Memphis has a reputation for growing its own music talent from Elvis to Justin Timberlake. Attracted to that history, a new crop of imported musicians bring innovation to the Memphis sound.
Slowly but surely, Memphis is evolving into a destination city for out-of-town musicians.
You could chalk it up to Memphis’ heritage as a music town, but current talent gives the city a new standing in the 21st century.
Memphis has a reputation for growing its own when it comes to music talent. From Memphis Slim, to Alex Chilton to Justin Timberlake, many of Memphis’ most well-known musical exports were born and raised in the Bluff City. Elvis Presley has always claimed Memphis as his hometown despite spending his early childhood in Tupelo, Miss.
Because of its abundance of homegrown talent, Memphis turned into something of a music industry hub in the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s, spawning labels like Sun, Stax and Hi records as well as world-class recording facilities such as Royal Studios, Ardent Recording Studios and American Studios– all of which have earned a universally acknowledged place in pop music history.
And though the music industry has evolved into a do-it-yourself mindset that relies less on the big label and studio methods of that golden age, Memphis’ reputation as a breeding ground for musical talent and innovation has never diminished.
It is perhaps due to this reputation that Memphis attracts musicians from outlying areas near and far to take up residence in the city. In fact, many of the current Memphis scene’s biggest names are transplants that moved here specifically to live and work as musicians.
One of those high-profile transplants is singer-songwriter Mark Edgar Stuart. Stuart first moved to town from Pine Bluff, Ark. to accept a music scholarship at the University of Memphis in 1992.
He never wanted to leave.
According to Stuart, it was his late father’s record collection that influenced him to first fall in love with Memphis.
“Going all the way back to all of my dad's Sun records, I knew I wanted to play music and music was in Memphis,” he said. “One year, we took a family vacation here to see Sun Studios. My dad never cared for Elvis so we passed on Graceland. Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were his favorites. To me back then, Memphis was the big city.”
Once he got to the big city full-time, Stuart faced a fair amount of culture shock. But not for the reasons one might assume.
“None of the supposedly bad elements ever scared me. I was used to it,” he said. “I was scared of Poplar Avenue. I had never seen six lanes of traffic before and would ride the curb double-fisted all the way.”
But eventually, Stuart felt quite comfortable in Memphis. “It wound up being just a bigger version of my hometown. I embraced it,” he said.
Now that he’s a well-established local talent with several albums both as a solo artist and with bands such as the Pawtuckets, John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives and the Secret Service under his belt, Stuart says the advantages of being based in Memphis have far exceeded the drawbacks. But he still sees areas where the music scene could grow and improve for working musicians.
“I wish there was more of an infrastructure for musicians in Memphis like there is in Austin, Texas,” he said. “Musicians are an asset to this city. It’s what brings in tourism. Honestly, there's not enough work to keep all the musicians fed in this city, whether it be studio work or live gigs. Most have to travel to fill in the holes. I have to work a job during the day for health insurance.”
Local Creole-soul singer-songwriter and bandleader Marcella Simien’s journey to Memphis was also influenced by her upbringing but in a much more directly musical way.
A Lafayette, La. native, her father is the two-time Grammy award winning Zydeco artist Terrance Simien, and her mother Cynthia is an industry professional as well as Terrance Simien’s manager. The two often brought along young Marcella to Memphis on business trips.
Her parents were on the board of governors for the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy, a region that includes Lafayette and New Orleans, Marcella Simien said.
“We came to Memphis about once a month for their meetings and I met people who I now have had the pleasure of working with since living here as an adult,” she said. “I loved the hilly drive up on I-55, and when arriving to Memphis it felt like I was in a big city. Memphis was full of soulfulness, and there were parts of it that reminded me of New Orleans which was comforting.”
Like Stuart, Simien left her hometown to attend school – in her case, Memphis College of Art. Shortly after arriving in 2009, she started performing around town as a solo act and eventually formed the band Marcella and Her Lovers. Her acclaimed 2014 debut EP, The Bronze Age
, was hailed by local and national critics alike, and she is a frequent live performer in-town and on the road.
She also agrees with Stuart that Memphis’ music scene has room for improvement.
“The uncertainty of working in the arts can be overwhelming at times, but I always remember that I'm not alone,” said Simen, adding that the nation’s support of artists needs an overhaul.
“This is a universal struggle for artists. Except for some of those really lucky cats in countries like Norway, Canada and Switzerland who have way more opportunities as performing artists because their government understands the value of the arts and that humans cannot survive without the arts.
These countries provide attainable grants to help their citizens with careers in music maintain a living, record and tour. Artists across all disciplines in America would benefit from more grant opportunities and from policy, both local and national, which is focused on the importance of the arts.”
In 2010, local singer-songwriter Megan Carolan moved from Bethlehem, Penn. to attend the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis. But Carolan’s journey to Memphis was more abstract than Stuart’s or Simien’s, as she had no prior connections to or experiences in the city.
“When I was looking at attending colleges I wanted to go to one that was in a music city so I could immediately get involved in the music community there and build connections for when I graduated,” she said.
Of course, Carolan, who recently went solo after a stint singing in the indie-rock band Sleepwlkrs, eventually chose Memphis, and today she’s more than happy with that decision.
“I have definitely bought into Memphis and the beautiful transformation it is undergoing,” said Carolan, who is able to tout that transformation as New Memphis Institute's events coordinator. “I’m even trying to get relatives to come here. Some of my relatives refer to me as ‘Memphis Meg.’ I’ve lived here for six years, so I think I can strongly claim to be a Memphian now.”
And while she also sees areas where Memphis could be more supportive of its music scene, she also feels the city has afforded her opportunities she wouldn’t have had elsewhere.
“Memphis is amazing because some of the people you learn about in music history books are still here and are happy to share their wisdom with you,” she said.
“Also if I had gone to college in another city I probably would’ve had to move back in with my parents immediately after college. Since Memphis has some of the most affordable rents in the U.S., I was able to stay here and grow more both as an adult and musician.”
Mike Doughty, an acclaimed musician forged in the furnace of 1990s New York City, is finding a slower change of pace at his Cooper-Young neighborhood. To evade New York’s gentrification and higher rents, Doughty found himself moving farther to the fringe of the city. His quality of life and art suffered, and he considered moving to Austin or Nashville.
Doughty was turned on to Memphis’ “dusky, gritty vibe” by another musician, J Russo. Doughty was familiar with Memphis having played the New Daisy occasionally on tour with Soul Coughing. But leaving Beale Street and walking as a native in Midtown was eye-opening.
He’s now a homeowner—something that he never thought was possible in NYC.
His move to Memphis has opened up the possibility of being more collaborative and experimental with his music. In New York, he played only couple shows a year to “guard his rate” through limited appearances. In Memphis, he plays improvisational sets with a rotating cast of musicians and even drops in at local dive bars’ open mic nights.
“I wanted the space and time to make stuff that's original and unusual,” he said. “Here I can be more artistically committed."