Anyone who's even slightly plugged-in to the Memphis music scene knows what a landmark we have in the somewhat inconspicuous building located at 2000 Madison, just a block or so west of Overton Square. Founded in 1959 by recording engineer and producer John Fry, Ardent Studios has gained a national reputation by recording albums by the likes of ZZ Top, Sam and Dave, R.E.M., the Afghan Whigs, the Replacements, Isaac Hayes, and countless others.
Ardent has seen its share of successes as a record label as well, most notably with local power-pop pioneers Big Star, but also with Big Star frontmen Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the Eric Gales Band, and Jolene. In 1995, Ardent Records reinvented itself as a contemporary Christian label, more or less putting secular music to the side, and again scored big with artists such as Big Tent Revival, Skillet, Smalltown Poets, and Todd Agnew.
"We have never really been out of it," Fry says, referring to secular music. "Whether as a studio, or working with our catalog which goes back to the first Ardent 45 in '59. There is no requirement to be a Christian to work here or be on our label."
Nonetheless, Ardent recently unveiled a plan to launch a new and separate secular imprint dubbed Ardent Music. (Ardent Records will continue to focus on Christian artists.) The first Ardent Music release will be the debut of local blue-eyed soul outfit Jump Back Jake, which features members of Memphis indie-rock mainstays Snowglobe and the Third Man, fronted by New York transplant Jake Rabinbach. The band's album, titled Brooklyn Hustle Memphis Muscle, will be released digitally in November, with physical CDs and limited-edition vinyl copies following in early December. Three of the tracks are currently available for preview on Jump Back Jake's Myspace and Facebook pages.
For Rabinbach, the decision to sign with Ardent was an easy one.
"Everything from the early garage-rock stuff to Big Star to the Staple Singers are a huge influence on Jump Back Jake," Rabinbach says, "so it's an honor for us to be associated with Ardent. They embraced us and treated us like family. Very few artists today get this kind of opportunity, and I can't say enough good things about Ardent."
Helping to launch the imprint are several key players in the Memphis music scene, including Fry, Big Star drummer and longtime Ardent fixture Jody Stephens, local music blogger Rachel Hurley (best known for creating the music website Rachelandthecity.com and several popular programs available on Breakthru Radio, including "The Ardent Sessions"), and emerging music marketing ace Joseph Davis.
Davis, whose family connections with Ardent history run deep indeed (his grandfather was a session horn player at Ardent in the '60s and '70s, and his aunt was half of the inspiration behind Big Star's classic tune "September Gurls") saw the opportunity to reinsert the Ardent label into mainstream music as too good to pass up.
"I was working quite successfully in the traditional marketing world, but always felt the music business was where I wanted to be," Davis says. "John and Jody are still standing and doing it after all these years, so I'm very honored and inspired to be working for them. The influx of new media has leveled the playing field for independent artist and labels, so it's an exciting time to be doing something like this."
Ardent Music currently is looking at several other local, regional, and national acts to add to its roster, though nothing is official at this point.
"From anywhere is fine, but I'm very Memphocentric at heart," Fry says. "It seems to me that there are a lot of artists who could use some help from a small, new-model record label which intends to use the new media opportunities now available to build a foundation for their success."
Stephens agrees. "As music taste turns back toward performance-driven players, I think studios like Ardent will benefit," he says. "Finding the right artist that connects with us, makes economic sense, and most of all, connects with enough people so that we all can continue doing this is challenging. We will see how our taste lines up with that of the public."