Willy and the Planks is a Nashville-based blues band with strong Hill Country influence, led by Bill Gibbs, whom I met through his friendship with Robert Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough. When I heard they would be playing in Memphis, Sherena Boyce and I headed down to the Center for Southern Folklore to see them. The band is something of a power trio approach to the blues, but the musicianship is stellar and they are definitely worth seeing.
New Orleans’beloved Jazz Fest celebrates the wide diversity of New Orleans music, but the Memphis equivalent, the Beale Street Music Festival generally does not feature Memphis’ musical culture or history, despite the occasional appearance of a big Memphis or Mid-South act, such as Yo Gotti or the North Mississippi All-Stars. So people who want to delve deeply into the musical culture of Memphis and the surrounding area must look elsewhere, and fortunately, there is a festival geared particularly to the indigenous music cultures of the Mid-South, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Founded in 1982 by a non-profit called the Center for Southern Folklore, the festival is a free event across two days and six downtown Memphis stages (four of them outdoors) where the best in local soul, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, indie rock, fife-and-drum music, majorettes and drumlines are presented. The line-up is always surprising and enjoyable, but this year’s Saturday schedule involved a number of artists from the Mississippi Hill Country, including veteran Como bluesman R. L. Boyce, who recently released his third album Roll & Tumble on the Waxploitation label out of California, who was joined by guitarist Luther Dickinson at the Center for Southern Folklore stage. The highlight was a song that Boyce improvised on the spot for the victims of the flooding in Houston, entitled “We Can’t Drink This Water.” Young up-and-comer Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, performed on the same stage with drummer Timotheus Scruggs and some assistance on tambourines from his mother Joyce Jones and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. Jones, affectionately known as “She-Wolf”, was herself featured with her band on the Gayoso Stage later in the day, performing several of her original songs, including “Poor Black Man” and “Juke Joint Party”, and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on the large Peabody Place stage to a decent-sized crowd. These were just a handful of the hundred or so artists that performed each day on the various stages, and while the donation cans were passed around frequently, there were no VIP areas, no fenced-in areas, and no stages requiring tickets or wristbands. A day spent at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival will immerse you in the diverse cultures of the people of Memphis and the Mid-South.
Drums have played an important role in all Black musical cultures, and Memphis is no exception. Although Blacks were forbidden to have drums prior to the Civil War in almost all Southern states other than Louisiana, they quickly became an important part of Black musical life during Reconstruction, being used in the brass bands and fife-and-drum bands that accompanied fraternal organization parades or picnics, political rallies and funerals. Many of these organizations had been founded by Black troops that had fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union after the Emancipation Proclamation, and undoubtedly some of these men had been drummers. The all-Black colleges and schools that began to form during and after Reconstruction also had marching bands with percussion sections as well, and this tradition had an influence on Black communities in the South. By the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement, a new interest in Black culture and its African roots may have led to the formation of the majorette and drummer phenomenon in Memphis which emerged around 1969 or so. Although Black high schools and colleges had always had majorettes and drummers as part of their bands, the phenomenon where majorettes performed competitive routines accompanied only by the drummers was new, and perhaps unique to Memphis. As the years progressed, the drummers added some innovations, like the use of marching toms and eventually roto-toms, to add different layers of pitch to the percussive musical landscape, and the addition of hi-hat cymbals, so as to approximate the sound of a drum set. The accompaniments were often influenced by funk or Latin music, but aside from occasional melodies played on the glockenspiel, the musical backing for these routines was strictly drums, and the drummers were judged as well as the majorettes. This musical and cultural phenomenon was so much a part of my teenage years in the 1980’s that it was unthinkable that it could ever disappear, and yet nowadays the majorette jamboree as it existed then is largely a thing of the past, the drummers having been replaced by recorded CD’s of popular songs played by a DJ. There are lots of theories as to why the majorette drumming phenomenon has died in Memphis, but some of them point out the lack of instruments and high expense of drums, the discouraging of the tradition by school principals and band directors, the lack of available drum instructors, the banning of majorettes and drummers from local community centers (apparently due to the noise involved with their practices), and the negative influence of the streets and gang activity causing lack of interest on the part of young men. For whatever reason, the Black drumming tradition in Memphis is certainly endangered, but at least one organization, the Baby Blues Drumline, has worked over the last few years to try to preserve this culture. Often appearing at the Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, Africa in April on Beale Street or the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they frequently draw a crowd of onlookers. At this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they were a featured act, appearing briefly at the Gayoso Street Stage on Sunday afternoon before a small but appreciative crowd.
The annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, held each Labor Day weekend along Main Street in downtown Memphis, is the city’s premiere music festival featuring the styles of music indigenous to Memphis and its surrounding region. The totally-free festival features multiple stages across two days, filled with gospel, blues, soul, rock, bluegrass and country, as well as local drill teams, majorettes and drumlines, cooking demonstrations and visual art. One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Sunday afternoon meeting of Hill Country blues veteran R. L. Boyce with Hill Country youngblood Cameron Kimbrough, grandson of the legendary Junior Kimbrough. The early tunes featured R. L. Boyce on guitar and Cameron Kimbrough on the drums, and then, about halfway through the performance, they switched, with Boyce setting up a fife-and-drum-inspired groove on the drum set, and Cameron playing his original blues tunes on the guitar. It was a truly magic collaboration from the start, and one that I hope finds further opportunity in the future.
This year, the On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival moved to Labor Day Weekend, which was also the date of the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, so my ability to check out the latter was severely limited. But I did go down early Saturday morning with my friend Otis Logan to check out trombonist Suavo J and drummer Donnon Johnson with the Memphorleans Street Symphony at the Union Avenue stage. The weather was great, and a decent crowd of music lovers was on the Main Street Mall.
Hardworking trombonist Suavo J looks increasingly like a man on a mission to single-handedly rescue Memphis music, and he is everywhere these days, whether it’s playing with Otis Logan’s awesome 4 Soul aggregation, or the Crescent City-tinged Memphis-New Orleans Street Symphony band, or the more rootsy The Bones. The latter group was playing on Friday February 28 at the Center for Southern Folklore down on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis. The weather was cold, and there was only a modest crowd, but the band rocked the house for those of us who were there.
Tav Falco and the Panther Burns were a vague name on posters and albums at Poplar Tunes in my youth, and I sadly didn’t discover what all the fuss was about until later, long after Tav had left Memphis behind for Paris and Vienna. But the band, whose name is taken from a plantation home and post office in the Mississippi Delta, has alternately thrilled or exasperated Memphians for years with their quirky blend of punk-inflected blues, agit-prop political songs and theatre, rockabilly romps with an occasional tango or Frank Sinatra cover. Falco continued to record in Europe, but Memphis didn’t get to see him again until 2012, when he performed at the old Hi-Tone on Poplar as part of the release of his book Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor , Enigma and Death in Memphis (which is an epic, and a must-read for any fan of Memphis music). That night was marred by Tav’s hoarseness, the result of a grueling tour schedule, but Saturday night’s performance at the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival was a stunning success, with Tav in great form and an audience of true fans and admirers in front of the stage. Tav Falco’s music is slowly being reissued by Big Legal Mess Records, a subsidiary of the Oxford-based Fat Possum label. All of his albums are worth purchasing.
The Jack Rowell Jr. Blues Band is one of Memphis’ best-known blues bands, with a long-standing Thursday night gig at T. J. Mulligan’s in Hickory Hill. At this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, I noticed that the band featured my homeboy Cedric Keel on drums, and his solo toward the end of the set enthused the crowd.
The Anointed Cowan Singers are another Memphis gospel group whose performances and repertoire highlight the extremely close relationship between Memphis gospel and Memphis soul. In fact, the very first song I ever heard them perform, at a previous Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, was a song that resembled the classic sound of Stax in every way. They usually appear at the festival each year, and are not to be missed.
Memphis’ all-female R & B group Karma brought a soulful seductiveness to the Gayoso Stage at the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, 8/31/13