September 9, 2010

Back to Tennessee, Day 3


Today was a full day, so this is going to be a full blog.  Started fairly early, grabbing a quick breakfast in the hotel lobby then wandering across the street to sit in Confederate Park on the Memphis bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.  Only in a place like Memphis could you find such contrary memorials as a statue commemorating Jefferson Davis as a "true patriot" and the National Civil Rights Museum, built in and around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated--  One dedicated to a cause that oppressed people, the other to a cause that freed them but that still has a ways to go in ensuring full equality.


After breakfast, Lyle and I headed to Sun Studio, the famed recording studio where Sam Philips had a hand in launching the careers of musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Philips, like John and Alan Lomax, recognized something in the blues-inspired music of Southern black culture and felt compelled to shove it in the face of the masses.  Without him, that skinny little white boy with a curled up smile might never have recorded Arthur Crudup's That's All Right in such an engaging style, changing the world of music forever.





In the days leading up to this trip, I'd begun reading Alan Lomax's Land Where the Blues Began. Jack White said that when you begin to explore rock'n'roll, "you're on a freight train headed straight for the blues". Lomax's book takes that train even further, digging into the sources of the blues, going all the way back to Africa and up through the music of the levee camps and prisons of the Delta in the early part of the 20th century.  It's striking that the blues are a music born of rage and pain of the sort that very few white people have ever experienced, yet it was men like Lomax, Philips, and Elvis who integrated this music by filtering it through the more popular white styles of the day.  


This idea of integration of races and music was a recurring theme through this trip.  Land Where the Blues Began is also a powerful sociological and historical tract, describing first hand encounters with race relations in the Delta area.  As a U.S. Civil War "buff", the treatment of blacks over the course of this country's history is no surprise to me. I've read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and other books on the subject, but Lomax's book and our visit later in the afternoon to the Civil Rights Museum brought the situation home.  And it was astounding to stand next to Martin Luther King, Jr's motel room in the preserved section of the Lorraine Motel, looking out the window at the spot on the balcony where he was shot, only blocks from the blues joints of Beale Street.  It's very interesting to be in a place like Memphis, where music inspired by black culture is celebrated on Beale and elsewhere, yet where the people have been so reviled, oppressed, and exploited.  Lyle and I talked briefly, as we stood transfixed before some of the exhibits in the museum, about how easily all of that horror could happen again.  If the wrong person were to gain enough influence, it would be all too easy to imagine such outrageous violence directed towards the present day population of Muslims in this country.  It gave me a chill to think of it, standing there watching footage of people being attacked by police dogs and bowled over by water cannons in Birmingham, Alabama, less than 50 years ago.

After the sobering experience of the museum, we again hit the road, this time heading all the way to Nashville.  Interstate 40 was crawling with as many cops as it was when I drove it back in April, but they were fortunately all heading the opposite direction on the other side of the highway.  We got to Nashville in time to pick up a third compatriot, doll ourselves up, and head over to Mercy Lounge to meet yet another friend (who took all of the photos below) for a highly anticipated show that was part of the Americana Music Festival--  Wanda Jackson and the Dex Romweber Duo.  Wanda, who is no longer the hot mama portrayed in that linked video but who still puts on a rocking show, was presented earlier in the evening with a 2010 Americana Lifetime Achievement Award by none other than Jack White, who recently produced her upcoming album, The Party Ain't Over.  And Dex Romweber has been a tremendous influence on Jack's music, specifically within the context of The White Stripes.  So you can understand my anticipation of this show.  With both artists having such a strong connection to Jack, and with the venue being a block away from Third Man Records, who knows?  Perhaps he'd even be there.

The show was opened by alternative country singer, Dale Watson, who I was surprised to enjoy as much as I did.  Great voice, great look, and a great guitar covered in quarters.  


Photo by Jeremy Richerson
He was followed by Wanda, who was sprightly and sassy and I hope to hell I have as much vitality when I reach her age.  The woman's voice seems, if anything, even stronger than it was in her early rockabilly days.  Lyle noticed that there were several very young folks at the front of the audience near us who sang along with every song in Wanda's set.  I couldn't help but wonder if they'd gotten into her music because of her connection with Jack.  He talked in a recent article about how there are no "tastemakers" in the music biz in this country anymore, such as DJ's who promoted local acts on the air.  He ironically makes it sound as if he doesn't realize how he himself is filling that role with what he's doing at Third Man.

Photo by Jeremy Richerson
And he was indeed there that night.  I caught a split-second glimpse of him over by the sound board during Wanda's set, grinning as he leaned over to talk to someone.  When he stood back up, though, he disappeared behind a support beam at the side of the stage and I saw no more.  Still very cool to know he was there, having a good time and enjoying two fellow artists with whom he's been so involved.

The evening was capped off by Dex and his sister, Sara.  I was very surprised at how much of the crowd disappeared before the Duo hit the stage.  They put on one hell of a show.  I could hear immediately what elements of Dex's music had been absorbed by Jack into the Stripes--  much of the guitar style, the sparseness of only guitar and drums, the rawness, the passionate, abandoned delivery.  It's all there, and as he did with the blues, Jack's now led me in another direction and I will be listening to a lot of Dex Romweber in the near future.  Dex's music is incredibly overlooked, though I couldn't help but feel that perhaps that's the way he likes it.


Photo by Jeremy Richerson

Photo by Jeremy Richerson
Photo by Jeremy Richerson
Photo by Jeremy Richerson

Full album of photos here.




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