Graded on a Curve: Memphis Rent Party

If one chooses to dig deep into the uncut gusto of 20th century American music, then one will assuredly engage with the work, either in print or on film, of Robert Gordon. His latest book, fresh out in hardcover, is Memphis Rent Party, and the subject of its 20 collected profiles is concisely encapsulated by the dust jacket’s subtitle: Blues, Rock & Soul. For Gordon, it’s familiar if seemingly inexhaustible territory, and in a sweet move, Fat Possum is releasing a companion compilation to illuminate just how wild, raw, twisted, and smooth Bluff City could get. A few of the names might be well-known, but the verve on display across the 12 tracks is rare and inspiring. Both the book and the vinyl are out now.

The corner posts of the Memphis musical experience are surely deserving of their placement, but there’s no doubt that if not necessarily polished, the defining framework does possess a certain welcoming charm in execution that’s been enhanced, but also somewhat tamed, by time and stature. Robert Gordon likes to dig underneath that stuff, and not in a reactionary way, but simply to establish the sheer value of sounds that have been largely confined to the city’s limits.

Sure, today’s music hounds the globe over might know much of Memphis’ subterranean stuff, but that’s in no small part due to Gordon’s passion. I’ve yet to read Memphis Rent Party, as it just came out March 6, but I have soaked up Gordon’s first book It Came from Memphis, and it remains an all-time favorite. Since then, amongst other writerly achievements, he’s authored the ace Muddy Waters biography I Can’t Be Satisfied, a couple of books on Elvis, and won a Grammy for the notes to the Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky.

He’s also made a bunch of films, including Best of Enemies, a documentary on the televised ’68 debates between Gore Vidal and William Buckley, for which he won an Emmy. If Memphis Rent Party makes it seem like Gordon’s simply returning to previously trod ground, wipe away those thoughts right quick; about Memphis music there’s always more to say, and in terms of this accompanying LP, a lot more to hear, with half of its tracks previously unreleased.

The record fittingly begins with Jerry McGill’s version of Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” Back in ’59, McGill cut an okay R&R 45 for Sun with his band the Topcoats, but he’s noted more as a presence in William Eggleston’s ’74 video Stranded in Canton and later, as the focus of Gordon’s 2012 film Very Extremely Dangerous. He also toured, in a non-musical capacity, with Waylon Jennings, though in outlaw terms, McGill was the real deal; at the point of this recording, he was wanted by the FBI.

The legendary and influential Memphis undergrounders Mud Boy and the Neutrons imbue McGill’s song with unkempt grandeur that’s wholly appropriate for the man’s striking vocal, which is at once reflective, stressed, tired, and well, suitably desperate. Altogether, it presents a hard act to follow. So instead, the record shifts gears, turns left, and arrives at the intersection of Luther Dickinson’s gnawing slide guitar and Sharde Thomas’ lively embodiment of the pre-blues fife and drum sound in “Chevrolet.”

But of course, there are connections, as North Mississippi Allstar Luther is the son of Neutron and indispensable fount of Memphis musical goodness Jim Dickinson (more on him later). Additionally, Thomas is the granddaughter of fife and drum master Otha Turner, so this is no approximation. The kick of “Chevrolet” is how it unselfconsciously gets tradition all tangled up in lo-fi modernity, with the duo’s vocal back-and-forth the icing on the cake.

The track’s intimacy and raw fidelity spreads into much of the album’s contents, and nowhere more so than Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long.” A location recording by Gordon, capturing the ambiance of a party in Kimbrough’s living room, the hypnotic pull of the man’s blues power is strong. Some will no doubt be pinpointing Kimbrough’s digs in Mississippi, and that’s right, but this just underscores how everything is connected; this is especially true in the case of Southern music.

As illustration, “All Night Long” is followed by a second living room recording, this one (made by George Mitchell in ’62) documenting “Why Don’t You Come Home Blues” by the pre-war blues great Furry Lewis. Having first cut the song in 1927, along with his other stuff from the period (e.g. the killer two-part “Kassie Jones” immortalized by Harry Smith in The Anthology of American Folk Music) it’s right at the root of so much that transpired in the decades after. Not to be eclipsed, Lewis’ version here is expanded and deepened, and it stands amongst the best acoustic blues of the “rediscovery” period.

From there, Memphis Rent Party shifts gears again with guitarist Calvin Newborn’s “Frame for the Blues,” but remains, like much of the disc, in the performance setting. The brother and frequent accompanist of noted jazz pianist Phineas Newborn, Calvin’s entry here, featuring organ and flute, is a decidedly more sophisticated affair than the cuts preceding it, but this dilutes the set’s vitality not a bit. Instead, “Frame for the Blues” reinforces the range of the city’s musical offerings.

Alex Chilton is a recurring subject for Gordon, featuring prominently in It Came from Memphis, and the attention is well deserved. As a native and current resident of the city, Gordon’s insights penetrate deeper than those of an interested outsider, and by extension, Chilton’s inclusion here, tackling Jimmy Cliff’s “Johnny Too Bad” live with the Randy Band, is a delightful surprise.

It segues terrifically into Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Harbor Lights.” Deriving from a swank late-night studio session helmed by Knox Philips (son of Sam, don’tcha know) and belatedly issued by the Saguaro Road label a few years back, the contents find The Killer full of braggadocio and booze while flaunting undiminished command of the 88s.

To an extent, The Fieldstones’ “Little Bluebird” combines well with Newborn’s track, meaning it’s on the refined side of the spectrum (even as the bootleg quality of the performance tape solidifies a tougher atmosphere that’s in the ballpark of the Kimbrough recording), but the group also have their own non-down-home blues thing happening, landing squarely in the territory of electric Chicago a la Buddy Guy. A cool twist.

Even cooler is “Drop Your Mask” by The Panther Burns. Led by inspirational figure Tav Falco, the band’s discography at its best (which is most of it) extends Memphis’ roots at their sharp and bent best into a natty (and enduring) underground lair made possible by the then-nascent punk explosion; this track, a twisted tango (with a whistling flying-saucer-like synthesizer), derives from Panther Burns’ second gig, and if the prior reports of those shows paint an anarchic picture, this track augments the story with manic cohesion.

Memphis blues nuts might know Mose Vinson as the pianist on James Cotton’s “Cotton Crop Blues,” but then again, maybe not, as all the participants (save for Cotton, perhaps) are upstaged on that track by the blistering acidity of Pat Hare’s guitar playing. Therefore, it’s a stone gas to hear Vinson, simultaneously relaxed and intense (of both hand and voice) in solo boogie-woogie-descended style on “Same Thing on My Mind” (which comes from the 1997 Center for Southern Folklore CD Piano Man).

As side two winds down, Charlie Feathers’ early classic “Defrost Your Heart” delivers a serving of vigorous and achy post-Hank ’50s twang that expands Memphis Rent Party’s breadth even more. And then along comes Jim Dickinson to demolish any notions of reverence with “I’d Love to be a Hippie (But My Hair Won’t Grow That Long).” Every time I hear this cut, my desire to read Gordon’s corresponding words grows, and for anyone with a love for the raw sounds of Memphis, it’ll likely do the same.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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