Sid Selvidge lives life one song at a time

Sid Selvidge

Sid Selvidge

Good things come to those who wait, or so the old adage goes. For fans of musician Sid Selvidge, those are words to live by.

These days, Selvidge is probably best known as the executive producer of the internationally syndicated radio show "Beale Street Caravan." But that's just one of the many lives Selvidge has led, from his days as a teenage disc jockey in Mississippi, to a student and champion of the local folk-blues revival in 1960s, to record company owner in the '70s, to sometime-producer and consistent contributor to Memphis' evolving musical history.

Singer-songwriter Sid Selvidge's latest album, 'I Should Be Blue,' ranks among the more compelling in his remarkable, if sporadic, catalog.

Singer-songwriter Sid Selvidge's latest album, "I Should Be Blue," ranks among the more compelling in his remarkable, if sporadic, catalog.

Amy Speace and Sid Selvidge

Amy Speace and Sid Selvidge

In between all that, the 66-year-old singer has created one of the more compelling catalogs in folk music, a fantastic — if sporadic — run of records dating back to the 1969 Stax/Enterprise release Portrait.

"Music has always been a part of the mix of what I've done," says Selvidge. "But I guess I'm too much of an ADD guy to ever say all I'm gonna do is make music."

Though his albums seem to come about as frequently as the census, Selvidge has just put out a new one, I Should Be Blue (Archer Records). He will mark the release with a free concert Sunday at the Levitt Shell.

Although Selvidge is modest about his work, Blue is yet another remarkable entry in the Selvidge canon, rightfully ranking alongside such lauded classics as 1976's The Cold of the Morning and 1982's Waiting For a Train. The 12-track disc offers a wide mix of styles and material, all of it unified by Selvidge's crystalline howl.

"I very rarely get into the politics of a song, or how it fits into an album — I'm really a song-by-song man," says Selvidge. "Otherwise my records would certainly be more coherent. It doesn't make any difference to me if it's got a country tinge to it, or if it's an R&B thing. ... It's got to be something I can play for myself and I like. The first person I try to entertain is myself."

The material on Blue proves a potent mix: from a reworking of Fred Neil's "The Dolphins" (a longtime family favorite suggested by Selvidge's guitarist son Steve, who plays on the album), to a delicate reading of the Tom T. Hall classic "That's How I Got to Memphis" to a jaunty cover of Duke Ellington's "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me." The album even boasts a few rare Selvidge originals, including the Mickey "Guitar" Baker-inspired "Lucky That Way."

The birthing of Blue came with the help of a pair midwives in producer Don Dixon (R.E.M., Marshall Crenshaw) and duet partner Amy Speace — a Baltimore-born roots songstress who graces several tracks and is currently touring with Selvidge.

For Selvidge, who normally collaborates with lifelong friends, the union with Speace was unusual. "I'd met and talked to her politely for maybe 15 to 20 minutes, before we decided it might be a good idea to work together. And we were right. I mean, I don't think we'll ever be Dolly and Porter," says Selvidge, laughing, "but it's worked so well and it's still fun."

If Blue proves anything, it's that Selvidge's remarkable gifts as an interpretive singer remain as powerful as ever, even if the tone and timbre of his voice have changed, becoming more airy and ethereal.

"Voices don't last forever," says Selvidge. "I used to have that big radio, chesty resonator voice. And I don't quite have that anymore. When I'm old, I'm gonna wind up like Skip James and be all high notes. Well, I'm old now -- when I'm ancient that's how I'll be."

Aging and the thoughts that come with it have always been a part of Selvidge's musical journey. As a young man, he sat at the feet of wizened blues masters like Furry Lewis, soaking up what he could. "Hell, I thought Furry Lewis was gonna die in 20 minutes, the day I met him. That's why I followed him around learning all his stuff, thinking he was gonna fall over any minute. Looking back, he was the same age I am now," says Selvidge, laughing.

More serious thoughts of mortality have been intense for Selvidge over the past year. He's lost several close friends and collaborators in rapid succession, including his longtime foil and Mud Boy and the Neutrons bandmate Jim Dickinson, his old running buddy Alex Chilton and his fellow blues enthusiast, Dennis Brooks.

"What's happened in the past year, I can't relate it to my music necessarily, but I'm sure it's there" says Selvidge. "It's still pretty stunning, and I haven't come to emotional grips with it at all. I keep thinking that I will. ... I'm trying to stay positive. This record reflects that attempt."

"You know, when people die and you're younger, it's one emotional level because it's more of a shock," continues Selvidge. "As you get older, people are supposed to go whether you want them to or not. It's a little bit different. It's hard to explain. 'Cause I have to think, even under the best of circumstances, I'm not gonna be around that much longer, maybe 20 years, max. And how much of that is gonna be productive?

"I just figure I'm lucky enough to have gotten this far," he says, "and I'm gonna see how much farther I can go."

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Sid Selvidge with Amy Speace

7 p.m. Sunday at the Levitt Shell at Overton Park. Admission is free.

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Comments » 1

Nighthawk writes:

Sid is one of this city's real treasures.

His intellect, musical talent and ability as a teacher quietly transform tradition into a listener's understanding of his indigenous, soulful magic. Don't miss his show.

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