Welcome to our semi-regular column, “Sounds Around Town”, all about who is recording what and where in Memphis. (Pictured, Jackie Venson. Photo by Pooneh Ghana).
Royal Studio‘s Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell was working last week with Austin, TX-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Jackie Venson.
Memphis by-way-of Louisiana swamp-soul chanteuse Marcella René Simien and her band, aka Marcella and Her Lovers, recently began their new full-length at American. Produced by High/Low Recording‘s Toby Vest and recorded and engineered by Pete Matthews, this is the maiden voyage for their new venture at the old American East building, later known as Easley-McCain.
Jeff Powell has been busy cutting lacquers in his mastering room at Sam Phillips Recording, including a box set of Al Green’s complete Hi Records singles (a total of 26 7″ 45rpm records), as well as vinyl releases for Dr. John, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Gregg Allman. He engineered the recently released Afghan Whigs record In Spades in part at Phillips, and produced his wife Susan Marshall‘s upcoming covers album, named after the studio’s address: 639 Madison.
There’s been a lot of activity the past couple of months over at Music + Arts Studio. Back in March, rapper and activist Marco Pavé did pre-production for his hip-hop opera there. Jazz musicians and twin brothers Carl and Alan Maguire recorded an album with the legendary Donald Brown producing. In April, Kevin Houston mixed the Kevin Cubbins-produced debut from young local band Summer Avenue, as well as the soundtrack to a documentary film about famed Memphis dancer Lil Buck. In May, the studio did a remote live recording of the Lovelight Orchestra (featuring blues vocalist John Németh) at Bar DKDC, for a live album produced by Ross-Spang and engineered by Houston. May also saw sessions at Music + Arts for Ruf Records artists Big Daddy Wilson and Dana Fuchs.
Speaking of Matt Ross-Spang, he recently finished work over at Sam Phillips Recording Service on a new record for California artist Nicki Bluhm. May also saw the release of the Ross-Spang produced Sweet Kind of Blue from British folk artist Emily Barker, recorded at Phillips last year and engineered by Jeff Powell.
Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Recordscomes out this month. Produced by Tamara Saviano and Luther Dickinson for the Americana Music Society and engineered by Matt Ross-Spang and Kevin Houston, all proceeds go to St. Jude’s Research Hospital. The sessions were divided between Sun and Phillips, and feature performances of classic Sun material from artist like Valerie June, Jimbo Mathus, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Shawn Camp, Chuck Mead, Amy LaVere, and more. I was lucky enough to play guitar in the house band on the sessions, and I have my own track, a cover of Warren Smith’s “Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache”. (Thank you to Alex Greene at the Memphis Flyer for the write-up).
I had the pleasure of writing this piece for the MAY+JUN 2017 issue of Focus Mid-South Magazine. Photos courtesy of Shenanigans Photography.
In the summer of 2016, rising British folk star Emily Barker found herself passing through the Bluff City. A native Australian, she relocated to the UK several years ago and launched a career there. Her group Red Clay Halo found success, and one of her songs was used as the theme for a popular BBC television show Wallander. After making several solo records in Britain, she recorded a side project in Nashville called Applewood Road. It was almost time for her next solo record, and the plan was to make it in Nashville as well.
On her way there, however, she stopped in Memphis for a couple of days to meet with producer Matt Ross-Spang. Matt gave her a tour of the newly revamped Sam Phillips Recording Service (est. 1960). After that visit, Emily decided she wasn’t going to make her next record in Nashville after all.
Instead, she made her new record, Sweet Kind of Blue, in Memphis, with all Memphis musicians, many of whom she’d never met until they started cutting. I was around at the time and I would describe Emily’s demeanor as beaming. Memphis swept her off her feet. I know the feeling.
Also in the same article: Memphis’ scrappy upstart studio, High/Low, is moving into a new location: the old American East studio. The studio was originally built by Chips Moman in 1968 to handle overflow business from his American Studio, which at the time was one of the most in-demand recording studios in the US. A lot of great records were made in that building, especially in its later incarnation as Easley-McCain, where artists like Townes van Zandt, Sonic Youth, the White Stripes, and Wilco made noteworthy albums. Congratulations to owners Toby Vest and Pete Matthews!
Australian-born, UK-based singer/songwriter Emily Barker has a new record out this week, Sweet Kind of Blue. The album was recorded last year at Sam Phillips Recording Service was produced by Matt Ross-Spang, and features all Memphis musicians. London’s Financial Times visited Emily in “the Cape Canaveral of studios”.
Memphis in the sunshine is like a city in slow motion. Cars glide dreamily down Madison Avenue as they pass the tram stop and the minty-fresh looking Sam Phillips Recording Services building. The street is warm and soupy, and so quiet that it’s hard to imagine the Yardbirds belting out “Train Kept A-Rollin'” inside, or Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash drinking with Phillips at the bar on the penthouse floor, leaving cigarette burns in the Formica counter.
Emily has been a guest at my Lafayette’s shows a couple of times, and she stayed at my place some while she was here making the record, so I was lucky enough to get to hear some of it while it was being made. It’s a really lovely record.
“If Memphis is looking for the next incarnation of its musical identity, this is it.” NPR’s First Listen takes a look at Memphis hip-hop artist and activist Marco Pavé and his debut LP, Welcome to Grc Lnd.MTV News came to town last month to see Pavé perform the album live.
Welcome to Grc Lnd isn’t a single narrative, but it feels like it could be. Everything, at the end, is work that is facing home. When he writes about protest, he’s writing about Memphis. When he writes about overcoming poverty, he’s writing about Memphis. When he writes about family, his hopes, his dreams, he is writing about Memphis.
Scott Bomar just wrapped up mixing my next full-length album last week at Electraphonic. The record was produced by Will Sexton, my bandmate in Motel Mirrors. We’re also currently getting Motel Mirrors long-overdue full-length, In The Meantime, ready for mastering. Scott and I also just finished up the new James and The Ultrasounds LP for Mad Jack Records. It was my first time producing another artist.
Reverb notes the revival of three historic recording studios, including Sun.
In Memphis, Nashville, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the reappearance and renewed vitality of these seminal sound sanctuaries goes beyond the museumification of music epitomized by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or Graceland.
Their return could also be seen as a rebuke to the laptop mentality, to Auto-Tune, to infinite tracks of Pro Tools. They remind us that it was always about a bunch of people crammed into a small room making music, a long-buried nerve these studios seem to be touching.
Interestingly enough, each of these studios are in cities that comprise what some call the Americana Music Triangle. It stands to reason that a renewed interest in American roots music would coincide with a renewed interest in the studios and methods once used to record it.
(A note of personal trivia: my first recording session in Nashville in 1994 or 1995 was at RCA Studio A, then known as Havelina or “Big Pig”. My band The Viceroys, later known as The V-Roys, were recording demos there for E Squared Records, Steve Earle’s label. Bucky Baxter produced. I was around 19 or 20 years old, and it was my first time on a professional session).
Welcome to a new type of post I hope to do at least somewhat regularly, where I give the lowdown on sessions happening around the Bluff City. Maybe we’ll do it once a week, maybe once a month, or maybe whenever I get around to it (the most likely scenario).
I’ve been working a lot in Electraphonic myself lately. This week we start mixing my forthcoming record, produced by Will Sexton and engineered by Scott Bomar. We cut it on Scott’s Scully 8-track and are mixing to 1/4″.
Next week, Scott and I resume tracking and mixing the next James & The Ultrasounds LP for Madjack Records, the followup to their Madjack debut, Bad to be Here. This project is my first time in the producer’s chair.