Roadshow Reunion: Memphis music vet Don Nix and the return of 'Alabama State Troupers'

Reissue documents early-'70s multigenre barnstorming tour

It was billed as a “Rock ‘n’ Revival” tour, a package that corralled Memphis multitalent Don Nix, blues veteran Furry Lewis and fledgling singing star Jeanie Greene, plus a big band of white-hot Southern session musicians. In the fall of 1971, this unlikely caravan — quickly christened the Alabama State Troupers Roadshow — rolled through the United States, playing for big crowds who paid a small fee (just $1.50 a ticket) to glimpse this multigenerational mingling of musicians. The performances were documented on a double live album released the following year.

Photo with no caption
Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis, seen in an undated photograph taken at the Overton Park Shell.

From The Commercial Appeal files

Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis, seen in an undated photograph taken at the Overton Park Shell.

Don Nix, a producer, writer, singer and musician who worked in Memphis and Muscle Shoals for decades, was the guiding light of the Alabama State Troupers Roadshow.

Courtesy of Elektra Records

Don Nix, a producer, writer, singer and musician who worked in Memphis and Muscle Shoals for decades, was the guiding light of the Alabama State Troupers Roadshow.

Last month, the California-based Real Gone Music label reissued the concert collection, which has officially been out of print for decades, restoring a fascinating bit of music history. On Dec. 21, its release will be celebrated with a special event at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

“It was a heck of a road show,” says Nix, the Troupers’ guiding light. “I think it was an amazing experience for everybody. I’m more proud of that than anything I’ve ever done.”

Those are big words coming from the 72-year-old Nix, whose career is studded with highlights and major moments. Starting out as a horn player for late-’50s R&B outfit the Royal Spades, Nix was part of the foundational Stax group the Mar-Keys, and later became an accomplished writer, producer and solo artist for the label.

By 1971, he’d signed to Elektra and released Living By the Days, which was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama. Nix was also working there, producing an LP by Greene (she sang the vaulting backing parts on Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds”) and co-writing with guitarist Lonnie Mack, also on Elektra.

With all three signed to the label, Elektra offered to sponsor a package tour that would put Nix, Mack and Greene on the road to promote their various projects. “We started off small and did rehearsals in Muscle Shoals,” Nix recalls. But in the middle of preparing, Mack abruptly bailed on the tour. “We were messed up there for a minute,” says Nix. “The label said, ‘Who can take his place?’ And I automatically thought Furry Lewis.”

One of the “rediscovered” Southern bluesmen of the 1960s, Lewis had enjoyed a career in the 1920s recording seminal sides for the Vocalion Records label such as “John Henry” and “Kassie Jones, Pts. 1 & 2.” When the Depression hit and the blues market dried up, he gave up music and spent the next 30 years cleaning the streets of Memphis on a prosthetic leg. In the early ’60s, Lewis was persuaded out of his retirement by a group of young white blues purists. Nix had grown close to Lewis — he’d written the song “Amos Burke” in tribute to him and collaborated with him on various studio projects — and relished the idea of taking the bluesman on tour.

With Lewis on board, the package headed out on the highway, supported by a big ensemble of musicians hailing from Memphis and Muscle Shoals whom they dubbed the Mt. Zion Band & Choir.

They did a trial run in the South, playing shows in Louisiana before departing for the West Coast, where the bulk of the tour was set to take place. Word-of-mouth was strong from the start, and the Troupers soon found themselves being greeted by large, enthusiastic crowds attracted by the accessible ticket price and the promise of an “exotic” Southern-style caravan concert. “It turned into this hip thing,” Nix recalled, “that got bigger and bigger every night as word got around.”

For Nix, though, the real excitement of the tour was “just to travel with Furry.” Though Lewis had played blues festivals nationally and internationally, he’d never been a part of a full scale rock tour, and he reveled in the experience. “I remember we were on a plane heading out to San Francisco and Furry was up walking up and down the aisle. He was doing magic tricks for people on the plane. Somebody passed around the hat, and he got 45 bucks,” recalls Nix, laughing.

Musically, Lewis was the opening act and the highlight, giving longhair audiences their first real taste of Delta blues. “That’s one reason I wanted to take him to the West Coast, especially. Those people hadn’t seen anything like it,” recalled Nix. “We’d have the stage set up (with) all this equipment for the band, and then Furry would come out by himself.”

Sitting in a rocking chair atop an old Persian rug, Lewis would play his slide guitar and deep blues numbers, captivating the crowds. “He sat down, and it was amazing to the see the reaction of the people. They didn’t know what to expect. But they loved him,” says Nix. “After he got through, I was afraid to follow him.”

After Lewis’ opening spot, the sets would flow with Nix, Greene and others taking turns playing a mix of originals and trad roots, blues and country covers. “It was a 2½- , three-hour show, with no intermission,” says Nix. “Instead of a break, we’d do a four- or five-song acoustic set.”

A pair of the band’s California concerts — in Long Beach and Pasadena — were recorded for posterity, before the barnstorming tour ended with an exhausted Nix heading back home to Memphis. “It was a great thing, it was a lot of fun, but I stayed in bed for a couple weeks after that,” he says. “And I was a young man then. It took it out of you.”

Nix brought the live tapes back to Memphis’ Ardent Studios, where he mixed the material with John Fry. Released the following year, the album did well, but in the four decades that followed, it somehow failed to gain (official, anyway) release on CD. Finally this year, Real Gone Music re-mastered the tapes, and for Nix the new package proved a pleasant surprise. “I hadn’t listened to the album probably since ’72, and when I sat and listened to the CD man, it sounded so good. It’s 40 years old, it was done on an 8-track, but it still jumps out how much fun we were having.”

The Alabama State Troupers reissue caps what’s been a tremendous 12 months for Nix. “This year has been my best year as far as my writing,” says Nix, whose songs have turned up frequently on film and television. The jewel of his catalog, “Goin’ Down,” was used in the Denzel Washington film “Flight” and on a Fender guitar ad, and continued to serve as the theme song for HBO’s “Eastbound and Down.” It was even covered prominently in concert by the Rolling Stones on the band’s recent 50th anniversary tour.

The song was written by Nix, first recorded by Memphis band Moloch in 1969, and since then has been done by the likes of Freddie King, Jeff Beck and Pearl Jam. “I tell people I didn’t write it, so much as I got drunk and made it up,” Nix says. “But that’s my bread and butter. It’s amazing how many people have recorded that thing. It’s always kept me going, so I’m very thankful for it.”

Next week, Nix will mark the release of the Alabama State Troupers disc with a gathering at the Stax Museum. “It just sounded like a good excuse for a party,” he says. “Unbelievably, everybody on that tour is alive except for one guitar player (Tippy Armstrong) and Furry. A lot of them are gonna be there at the party. Probably going to be a big jam session too.”

There will also be copies of the CD for sale, as well as vintage replica posters and T-shirts from the tour. “But you don’t have to buy anything,” says Nix. “We just want people to come on out and help us celebrate.”

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

kingoftheblues writes:

Deep blues, Memphis music history from a true innovator Don Nix. I will be the first one in line to buy the CD and other stuff. Thanks for bringing this back. Everybody support Memphis Music and our local venues. And if you like "bad boys gone badder," listen to the Don Nix song on East Bound and Down. Go KP!

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