Dialing Memphis 

Even though FM radio stations have tightened their nooses, restricting playlists to major-label fodder, on-air opportunities for local bands are at an all-time high.

Playing Memphis music has always been an integral part of the mission at community radio station WEVL (89.9 FM), says station manager Judy Dorsey.

"We don't want to segregate it or make a token attempt to play local artists. It's important to play them within the context of national shows," she says, "but we also knew that we needed a program specifically devoted to Memphis music."

While the hour-long "Memphis Beat" program has fulfilled that need for two decades with various hosts, Dorsey says that the show, which airs on Tuesdays at 1 p.m., has reached new heights with its current host, volunteer programmer Hayden Jackson.

"I never thought about doing 'Memphis Beat,'" says Jackson, who also hosts "The Music Lovers" on Thursday afternoons, "and I hadn't listened to it before, so I didn't know what other people had done. There was no regular host at the time, and Judy asked me to fill in."

A year into it, Jackson is playing The Reatards and The Natural Kicks between cuts by The Mad Lads and The Fieldstones, interspersing Isaac Hayes' sweet Southern soul with songs from The Six String Jets and The Reigning Sound, and pushing bands like The Oscars and Arma Secreta to an audience that might be more attuned to Otis Redding and Ann Peebles.

"While Memphis music gets represented on WEVL all day long, it's great to play such a variety of music around one common theme," says Jackson, who culls through the station's music library, hits the bins at Shangri-La Records and Goner Records, and sorts through local band sites on MySpace.com for contenders.

"There's so much good local music," he says, "that the hardest part for me is keeping current."

For more information on "Memphis Beat," visit the station's Web site at WEVL.org or the program's MySpace site, MySpace.com/MemphisBeat.

Further up the dial, WEGR-FM -- aka Rock 103 -- is on the local bandwagon too. When the station started playing local bands as bumper music last month, they got a huge reaction, explains on-air personality Dennis Phillippi: "CDs started pouring in, all Mid-South music, and after a few weeks, my partner Ric Chetter and I started talking about doing a weekend show that featured nothing but unsigned local bands."

Program director Tim Spencer gave the duo the green light for "The Great Unsigned," which, starting Sunday, February 12th, will air weekly in the 9-11 p.m. timeslot.

Phillippi says that he plans to play nine songs per hour -- 18 different artists every Sunday -- drawing from CDs sent to the station. "As long as it's well-produced, we'll play it," he says. "We're trying to get these bands out there and get 'em signed." And, he adds, despite the show's title, they will play CDs from local labels, like The Gamble Brothers Band's latest, Continuator, which was just released on Archer Records.

Got something he needs to hear? Send it to Phillippi's attention at 2650 Thousand Oaks, Suite 4100, Memphis, TN 38118.

Meanwhile, SIRIUS subscribers are getting plenty of Memphis music on their plates, via Elvis Radio DJs such as Doc Walker and George Klein, who broadcast live from Graceland on Channel 13, and "Little" Steven Van Zandt, the Bruce Springsteen sideman and Sopranos star who serves as the godfather of Underground Garage on Channel 25.

During a recent phone conversation with Van Zandt, he likened his mission as a garage-rock Svengali to "the era and sensibility of DJs like Alan Freed and, of course, Dewey Phillips, guys who were enthusiastic and kind of crazy, so popular that people couldn't stop them from doing weird things on the air."

Acknowledging that while he prefers to emphasize new garage rock on the station, Van Zandt conceded that he also spins lots of '60s groups, including Memphis bands like The Gentrys and The Gants.

Then he revealed his real soft spot, stating that with Time Bomb High School, the Reigning Sound "made one of the greatest records of the past 25 years."

"Greg Cartwright is, to me, absolutely one of the most talented guys in the world," Van Zandt gushed.

But Van Zandt hasn't been entirely thrilled with Cartwright's more recent path. Too Much Guitar! was a weird step sideways, he says: "I respect peoples' artistic wishes, but rock-and-roll groups need four or five people. When you get down to three, it's just not musical enough. The Reigning Sound were my Rolling Stones, but when I got my copy of Too Much Guitar!, I called the record company, because I thought they sent me the wrong thing."

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