John Lowe, the co-owner of Midtown's Xanadu Music and Books, is better known internationally as electric cigar-box guitar maker and player Johnny Lowebow.
He performed in many groups in his native Arkansas before he discovered the joy of being his own one-man band.
"Kind of my problem is that I'm real spontaneous, which makes side members kind of mad at you because they can never learn what you're going to do," says Lowe. For three years, he could be found most weekends on the sidewalk in front of the New Daisy Theater on Beale Street, strumming one of his signature "Lowebow Hill Harps" while pounding out his own accompanying beat on a modified drum kit with his feet.
"I kind of have an attention deficit. I can't stick with one thing for too long. I've got to figure out something new. Half the fun is pushing yourself to try and come up with new skills. Just the act of learning to do something you can't do kind of gives you an endorphin rush."
Saturday, Lowe will get a rare chance to play inside the New Daisy when he joins a lineup of like-minded solo musicians at the first International One-Man Band Showdown. Lowe and his fellow Memphis one-man-band Jason Sells, aka, Slate Dump, organized the event, which also includes on the bill Scottish musician Sleepy Eyes Nelson and German artist Dad Horse Experience.
Lowe describes the event as a bigger, hopefully more successful, series of events he used to stage at the bar Murphy's.
"It'd be the one-man bands, the barkeeper, and his girlfriend," says Lowe, ripping off one in a seemingly endless supply of one-liners he has on the subject.
It's unclear when the first musician discovered he could play two things at once, but the tradition of one-man bands goes back at least as far as the Renaissance when performers in Western Europe would blow on a woodwind pipe while beating out a rhythm on a shoulder-slung drum.
In America in the early 20th century it was cash-strapped, itinerant blues musicians like Jesse Fuller who popularized the format. Fuller was known for his custom invention "the footdella," which allowed him to play bass notes with his right foot while keeping time on a hi-hat with left and playing a 12-string guitar with his hands
Two of the best known one-man bands were Charles Isaiah "Doctor" Ross and Joe Hill Louis, both of whom played around Memphis in the 1950s.
Lowe found the art form almost by accident. A veteran of the Arkansas '80s punk scene, he was living in Memphis in the late 1990s when a friend who was building his own electric diddley bow, or one-string guitar, asked him to build a pickup for the instrument. That led to a sideline designing and building electric cigar-box guitars.
One of his earliest customers was Richard Johnston, the 2001 International Blues Challenge winner who repopularized the one-man band locally.
Inspired by Johnston, Lowe began experimenting with the format. Today he utilizes the setup in service of a sound that mixes Johnston's take on North Mississippi Hill Country blues stomp with his own punk roots.
"For me it's like running a marathon," says Lowe, who in the spring released an album, I'm A One Man Band, and single, "I Was a Fool" b/w "Love Is Like a Goodwill Store," on his own Lowebow Records label. "It's really helped my health. I don't go to gyms or anything. But I have a more energetic show than a lot of one-man bands.
Saturday's show will demonstrate the diversity of one-man bands. Slate Dump, for instance, draws on a wide swath of influences from fellow West Virginian Jessco White to AC/DC. And then there is The Dad Horse Experience with his "redemption polkas"
"It's like Hank Williams crossed with polkas with kind of morbid lyrics," Lowe says.
International one-man band showdown
Saturday at the New Daisy Theater, 313 Beale. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets: $11, available at 866-468-7630 and online at newdaisy.com. For more information, call 901-525-8979.