In his introduction to the amazing 50-song compilation CD in the current Oxford American special music issue, curator Rick Clark wrote that “few (states) can match Tennessee’s deep roots in the blues and jazz, gospel, soul and R&B, rockabilly, rock & roll, and country – or its tremendous concentration of historic record labels and music industry visionaries.”
I’d personally remove the ‘few’ and declare Tennessee the single most influential state in the history of American popular music. It’s been home to an extra-large share of iconic artists, but its century of achievements in the music industry seal the deal. Tennessee boasts not one but two major hubs of recording and genre-building. Memphis is where the blues were codified, where rock and roll was born and where soul music was galvanized into one of the mightiest swords of justice ever swung in a culture. Nashville made a major industry around humble hillbilly music, with pivotal figures in radio, records, publishing and more. Thousands and thousands of pilgrims have come to participate in this amazing hive of creativity, myself included. So when the Oxford American decided to devote its entire music issue (an annual landmark in music journalism) to the sounds of Tennessee, and when they asked us to partner with them on some shows, we said yee-haw.
We had a fantastic Oxford American night in Chattanooga in February at Scenic City Roots. So I’m looking forward to next Wednesday’s MCR with a lineup that resonates with the issue’s theme. There’s a lot to love and to say about this lineup, but let me start closest to heart and home and history, to tell you about the extraordinary reunion we have in store by Nashville’s legendary power pop band The Bis-quits.
If you are engaged at all with Music City’s core community, you’ll know these three guys: Tommy Womack the bracing, funny and rocking singer/songwriter/bandleader; Will Kimbrough the superior artist/producer/musician who tours on guitar with Rodney Crowell; and Mike Grimes, founder of Grimey’s New & Preloved Music, The Basement and numerous musical happenings. Well, when these guys were pretty new in town in the very early 1990s, they stumbled into a band together.
Womack told me the story this week. It was almost accidental – an introduction, a jam session, a tentative first gig. But there was incredible musical chemistry, he said. And before long The Bis-quits were the hottest rock band in town. Had I been Nashvillian at the time, I would have been on the bandwagon. They fit right into my 90s listening habits as a fan of XTC, The Replacements, Richard Thompson, REM and the dBs. The harmonies soared, the guitars jangled and crunched. The musical ideas were lush and fascinating. But the only evidence I have of this is the band’s lone LP, released in 1993 on Oh Boy Records. It’s hard to find in the world, but it is on Spotify, and it’s just amazing.
As a Kentucky native, Tommy says being on John Prine’s label was, at the time, the most heady thing he could imagine. And he says that the Bis-quits were an astonishing band to work with. “The two years of the Bis-quits – from April 92 through Sept 94 – were the best years of my life,” he says. Rehearsals produced a flood of great songs and the stage was a place of rapture. “I got a real crash course in present moment living. There’s not a single second on stage with the Bis-quits that I wasn’t savoring it and telling myself to enjoy this. I lived that way every day with that band.”
We’ll get to hear all four Bis-quits members, including drummer Tommy Meyer in a reunion that – considering the guys’ busy lives – is a miracle of timing. The last time they played together was the final night at the late great Slow Bar, so this is Nashville history here folks.
It’s historic every time The Bo-Keys play. This Memphis soul band includes some of the older cats who played in the soul heyday, with such artists as Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas and David Porter. Its leader and co-founder Scott Bomar is a Memphis polymath who scores music for Craig Brewer’s films, engineers recordings for the likes of Al Green and more. So keeping this band swinging is a labor of his love for his city and its heritage. They visited us a few years ago and left us feeling at least twice as funky as when they arrived.
It’s fun to include John Oates on this bill because he’s emblematic of the big-time artists who’ve made new homes in Tennessee, drawn by the beauty, the slow tempo and the astonishing musical opportunities here. John’s become a great part of the rootsy side of Music City, working with a range of fellow songwriters and the best pickers around. We’ve valued his companionship at MCR and seeing him play to crowds much smaller than he’s used to from years in possibly the most successful duo in the history of rock and pop. In fact John will be visiting us just days after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Daryl Hall. You can see their induction speech by Questlove here.
Another of our guests is a Tennessean by raising who reports that she’s reconciled with the place after some struggle. Perhaps no more nor less than all of us as we pass through our teens and twenties, but Lilly Hiatt had the interesting point of view afforded by being John Hiatt’s daughter. Lilly has written songs since she was 12 years old, but she calls her 2012 album Let Down her declaration on artistic independence. It’s varied with washes of deep country and flinty rock and roll. Noted critic Roy Kasten wrote of her SXSW performance in support of that project: “Her high, sweet voice sounds best on the heartbreakers, but she clearly has the most fun with the romps — and she’s pretty hard to resist all in all.
So come get your literary on and visit us for Oxford American night at Roots. We’ll have readings from the magazine. Copies will be on sale, and you simply have to have one. Jim Lauderdale will tease his upcoming I’m A Song album, a double CD set of 20 songs cut in a 1970s country vibe. And I’ll interview Rick Clark about what went into compiling this iconic anthology of Tennessee music. If you got my allusion to the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” in the headline, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.