The late 1980s and early ’90s were something of a fallow time for Memphis music. It was well after the Sun/Stax gold rush but still several years before artists such as the North Mississippi Allstars, Three 6 Mafia, and Saliva began to reignite the local scene’s commercial potential.But it was also a formative time and place for two of the best, most critically praised, and most successful roots-music acts of the past decade — Todd Snider and the Drive-By Truckers — both of whom hit their stride after leaving Memphis, continuing to reference the city in their work, and both of whom have released new albums this February.
Snider was raised in Portland and is now based out of Nashville, but he moved to Memphis in the late ’80s in part because he was a fan of local songwriter Keith Sykes. Snider spent a few years bouncing around Memphis clubs and bars before catching his break, releasing a debut album, Songs From the Daily Planet, on major-label MCA in 1994 while scoring a minor hit with the “novelty” song “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues.”
Though most of Snider’s recording career postdates his Memphis years, the city makes recurring appearances on his albums. On his 2003 live album, Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, Snider introduces the song “Side Show Blues” with a long, funny, and, he says, absolutely true story about a more-lively-than-expected trip from his apartment at the Gilmore (on Madison at McLean) to the Circle K down the street for a cup of coffee, where he found a clerk with a knife in his back and a sign on the door saying the store was temporarily closed.
On 2004’s East Nashville Skyline, Snider spends a verse on the song “Nashville” tipping his hat to an old Memphis friend, piano player Jason D. Williams: “Well if you ever find yourself in Memphis, Tennessee/Be sure to look up my old buddy Jason D./He is as cool a rockin’ daddy as you’ll ever see/The stone second coming of Jerry Lee.”
Last year, Snider produced a new Williams album, Killer Instincts.
And on 2006’s The Devil You Know, Snider revisits another violent Memphis experience with “The Highland Street Incident,” where he recounts his own mugging — in an alley behind what was then the Highland Cue pool hall — from the perspective of the muggers: “Did we get arrested?/No we did not/Didn’t shoot anyone/Didn’t get shot.”
Memphis pops up again on Snider’s new two-disc album, Live: The Storyteller. On “KK Rider Story,” his eight-and-a-half-minute, spoken-word intro to the Jerry Jeff Walker cover “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance,” Snider talks about his time spent playing rhythm guitar in a Memphis country cover band while waiting for his first album to come out. The wild story he tells somehow involves a downtown pool hall, a rope swing, an unconscious woman, and two sleeveless .38 Special T-shirts.
If two live albums in eight years seems excessive for anyone, much less an acoustic-based folksinger like Snider, his genial on-stage charisma, quick-witted banter, and epic storytelling — including, on Live: The Storyteller, a George Carlin-worthy but more personal story of playing high-school football — make it a perfect forum for him. And Live: The Storyteller only repeats two titles from the track listing of Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, concentrating, instead, on songs from Snider’s past three album. It’s not superfluous. It’s a companion piece to the earlier live record, and a tremendously enjoyable one.
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the co-leaders of the Georgia-based Drive-By Truckers, lived in Memphis in the early ’90s when they were trying to launch their then-buzzed-about pre-Truckers band, Adam’s House Cat.
Adam’s House Cat never took off and Hood and Cooley returned south to their Alabama/Georgia home base, forming the Drive-By Truckers at the end of the ’90s and watching the bands grow from dive bars to sold-out theaters over the past decade.
But if the duo’s time in Memphis didn’t result in success back then, the Bluff City connection has influenced their music over the years. The band got a couple of songs out of their rocky experience here, both of which appeared on their second album, 1999’s Pizza Deliverance. There’s “The Night G.G. Allin Came To Town,” recounting an infamous appearance by the more infamous punk rocker at Midtown’s Antenna Club. The song is sung from the perspective of a bewildered older couple reading an account of the “concert” in a local paper. (“Punk Rockers Paid $12 To Be Shit On!” goes the headline.) And then there’s Cooley’s “One of These Days,” where, speaking of his father, Cooley sings, “I remember him saying that Chicago was a hell right here on earth/And 25 years later I was saying the same thing about Memphis.”
