Jeff Kollath has been on the job as executive director of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music for about a year now. He hails from Waunakee, Wisconsin — “The only Waunakee in the world,” he tells me — and had a son named Presley and a cat named Otis before he and wife Jennifer ever made the trek south. Hearing the synthesized vibes of “Theme from Shaft” being played over loudspeakers as he walks into work is just part of the dream job for this history buff, and I sat down in his Soulsville office recently to learn how he came to the profession (and soul music), what he thinks of his new hometown, and just what his favorite Stax recording is.
Tell us a little about your background.
I went to undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse. It wasn’t my intent to be a history major in college, but I realized early on that with the professors I had and the classes I could take, it was the first time I realized that history was open-ended; there are some right answers and some wrong answers, but there’s a lot of gray area in between and having the freedom to debate theory, debate concepts, argue about interpretations, is really interesting. It turned out that the experience I had in undergrad correlated well with graduate school and I went to IUPUI [Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis] where I got my master’s in Public History. That’s where I learned the practical aspects of the trade, so to speak. It’s where I discovered soul music and funk music in Indianapolis.
After graduate school I went back to Madison and worked for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum where I eventually became curator of history. I accepted a job in 2012 with the Milwaukee County Historical Society, and two weeks later we found out we were having a baby, so I super-commuted 90 minutes for a year and a half before going to the University of Wisconsin.
How did you make it from Wisconsin to the corner of College and McLemore?
There are always places that you’d love to work and things you’d love to do. This job came up and a friend recommended it and put in a cursory email to Calvin [Stovall, CEO of the Soulsville Foundation], and he and I had a conversation. We had a couple of phone interviews and then an in-person interview. The thing that was exciting for me is that it was the first time that I had applied for a job where I knew the subject matter backwards and forwards. I was able to come in and talk about the museum and what things we could do programmatically, and in terms of exhibits and things, too, but mainly I could talk with passion about the topic because I had been listening to Stax and Southern soul music forever.
What is the role of the Stax Museum?
We have two roles and I think one of them is obviously the traditional museum role to inform and educate, and to present people with a story. I think we’re similar to Graceland and Sun and Rock ’n’ Soul in that regard. We are a historical attraction but also a tourist attraction, too. We’re very aware of our role in that. What I think Stax can do is that we have the ability going forward to play a pretty significant role in the community around us here in Soulsville, but also in Memphis and Shelby County, too, through collaborative programming with other arts organizations and institutions, and really taking the history of Stax and bringing it forward. I think one of the ways we do that, which is what the Stax Music Academy does and what the Soulsville Charter School does, is this legacy of young people doing extraordinary things, opportunity, and empowerment. I think those are the three things that I keep coming back to: Stax is all about opportunity for people.
One of the things we talk about here at the museum all the time is Stax is a brand name that communicates something more than just the music: it communicates cool, it communicates power, it communicates grit, it communicates authenticity, it communicates all this great stuff.
What did you know about Memphis when you got here?
I’d just visited once — Stax, Graceland, and Rock ’n’ Soul. That was early on in my deep dive into Southern music as a whole. My foundational music from where all else springs is the Allman Brothers. As I started collecting music, that’s where I learned about Muscle Shoals and FAME [Studios], learned about the guys that played in Macon. Sometime along the way, I picked up Dusty in Memphis. I bought the record, which is amazing, but that’s the first time I started paying attention to who played on which record and where it was recorded. When I was going out looking for records or trying to find new stuff to listen to, if it said FAME, if it said Muscle Shoals, if it said American, and if it said Stax, there’s a pretty good chance this record’s going to be good.
After a year, what do you think of Memphis?
I like Memphis. There’s an authenticity here that people are drawn to. To me, it comes from the music and it comes from the art, and that’s what the people who come to Stax are coming for. It sounds cheesy, but it’s just a real place. Authenticity isn’t always clean and crisp, so a lot of places might run away from that, but I think Memphis is really starting to embrace that because I think that it’s an important part of the history. It’s an important part of the culture.
What’s your favorite Stax exhibit?
Hall of Records. It communicates so much about Stax. It’s chronological by label so you can see the vision. You can see where they were headed business-wise, genre-wise, and musically. It became not just about R&B and soul records anymore, it became about becoming a fully formed, fully realized record company. I knew a fair amount, but there are records out there I still haven’t listened to and didn’t know existed until I started working here.
And your favorite Stax recording?
Melting Pot. Booker T. & the M.G.’s.