Flyer InteractiveMusic

Ye All Come

Memphis Dulcimer Festival offers more than its name lets on.

by Matt Hanks

ome people take a look at this thing and wonder what the hell it is.”

Dennis Batson is referring to the hammered dulcimer, an oddly shaped, beautifully archaic instrument and the inspiration for the Memphis Dulcimer Festival, which will be held September 24th through 26th at Idlewild Presbyterian Church,1750 Union Avenue

Acclaimed mountain dulcimer player Neal Hellman will be one of the artists teaching and performing at this weekend’s Memphis Dulcimer Festival at Idlewild Presbyterian Church.
Batson co-founded the dulcimer fest with another Memphian, Larkin Bryant, 10 years ago. In the intervening years they’ve seen the festival’s popularity and scope grow tenfold, but you’d more likely know that if you lived in Boston than in Memphis.

“The festival definitely has more of a national audience than a local one,” Batson admits. “Don’t get me wrong, things have changed to some degree in the past decade. We now have in the city a small number of people who are playing old-time music, and we’ve seen the emergence of a greater interest in the acoustic and traditional arts.”

Though the festival’s location may be its calling card, it’s also an Achilles heel.

“Festivals of this sort are mostly a bicoastal phenomenon,” Batson explains. “If you’re on the coast, you don’t have to rely on national publicity or a national audience. You can just tap the locals. But Memphis is a hard, hard community for this sort of music to get a foothold in. There are so many other types of music that already have an audience here. Sometimes it seems like there’s no room for [traditional] acoustic music. That’s why the Memphis Dulcimer Festival is unique – simply because it exists.”

Or perhaps more accurately, because it exists here. But the festival’s unlikely home in the land of the blues and rock-and-roll isn’t the only battle it has had to fight. The festival’s name itself is equally problematic. Batson says that “if anything, the festival is a victim of its name. It tends to conjure images of grandmothers sitting around on their front porches, playing this weird old instrument.”

In actuality, the dulcimer fest’s eclecticism is one of its greatest strengths. While you will find dulcimers a-plenty this weekend, they will share the stage with all manner of traditional instruments, from the country fiddle to the bodhran, an Irish hand-held drum.

And performance is only one side of the coin. By day, the dulcimer fest will offer more than 150 workshops and lectures covering musical instruction, traditional song and dance, even storytelling. The curriculum will draw on some of the biggest names in the international traditional-music community – world-music chart-topper Mary McLaughlin and renowned performer and impresario Neal Hellman among them. All told, Batson estimates at least 1,500 people will pass through the doors of Idlewild this weekend, and no two of them will have the same experience.

“We look at the dulcimer festival as an anchor event that draws in people from all over the world,” says Batson. “We’d like to develop that role. We’d like to sponsor other events throughout the year, and eventually have another anchor event in the spring – probably a traditional dance festival – because that’s one of the areas where we’re seeing the most growth in interest right now.”

About Idlewild, Batson says, “[The church] provides the ideal setting for this thing. … The Scottish cathedral design seems to match the music perfectly. If you go into the sanctuary at night, it really is an awesome sight. We actually hold our concerts in the sanctuary. The atmosphere is quite reverent, and it establishes a tone for the entire festival.”

It’s this reverence, more than anything else, that defines the festival’s identity.

“This isn’t folk music like you’re thinking of,” says Batson.

And indeed it isn’t. Since its first modern revival in the early ’60s, American folk music has served largely as a vehicle for protest. Its most popular practitioners back then ranged from the irreverent (Arlo Guthrie) to the downright revolutionary (Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, et al). And that precedent continues to this day with the militant she-folk of Ani DiFranco and the Valium reflections of Elliot Smith.

Though the agenda of the dulcimer fest shares a certain immediacy and egalitarianism with popular folk – “One of our main goals is to show that anyone can play this music,” Batson says – it stands in opposition to that idiom’s apostasy for tradition. The dulcimer fest takes its heritage seriously, and it uses instruction rather than rhetoric to get its point across.

“We’re really proud of the instructional aspect of the Festival,” Batson says, “and we think it helps create the family atmosphere that’s so important to us.” n

Music Notes

edited by Mark Jordan

Where’s Wild Bill’s?

Author Peter Zimmerman, who traveled through town a few months ago in support of his book Tennessee Music: Its People and Places, says his guide to the state’s musical heritage didn’t make it to press quite the way he envisioned it.

