Music may be synonymous with Memphis, but the connection usually comes from the homegrown blues, rock, and soul artists the city has produced. A less celebrated side of our music history is the city's status as a recording mecca for already-established out-of-town artists.
This part of the legacy started in the '60s when British singer Dusty Springfield recruited Memphis musicians for her soul classic Dusty in Memphis , Wilson Pickett joined Stax guitarist Steve Cropper to write and record the soon-to-be-standard "In the Midnight Hour," and the Yardbirds dropped by Sun Studio.
Memphis' stature as a recording center continued to grow in the '70s and '80s as mega bands such as ZZ Top, U2, and R.E.M. made pilgrimages. Most recently, Detroit's White Stripes -- fueled by Delta blues and Memphis-style garage-rock -- cut their breakout album White Blood Cells at the city's Easley-McCain Recording.
For most of these artists, the city's musical history has been the lure, but often the attraction is less the legacy than the present-day quality of the city's battery of recording studios and homegrown producers. Such is the case with two fine recent albums recorded in Memphis studios with Memphis-based producers -- the Bottle Rockets' Zoysia and Scott Miller & the Commonwealth's Citation .
Neither of these records is likely to scale the commercial heights of the other previously mentioned artists, but they're among the finest alt-country/roots-rock records released this year and are connected both by their sharp use of Memphis talent and the conflicted attitude each band has about finding its way in a country burdened by war and political scandal. In other words, these are albums that put the America into Americana.
Now based in St. Louis, the Bottle Rockets emerged from Festus, Missouri, and helped launch the alt-country scene in the early '90s alongside such Midwestern colleagues as Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks.Ê The band was brought to Midtown's historic Ardent Studios by venerable local producer Jeff Powell (who has worked with the Afghan Whigs and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among countless others) to record Zoysia with a little help from local singers Susan Marshall and Jackie Johnson and organ player Rick Steff.
Zoysia is the kind of smart but unpretentious bar-band rock that has made the group alt-country cult faves for over a decade, but Powell has helped the group fashion its best record since 1997's 24 Hours a Day . It also may be their most poignant album in that it's very much a border-state meditation on modern America. One song is called "Middle Man," which reflects how much this band feels itself caught in the center of a country being pulled apart by political and cultural division: They're neither North nor South, red nor blue, left nor right, city nor country.
But though "Middle Man" and "Align Yourself" express anger about being asked to choose sides, the band's ambivalence is more eloquent when tied to the small-town roots it has long reveled in. Lead singer Brian Henneman sounds a note of alienation for maybe the first time ever in "Where I'm From": "Where I'm from was never gonna be my place/Never saw a future or a friendly face/I took a chance and left it all behind/Now where I'm from weighs heavy on my mind." But his connection to Festus animates the matter-of-fact title-track manifesto that closes the record:Ê "In my neck of the woods/The town where I live/It's out in the sticks and conservative/Got lots of churches/We got lots of bars/And the kids round here they fight our wars."
The Bottle Rockets aren't always so heavy on Zoysia . "Feeling Down" is a front-porch friendly, bluegrass-tinged lament, while the opening "Better Than Broken" is an ace bar-band love song.
The sense that those songs serve as a respite from the social issues the band feels compelled to work through connects Zoysia to Miller's Citation , where classic-rock and bluegrass side-trips are a break from a political alienation that's equally felt if less thought through. "We're such a complicated nation, but I've still got rock-and-roll," Miller sings, essentially to himself, at one point.
Miller's a Knoxville-based songwriter and onetime Steve Earle protégé who recorded his current album at Midtown's Young Avenue Sound with Jim Dickinson at the helm.
Dickinson's best known as a producer for his work on classic albums by the Replacements and Memphis' own Big Star and his organic style lends a rough grace to Citation. You can hear Dickinson's aural thumbprint at the outset with a bit of studio talk and then an audible drawn breath at the outset of the opening song, "Freedom's a Stranger."
Miller puts a rollicking, Springsteenian tale of a soldier worrying about his girl back home ("Jody") up next to a conflicted reading of a Neil Young political anthem ("Hawks and Doves"), but generally sounds so discombobulated by the present that he goes fishing for answers in the past. He tackles American history and mythology on "Say Ho," a sharp-tongued tribute to Tennessee-to-Texas legend Sam Houston ("He met a man named Andy Jack/He put him on the Nashville map/But even then that town could piss you off"). Miller sounds most alive when rooting around his own head: "Freedom's a Stranger" is a young-lust-remembered song about a first girlfriend and the backseat of a Chevy Citation at least within shouting distance of such classics of the form as Bob Seger's "Night Moves" or Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69.
Zoysia is the kind of smart but unpretentious bar-band rock that has made the group alt-country cult faves for over a decade, but Powell has helped the group fashion its best record since 1997's 24 Hours a Day.