching all-girl punk band the Klitz to notorious Vietnam vet/outlaw biker Campbell Kensinger.
Establishing himself as a distinctive lyrical stylist since emerging inthe mid-’90s, Kapone has grown into something of hip-hop polymath inrecent years, producing and penning hits for the Hustle & Flowsoundtrack (“Get Crunk, Get Buck”), Lil Jon (“Snap Yo Fingers”), andE-40 (“U and Dat”). On the solo side, Kapone recently formed a livehip-hop band, Tha Untouchablez, who blend fierce down-South beats withbig rock riffs.
Fueled by a charmed collision of synthy new wave and sugar-sweet garagepunk, 27-year-old Reatard has the tunes and the attitude to make himthe Memphian most likely to break out on a national scale. Born JayLindsey, he began his career a decade ago as a teen punk prodigy in theReatards. He made big waves with last year’s Blood Visions, adisarming blast of insistent hooks and horror-show lyrics. He’s gaineda reputation as a local bad boy, but the jumpy songs and his evenjumpier stage demeanor are hard to resist.
Arguablythe finest rock talent Memphis has produced since Alex Chilton,Oblivian (né Jack Yarber) rode shotgun in blues-punk favorites theOblivians and Compulsive Gamblers. Over the course of a half-dozen soloalbums, Oblivian has essayed everything from lo-fi blues to skitteringelectro-pop. Since he’s been in so many bands and played so many shows,most everyone in the city limits with a guitar has gigged with Oblivianat some point. He also sold former labelmate Jack White the red Airlineguitar that has become his signature.
Harlan T. Bobo
Forty-one-year-old Bobo began writing and singing only a few years ago,after settling in Memphis and figuring out how to spin his frustrationwith women into haunting melodies. His albums are obsessive, twistedlate-night platters that find him crooning in a warm, ragged voice thatsounds as if it’s been pickled in scotch, cured in Kools, and steepedin regret.
River City Tanlines
Guitarist/vocalistAlicja Trout is the leader of this riff-fueled guttersnipe trio.Milking the distaff pop-punk vibe of the Pandoras and the Muffs, thegroup built their reputation on a series of giddy, scuzzed-upseven-inch singles before dropping their full-length debut last year.Trout is a powerful female voice in a male-centric scene who has alsocollaborated with late Love founder Arthur Lee.