story by John Paul Keith | photos courtesy of Shenanigans Photography
In the summer of 2016, rising British folk star Emily Barker found herself passing through the Bluff City. A native Australian, she relocated to the UK several years ago and launched a career there. Her group Red Clay Halo found success, and one of her songs was used as the theme for a popular BBC television show Wallander. After making several solo records in Britain, she recorded a side project in Nashville called Applewood Road. It was almost time for her next solo record, and the plan was to make it in Nashville as well.
On her way there, however, she stopped in Memphis for a couple of days to meet with producer Matt Ross-Spang. Matt gave her a tour of the newly revamped Sam Phillips Recording Service (est. 1960). After that visit, Emily decided she wasn’t going to make her next record in Nashville after all.
Instead, she made her new record, Sweet Kind of Blue, in Memphis, with all Memphis musicians, many of whom she’d never met until they started cutting. I was around at the time and I would describe Emily’s demeanor as beaming. Memphis swept her off her feet. I know the feeling.
I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that the Memphis recording business is back. Among some of us who work in the studios around town, there is a growing sense that we are on the verge of something of a revival. People are coming from other places to make records in Memphis again, using Memphis talent, and the work coming out of Memphis studios is starting to make waves in a way not seen in many years. (Last month I launched a blog, NewMemphisBeat.com, to cover it).
For a time in the 1960’s, Memphis rivalled Nashville as a recording hotspot in the industry. Between Sun, Royal, Ardent, Stax, Phillips, and American, Memphis had a thriving ecosystem of studios, producers, engineers, session musicians, songwriters, and other industry professionals. Artists came from all over the world to record in Memphis, to get that “Memphis Sound” (or rather, as others have noted, “Memphis Sounds”, because there are in fact several).
Perhaps no record is more emblematic of that golden age than 1969’s Dusty in Memphis. Like Emily Barker, Dusty Springfield was a British artist, but she came here to make a record she couldn’t make anywhere else. She came to Memphis and made her masterpiece.
That’s what used to happen all the time in Memphis: people came here to make masterpieces. I think it’s starting to happen again.
2016 was a big year for us. Memphis had its first #1 single in 40 years last year, Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”. It was the first record out of the Mitchell family’s Royal Studio to hit #1 since Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, and it was the first Memphis recording to win a Grammy for Record of the Year. Ever.
Before he worked with Emily Barker, Matt Ross-Spang made a name for himself when he retrofitted Sun Studio back to its 1950’s analog glory. Matt moved over to Phillips after the passing of the great Memphis recording pioneer Roland Janes. Hired by Nashville’s it-producer Dave Cobb, Matt wound up getting a Grammy himself in 2016, for engineering Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free. Scott Bomar of Electraphonic Recording was also twice nominated for Grammys in 2016.
The Memphis recording business also stands to benefit from the recent growth of Americana into a legitimate genre with its own charts, awards, and professional community. Memphis music is Americana, and there would be no Americana without Memphis’ contributions to it. Our studio scene is uniquely suited to contribute to it again – and to benefit from it. There’s a new generation of Americana artists who grew up in the digital age, and Memphis can be a place for those artists to explore analog recording. (Nashville Americana star Margo Price recorded her debut at Sun and its follow up at Phillips).
Yes, there are studios in Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, and all around the world where you can record on tape. But what other city has as many historically significant, still operational, analog capable studios as Memphis? Where else can you hire Howard Grimes to play drums on your track?
You can come to Memphis and record in studios where some of the best records in history were made, using the same techniques, on some of the same gear, and in some cases, with some of the same people.
I’m not a native Memphian and I had pretty extensive recording industry experience before I moved here. For most of my career, I found recording to be a worrisome process full of anxiety and self-doubt.
That all changed when I started recording in Memphis. There are many reasons, but the most important one I think is the spirit of total artistic freedom, the idea that the only thing that really matters is whether the work is good, not whether it’s trendy or commercial, or what category someone thinks it should fall into. Another is the embarrassment of riches Memphis has when it comes to our talent and diversity, and the tight-knit sense of community, inclusivity, and plain old coolness we pride ourselves on.
When it comes to making records, no other city has quite what Memphis has. Some of us get downright mystical about it. Dan Penn once said, “Memphis has the best recording air there is.” I think word is starting to get out.