Though his usual stomping ground is the American Northeast, Stephen Kellogg is not a stranger to Memphis.
He and his blue-collar rock band Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers (abbreviated SK6ERS by the loyal fans they have acquired over a decade of touring and recording) were seen here most recently in February, opening for jam-band favorites O.A.R. The Vanguard Records artists also make regular appearances at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a favorite charity listed on their website. And in 2009, they made a pilgrimage to Sun Studio, appearing in an episode of the famed recording facility's PBS series, "Sun Studio Sessions."
Nevertheless, Kellogg is nervous about his appearance Wednesday at Minglewood Hall's 1884 Lounge, his first headlining date in town, because he will be performing without his trusted band.
"Hopefully, some folks will come out," says Kellogg, who booked the gig as a fill-in date on his current acoustic tour with New York artist Martin Sexton. The show also features Nashville singer-songwriter Zach Lockwood.
"I've never really headlined in Memphis, but I thought rather than take the night off -- I just get sad thinking about my kids anyway when I do that -- I thought I would go and give it a shot."
Kellogg is never homesick on stage. His songs are steeped in the working-class lives of his fellow native New Englanders, everyday folks struggling with work and dreams, loves found and lost. They are themes he knows well from growing up in rural Connecticut, which Kellogg paints as a trap like Bruce Springsteen's New Jersey, the kind of place from which young people dream of escaping.
"You just start to think of it as a cultural void," says Kellogg, who escaped to the relatively bustling and hip Northampton, Mass., for college. "I planned to stay there right up until I started having kids, and when I had kids, the cultural void didn't seem like such a bad place to be after all."
It was in Northampton where Kellogg, who had made his first stabs at a music career playing in high school metal bands, met the players who would eventually make up the Sixers: bassist Kit Karlson, drummer Boots Factor and guitarist Sam Getz.
The group made their recording debut in 2004 with Bulletproof Heart. Their 2005 self-titled effort marked their major label debut on Universal. Glassjaw Boxer from 2007 was released on Atlantic subsidiary Everfine and earned the band a mentioned on USA Today's list of the year's best. Since then, the band seems to have found a home at Vanguard Records, which put out both 2009's acclaimed The Bear and last fall's Gift Horse.
The new record is full of small moments: the recounting of his romance with his childhood sweetheart and current wife in "1993," the father's ode "Watch You Grow," and album closer "Noelle, Noelle," about the youngest of Kellogg's three daughters.
Gift Horse came after a long period of dissatisfaction for Kellogg, dissatisfaction with the progress of his music career as well as with a country racked by war and financial collapse. For the songwriter, the small, personal moments on the album seemed like an antidote, a way to look past everything that was wrong to see what was right.
"Gift Horse was really just about blasting through some of those feelings into a place -- I think for the whole band -- where it became more about appreciation for all the great adventures we've had to date," he says. "With all that our country has gone through in the last decade, too, it's great to look around and say, 'Man, I get to play guitar for a living and go out on the road with my best friends.' We just wanted to make an album that was that optimistic."
Stephen Kellogg with Zach Lockwood
8 p.m. Wednesday at 1884 Lounge, 1555 Madison, inside Minglewood Hall. Tickets: $12, available at the door or in advance online at minglewoodhall.com. For more information, call (901) 312-6058.