Years ago, Memphis adopted the promotional title of “Home of Rock-and-Roll and Birthplace of the Blues.” Some might think that’s a bold claim, but not only is it true, it doesn’t begin to cover the vast wealth of musical talent that has been spawned in our city. From hill-country blues to hip-hop to traditional music and everything in between, we cover the whole spectrum. Here’s a look at five centers of activity on the current Memphis music scene.
Lucero’s Rockin’ Return
After more than a decade of recording and touring, one-time alt-country upstarts Lucero have developed into something like a Memphis music institution. And, over their past three albums, the longtime quartet — singer/guitarist Ben Nichols, guitarist Brian Venable, bass player John C. Stubblefield, and drummer Roy Berry — have expanded their lineup and, as a result, expanded their sound. Memphis session ace Rick Steff (keyboards, accordion, whatever else he gets his hands on) joined as a full-time member after 2006’s Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers. Then Little Rock-based pedal-steel player Todd Beene came aboard for 2009’s 1372 Overton Park. And on this year’s arguable career-best, Women & Work, saxophonist Jim Spake and trumpeter Scott Thompson became auxiliary members of the band, fully collaborating in-studio and joining Lucero on the road when possible.
Lucero emerged from the three-year gap between 1372 Overton Park and Women & Work reinvigorated. The new album, recorded locally at Midtown’s Ardent Studios, captures the live sound of a band that has always excelled on stage and has now fully committed to a soulful, opulent Southern rock style that seemed a risky move a few years ago. With a virtuoso back line of Berry, Stubblefield, and Rick Steff, this band now moves: The head-nodding boogie riffs and shimmying rhythms of “On the Way Downtown.” The barrelhouse piano and punching horns of “Women & Work.” The swaggering guitar and coiled groove of “Juniper,” the closest the band has ever come to a straight blues song. The barroom soul of “It May Be Too Late.” The near-ragtime lead-in to the Thin Lizzy-goes-Dixie rock of “Like Lightning.” The Presleyan gospel of “Go Easy.” It’s full immersion — the sound of a band that’s now embraced what they’re capable of and that has left self-consciousness behind.
It’s also been, happily, the band’s most successful album to date, debuting in the Top 50 of the Billboard album chart and in the Top 10 of the magazine’s independent albums chart, with the band touring coast to coast nearly nonstop since the album’s March release.
The Luther Dickinson Diaspora
In 2010, after something of a hiatus in which the brothers were busy working on separate projects, Luther and Cody Dickinson (along with bassist Chris Chew) returned to North Mississippi Allstars action with Keys to the Kingdom, the band’s first album since 2008’s Hernando and the first since the August 2009 passing of their father, revered musician/producer Jim Dickinson. On the album, the younger Dickinsons honored their father by making, for perhaps the first time, music as loose and free and unselfconsciously spirited as he was.
Now, this year, Luther Dickinson has emulated his father in emerging as a ringleader for a rich, iconoclastic regional blues/roots scene, going as far as releasing three roughly connected “side projects” on the same day this spring: Old Times There ..., the second album from the South Memphis String Band; Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here, the debut from The Wandering, a regional roots-music “super group” of sorts that Dickinson organized; and Hambone’s Meditations, a solo-acoustic guitar album that’s been a long-standing labor of love.
Old Times There ..., South Memphis String Band’s second album, for the local Memphis International label, is as rowdy and communal as Hambone’s Meditations is gentle and introspective, with Dickinson and partners Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus drawing on the work of early twentieth-century acoustic blues and jug-band musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, and the Mississippi Sheiks and diving into the rich, twisted racial history of America and particularly the South — slavery, war, reconstruction, Jim Crow.
With The Wandering, Dickinson assembled a quartet of like-minded female musicians from around the region at his family’s Zebra Ranch Studio — Valerie June on banjo, Amy LaVere on upright bass, Shannon McNally on guitar, and Sharde Thomas on fife and drum. Dickinson summoned them all — like the set-up of a blockbuster superhero movie — to Zebra Ranch with the only instruction to bring along a couple of traditional songs or covers they’d be interested in playing. With Dickinson producing and filling in where needed, almost instantly they had a band. Three days later, they had a terrific, warm, loose-limbed debut album, with eclectic material ranging from ’60s/’70s folk-rock and singer-songwriter country to ancient country-blues traditionals, and with all four female members featured on vocals.
If The Wandering has a star, it’s probably LaVere, who has been touring the country on the strength of her terrific 2011 album Stranger Me, a swaggeringly musical suite of break-up songs. On the move, however, is June, who has been splitting time between Memphis and New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville, as she puts the finishing touches on a long-in-coming solo debut album, one recorded primarily in Nashville, in close collaboration with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who co-produced, co-wrote several songs with June, and plays on the record.
Once dominated by Oscar winners Three 6 Mafia, the Memphis rap scene is growing deeper and more diverse. Three 6 is still around, with mastermind Juicy J recently hooking up with star Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa’s label. And a couple of other veterans have remained forces: Yo Gotti has been collaborating with some of the genre’s biggest stars — Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross — and earlier this year released his major-label debut, Live From the Kitchen. And Memphis rap pioneer 8Ball — a key influence for an entire generation of Southern rap artists — returned this summer with a new solo album, Life’s Quest.