The book was created by Odyssey Productions, Ltd., which specializes in tour books, and published earlier this year by San Francisco-based company Miller Freeman. Along the way, the Tennessee Department of Tourism also got in on the act.

In addition to buying a thousand copies of the book for use in overseas promotion, the department of tourism assisted editors in the fact-checking process, making sure the businesses and sites of interest listed at the end of the book were still in operation.

But not all of the places that were deleted from the final version are in fact closed, and no one involved with the book seems to know where they went.

Of six venues Zimmerman says were removed from the list, Union Jax and Green’s Lounge are indeed closed and Club Paradise has live music irregularly. The other three – Wild Bill’s, Lucy Opry, and Al Green’s church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle – are all open.

Where did they go?

Officials at the Department of Tourism and the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau say the list was read only with an eye toward assuring its accuracy and currency.

Granted, the Full Gospel Tabernacle is not, strictly speaking, a music venue – it’s a house of worship. And granted, you can try in vain to get a phone number through directory assistance for Lucy Opry, which features bluegrass acts weekly.

But what about Wild Bill’s, the popular juke joint on Vollintine Avenue? Owners of that establishment just can’t get a break. Last year, a zoning dilemma forced the club to close for a short time, and it was only reopened after owner Lerline Blackwell spent $3,000 in legal fees pleading her case. This all happened, coincidentally or not, right after the joint was lauded in the pages of The New York Times.

Is Wild Bill’s just too far out of the Beale Street/tourism loop?

“We took nobody off the list,” says Denise DuBois Taylor, vice president for communications at the Memphis CVB, which helped the department of tourism check the list of Memphis venues. “It’s a very objective process of just verifying numbers, addresses, and so forth.”

Taylor says that if the CVB could not verify that a particular venue was still operating, the bureau simply noted it. Only the publisher had final authority to make changes.

According to Taylor, Wild Bill’s was one of the venues the CVB could not verify. Furthermore, she insists that the CVB’s role was in no way editorial.

For the record, the Flyer has had no trouble contacting Wild Bill’s on several occasions, using the number provided by that most esoteric of research tools: the phone book.

All involved say a second printing of the book, which could be called for in a year or so depending on sales, would provide an opportunity to make changes. – Jim Hanas

Elvis in Your Stars

Local astrologer Richard Chelham, who in a January 1997 issue of the Flyer went out on a limb and predicted that there would be trouble in the Middle East and that crime and fires would dominate local news (wow, what prescience), has turned his skills toward divining things that have already happened. Actually, that’s not fair. Really what he is doing is going back and proving what happened was going to happen anyway because somebody’s house was in the rising sun or some crud like that. Specifically, Chelham, in a lecture to be delivered this Saturday, September 26th at Borders Books, will explain how the phenomenon of Elvis Presley was predicted by the astrological circumstances surrounding his birth. Of course, all this begs the question: Why didn’t the mighty soothsayers do something about Harum Scarum? –  Mark Jordan

NARAS Notes

The local chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has two events scheduled this week.

On Thursday, Keith Sykes’ Songwriter Showcase takes the stage at the Black Diamond. Joining Sykes for the September edition of his monthly song swap will be Nashville tunesmiths Tony Arata and Fred Knobloch. Admission is $10.

But the big event for musicians and local record-industry people will be Saturday’ Independent Label Forum ’98 at the Marriott-Downtown. The local NARAS chapter is bringing in industry professionals such as David Fricke of Rolling Stone, Al Bunetta of Oh Boy Records, and Mark Pucci of Mark Pucci Media to participate in a panel discussion on how to promote independent releases. Following the panel, there will be a number of “breakout sessions,” covering specific topics such as distribution and Internet promotion.

Registration for the forum begins at 12:30 p.m. in the Marriott lobby. Registration fees are $20 for NARAS members and students, $25 general admission.

The forum will be followed by an Indie Label Showcase at the Hard Rock Cafe starting at 8 p.m. Featured performers are the Hoehn-Duren Band, Lois Lane, the North Mississippi All-Stars, the Riverbluff Clan, and Keith Sykes. Admission is $7. – M.J.

And Finally…

Be sure to check out the ballot in the first Memphis Area Music Awards elsewhere in this issue of the Flyer. Just cut out the ballot, vote for your favorite local recordings of the year, and mail it in. And then come out to the New Daisy on November 4th to root for your favorites.


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