Later, the band added a third songwriter with Memphis connections in Jason Isbell, who penned a tribute to Sam Phillips and Sun Records, “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” for the band’s 2004 album, The Dirty South.
The Truckers’ Memphis connection culminated over the past couple of years with time spent in the studio and on the road as a backing band for Stax legend Booker T. Jones and an album, 2010’s The Big To-Do, dedicated to recently deceased Memphis producer Jim Dickinson.
Memphis doesn’t factor in the band’s new album, Go-Go Boots, though Cooley does pen a song about a girl from Pulaski, Tennessee, who leaves home for California and comes to regret it. The album is quieter than the band’s norm and probably less essential than most in their catalogue. Hood takes two different looks at what seems to be the same seedy small-town crime — a minister who put a hit out on his wife — while Cooley spins a trio of typically intimate character sketches.
Todd Snider Buyer’s Guide
1. The Devil You Know (2006):
Snider reports from the margins of American life with a series of bone-deep and defiantly funny character sketches — two past-their-prime old friends getting reacquainted in a hotel room, a stick-up kid on the run, a day laborer taking no guff. And those songs are bookended by two personal testaments: In the first, Snider greets death with a shrug and a smile. On the last, he channels Mississippi John Hurt with his guitar, tips his hat to hip-hop, tells a great corny joke, and responds to polarizing times with a hymn to uncertainty.
2. East Nashville Skyline (2004):
Snider began a new phase with the saddest, funniest, and most deeply humane “protest” record of its election year. The singalong instant classic “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight White American Males” poked gentle fun at both sides of the red/blue divide. But if Snider was too modest and too nice to lecture anybody about anything, he seemed to understand in his bones just how extreme American life had gotten, and he was certain of at least one thing: The worst stuff always rains down hardest on the poor.
3. Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms (2003):
A de facto best-of from the first decade of Snider’s recording career cherry-picks highlights (“Beer Run,” “Side Show Blues”) from spotty albums, but the side-splitting pre-song stories are the thing, especially one rambling, triumphant tale about failing to find Luckenbach, Texas.
Drive-By Truckers Buyer’s Guide
1. Decoration Day (2003):
On the previous Southern Rock Opera (see below), head Trucker Patterson Hood composed musical Grit Lit on a macro level. On this sharper, prettier, deeper follow-up, his regional ardor is conveyed in offhand details, such as opening a song with the line “Something ’bout that wrinkle in your forehead tells me there’s a fit ’bout to get thrown.” Meanwhile, musical life partner Mike Cooley cribs a boogie riff from the dread Eagles and attaches it to a bit of truth-telling that runs counter to that band’s mythos: “Rock-and-roll means well but it can’t help telling young boys lies.” Finally, newcomer and University of Memphis grad Jason Isbell — who signed on for a three-album stint starting here — proved, with “Outfit” and the title track, to be the finest writer of working-class folk ballads on the planet. You don’t expect an album about destroyed lives, failed marriages, and legacies of violence and regret to be invigorating. But this one was. And you don’t expect modern-day traditional rock bands to make records that rival the best of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. This one did.
2. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (2008): Though Brighter Than Creation’s Dark peaks at the very beginning with the saddest, loveliest song Hood will ever write, it holds its shape for an epic 19 songs and 75 minutes. Hood takes the toll of the Iraq war from two vantage points, ruminates on road life, spits in the wind of recession, and tips his cap to printer-of-legends “the great John Ford.” Sidekick Cooley spins one wonderful, low-rent character sketch after another, several of them probably autobiographical, led by a definitive metal-to-grunge saga he’s old enough to have lived and a shaggy confession that outs country storyteller Tom T. Hall as the band’s biggest influence.
3. Southern Rock Opera (2001):
The Drive-By Truckers break through with a two-disc concept album of sorts that tells the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Shut Up and Get on the Plane,” “Ronnie and Neil”) and muses on Southern culture generally (“Wallace”). But at its best — Hood’s hilarious “Let There Be Rock,” Cooley’s achingly dead-on “Zip City” — this big album nails all kinds of small moments about being a small-town Southern teen. In other words, it speaks to just the kind of kid who might have been hanging out in the parking lot before a Lynyrd Skynyrd show.