But a lot of the most interesting action has come from younger and newer artists.
After a stark YouTube video for his autobiographical song “Letter To My Son” went viral, previously unknown Memphis rapper Don Trip was signed to Interscope Records, which re-released the song as an official single last year after adding a vocal chorus from superstar Cee-Lo. Since then, Trip’s been suffering the album delays common to almost every rapper on a major label these days, but has stayed at the forefront of the rap scene with a series of well-received “mixtape” releases (most prominently last year’s Step Brothers, a collaboration with Nashville rapper Starlito that was named one of the year’s 40 best rap albums by Spin, and the recent solo effort Guerrilla) and by becoming the first Memphis rapper to make national rap magazine XXL’s “Freshman Class” cover, an annual feature on 10 rap artists poised for a breakout.
Rivaling Trip as a recent breakout is Cities Aviv, a punk- and metal-schooled young rapper who garnered national recognition amid an increasingly crowded field of Internet/indie rap upstarts off the idiosyncratic strength of his 2011 debut album Digital Lows separately released single “Coastin’.” Cities Aviv plans to release his second album, Black Pleasure, sometime later this year.
Bubbling under Trip and Aviv are some other young rappers of note: With a nimble vocal style and thoughtful worldview, Skewby became the first Memphis rapper tapped in national hip-hop oracle The Source’s prestigious “Unsigned Hype” column and has since polished his resume with last year’s More or Less album and the recent Humble Pie EP, both simultaneously laid-back and forward-looking. Young Dolph and Zed Zilla are coming up behind Yo Gotti and Don Trip on the Memphis street-rap scene.
Memphis has been a garage-rock hub for decades, and is perhaps more than ever identified with those kind of sounds as the home of the subcultural Goner Records empire.
Plenty of current artists are making sharp, unpretentious, guitar-based rock. Leading the way might be John Paul Keith, whose backing band the One Four Fives typically features the veteran rhythm section of drummer John Argroves and bassist Mark Stuart, making Keith & Co. arguably the city’s tightest and most enjoyable current live band. Last year, Keith released his second album, The Man That Time Forgot. Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly-style rock-and-roll? Tex-Mex and honky-tonk country? Garage rock and early-’60s soul? Folk rock, smoky jazz-blues, and Marshall Crenshaw-style power pop? The unusually adept Keith can do it all — with a lighter touch than most, flawless taste, and sure songwriting chops.
Keith often moonlights as a sideman for Jack Oblivian, the onetime member of seminal Memphis garage-punk bands as the Compulsive Gamblers and, of course, the Oblivians. Yarber adds an increasingly assured old-school R&B edge to the garage-punk template, most recently on his fine 2011 album Rat City. Alicja Trout (Clears, Lost Sounds) is another rock-scene vet who continues to be a leading player. Trout gets poppy with her band Mouserocket, but lets her inner guitar hero out in the River City Tanlines, with ample help from arguably the city’s best rock rhythm section, Terrence Bishop and John Bonds. The Tanlines returned this summer with a new album, Coast to Coast.
A newer band in this vein that’s making waves is Tiger High, the latest project from the brothers Vest (Jake and Toby), who previously partnered in notable local bands such as the Bulletproof Vests and Third Man. Here they’re joined by longtime collaborator Greg Faison and former Reigning Sound drummer Greg Roberson to forge a sound that drifts from their earlier art- and classic-rock styles into something at once poppier, fuzzier, and more psychedelic.
Young Bands on the Make
National music magazine Paste recently tabbed Memphis folk-rockers Star & Micey as the most promising young band in Tennessee. The band sometimes performs its spirited, harmony-laden songs as a trio, with three string-playing core members accompanying themselves with stomping foot percussion, and sometimes the band expands to a six-piece with accordion, violin, and drums. But either way they’re one of the city’s most enjoyable live bands, and they’ve been prepping an EP for national indie Fat Possum for later this year.
Joining Star & Micey on that Paste list of young Tennessee bands to watch — along with previously mentioned rapper Cities Aviv — was the Memphis Dawls, a rootsy trio that is the latest enterprise of sharp singer-songwriter Holly Cole, here joined by Jana Misener (of the band Giant Bear) and violinist Krista Wroten (who plays in Amy LaVere’s band). Adding to the trio’s current upswing are a few recent handpicked dates opening up for alt-rock superstar Jack White and a national digital re-release of the band’s eponymous debut EP, which was released locally last year.
One of the city’s best new bands might be Hi Electric, a heavy but melodic guitar-rock band led by Neil Bartlett, who spent a lot of time in the studio crafting an eponymous debut album that’s now one of 2012’s best local releases. The band’s guitar-drenched take on Big Star-style pop-rock melodicism lies somewhere on the continuum between Teenage Fanclub and My Bloody Valentine.
Another heavy trio, the Dirty Streets, who have toured as a Lucero opener, specialize in a classic-rock facsimile that draws on such ’60s and ’70s blues-rock stars as Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Humble Pie. The band lives up to its name with its grimy, swaggering attack, and recently returned to its roots with a strong second album, Movements.