Photo courtesy of Phillips family and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
In Peter Guralnick’s long awaited new biography of Sam Phillips, one dominant theme is Sam’s uncompromising, idealistic vision and his tenacity in the face of setbacks. I’m struck by how his ethos echoes that of the guys who created and run Music City Roots. The music and musician always come first, and the holy grail is not perfection; it’s about authentic voices and emotional connection. It’s not about hitting commercial home runs whatever it takes; it’s about keeping the enterprise alive and trying to achieve a chain reaction of genuine art and plausible commerce.
This week Roots partners with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and author Guralnick in celebration of his book (Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll) and the companion exhibit downtown called Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips, which runs through June. Between them, we get the most comprehensive look ever at a unique American record producer, entrepreneur and provocateur. By establishing the Memphis Recording Service and then Sun Records in the early 1950s, Phillips gave voice to one of the country’s most potent musical regions and to African American artists in a segregated land. He didn’t get lucky. He set an incredibly effective trap and waited and watched and worked. It wasn’t easy but we know what happened next: Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and more.
The show this week features artists with deep roots in the Memphis music tradition and in some cases have direct connections to Sun or Sam. To get the most informed possible take on our lead performers I called up Peter Guralnick and asked for his thoughts. He’s the man to ask because he literally wrote the book(s) on this historic era of American vernacular music.
Our show closing artist has been with us once before and it’s safe to say we will never forget the experience of Bobby Rush at the Loveless Barn. He was an ageless spirit of lusty life and crowd-encircling love. “Bobby Rush is one of the great live performers I’ve ever seen,” Peter told me. “And a thing many people wouldn’t know about Bobby is what a great blues singer he is. The fundamentals of the roots he comes from influence even the most outrageous of his stage presentations. He just has such an appreciation.”
Rush is a native of Homer, Louisiana who made his name in Chicago in the 50s working with the greats and recording for Chess Records. His vibrant career has had many different chapters, and those have been chronicled on the new anthology Chicken Heads: A 50-year History of Bobby Rush.
About Sleepy LaBeef, the six-and-a-half-foot, mega baritone country and rockabilly singer, Peter said he discovered him forty years ago right in his own backyard. “His bus had burned up on the turnpike and he had a residency at Alan’s Truck Stop in Amesbury, Mass. for probably two years,” he said. He heard classic rockabilly and country music in Sleepy’s wide ranging sets, but “it wasn’t a nostalgia act. Sleepy was just doing the living breathing fire of everything that had ever influenced him, everything that he was ever passionate about, everything that he believed and just putting it out there every night. And that’s really been the case over the many years since then.”
Two generations removed but very much carrying the light set ablaze by his older peers is Luther Dickinson, a regular at Roots with his neo Hill Country blues band the North Mississippi All-Stars. Roots music was his birthright as son of record producer and in-demand musician Jim Dickinson, and it’s been inspiring to a new wave of music fans to see Luther and his drumming brother Cody play established styles with infectious joy while adding touches and colors that could only come from being 21st century people. Guralnick says “A tradition is meaningless if it’s not a living tradition and it’s only made so by what contemporaries put into it. And Luther is one of the people who puts so much into it. But so does Dan Auerbach, and Kevin Gordon or Paul Burch. They refract their own backgrounds as well as the tradition they’re honoring. None of it is recreation.”
Also on the talent roster is a first time duo performance by a couple of Roots alums we’ve enjoyed so much as band leaders. Shawn Camp is our Elvis doppelganger and a genius of classic country and bluegrass songwriting. Billy Burnette is son of Dorsey Burnette, one of the Memphis founders of rockabilly music and a guy who showed young Elvis the ropes. Billy has made stellar country and rock and roll in a variety of outlets, including a long stint as guitarist for Fleetwood Mac. Together, Shawn and Billy made the 2007 album Bluegrass Elvises, whose premise is pretty self-explanatory. Yet only they could have brought shake and croon together with fiddles and banjos to make the chemistry work so well. No word as far as I know about whether to expect an acoustic or electric set, but it ought to be electrifying.
Rounding things out is the amazing Nashville bluesman and songwriter Colin Linden. He has at least one degree of separation from Sam Phillips in his early (and I mean early) mentorship with the incomparable Howlin’ Wolf. Colin’s an amazing guy with a history that includes producing beautiful albums for the likes of Bruce Cockburn, writing songs for icons and making a string of stellar solo and band projects. We’ve most recently seen him at MCR with his brazenly fun country band Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. And Nashville now knows him as a major force behind the music on the show that bears the city’s name.
That’s a lot of stars to celebrate Sun. And we’ll have Peter Guralnick and Sam’s son Jerry on stage to answer some questions about an amazing legacy and these new efforts to tell the story.