Albums of the Year & Personal Picks
A look back at some of the most notable Memphis music stories of 2013:
JT Returns to Reign
After a six-year absence from his music career, it’s safe to say Justin Timberlake’s 2013 “comeback” was a wild success. His pair of chart-topping albums sold more than 5 million records and earned seven Grammy nominations, while he also delivered two of the year’s biggest tours — a summer stadium jaunt with Jay Z and a fall headlining arena run that will take him well into 2014. Timberlake’s November stop at FedExForum was both a homecoming and a coronation, confirming his unquestionable status as the biggest star the city has produced since Elvis.
White House Soul
Timberlake was also among the artists with Mid-South connections summoned to the White House in early April to celebrate the legacy of Memphis soul music. A daylong series of events culminated with a concert hosted by President Barack Obama. The show, which was filmed and aired as part of PBS’ “In Performance” series, included appearances by Timberlake and Sam Moore, of Stax duo Sam & Dave, Mavis Staples, and a house band led by Booker T. & the MGs organist Booker T. Jones, and featuring several other Memphians.
Memphis burnished its reputation as a city rich with musical talent, at least among viewers of NBC’s TV singing competition “The Voice.” The fourth season of the show featured four different Memphians — Kris Thomas, Sarah Simmons, Patrick Dodd and Grace Askew — among the competitors, giving the Bluff City a heavy presence on the top-rated program. Simmons would make it farthest, getting into the final eight. But even the eventual winner, 16-year-old Texan Danielle Bradbery, earned her title with a local nod, performing the Pam Tillis hit “Maybe It Was Memphis” — written by former Mid-South habitué Michael Anderson — as part of her finale win.
As always, there were many substantial losses in the Memphis music community over the past 12 months, but 2013 robbed us of a quartet of singular individuals who impacted the city’s musical history. Squalling singer Bobby “Blue” Bland died in June, and his significance in the history of R&B/blues music and African-American culture was considerable. Sid Selvidge was an altogether different kind of song stylist, a gifted troubadour who connected folk and blues through the pure beauty of his voice and a generosity of spirit. Two other men — both Sun Records vets — who made their reputations behind the scenes also left us. “Cowboy” Jack Clement began as Sam Phillips’ right hand, before going on to become a successful songwriter and producer in his own right. And the humble, press-shy Roland Janes, who for nearly 60 years was a touchstone and teacher for generations of locals — as a guitarist for Jerry Lee Lewis, a studio owner at Sonic, and the head engineer at Phillips Recording Service — finally got his due, with an election to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and a brass note on Beale before his death in October.
Big Star on the Big Screen
Many years in the making, the feature-length documentary on Memphis cult legends Big Star finally reached theaters (and DVD players) in 2013. The project was a labor of love, tinged with real tragedy, as founding band members Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel and producer Jim Dickinson all died before the project was completed. Combining little-seen archival footage with new interviews, “Nothing Can Hurt Me” proved to be a textured and nuanced exploration of the group’s history and the majesty of its music, while still preserving the exquisite mystery at the heart of the tale. Released to mostly rave reviews, the film will likely stand — along with the music — as a fitting, final epitaph for the band.
Reunited, and It Feels So Good
In a year that saw the triumphant culmination of one ’90s Memphis band reunion, with the release of the Oblivians’ first new album in 15 years, the era’s other great group, the Grifters, decided to put aside a dozen years of distance and acrimony to get back together for a pair of local shows (and the promise of more in 2014). The beloved indie-rock outfit also released a series of new videos to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its classic LP One Sock Missing, and plans to continue that project next year to mark the 20-year anniversary their 1994 high watermark, Crappin’ You Negative. Given the Grifters’ always combustible inter-band dynamic, it’s hard to know what the future may hold, but the notion of following the Oblivians’ example and recording new music offers a tantalizing possibility.
The state of Memphis music venues in 2013 began on a down note, with what appeared to the permanent closure of long-running Midtown staple the Hi-Tone Café, which shut down its Overton Park-area location in February. Within a few months, however, things were looking up, as the Hi-Tone successfully re-emerged further west, with a new spot in the heart of the Crosstown arts district. Meanwhile, Minglewood Hall increased its concert schedule (securing several big “gets” like Neutral Milk Hotel and the Shins, among others), while better using its intimate 1884 Lounge space. By the end of the year, the promise of a new venue in the Overton Square area — a return of the famed ’70s performance space Lafayette’s Music Room — seemed to put the city’s venue situation back on solid ground.