Reelin' in the years 

15 years of Flyer Music Writing

Reading through 15 years of Memphis Flyer music coverage offers a vision of a city torn between past and future, a landscape where undeniable historical figures such as Johnny Ace, Mississippi John Hurt, and Phineas Newborn are as likely to get cover treatment as up-and-comers like Lois Lane, Lucero, and Garrison Starr -- a city where surviving remnants of a music industry obsess over major-label contracts while underground scenes evolve seemingly oblivious to such concerns.

Unsurprisingly, the Memphis-connected musician who appeared on the cover of the Flyer the most over the past 15 years is Elvis Presley, who, after all, does have his own local holiday. The King has graced the cover four times, with more to come, surely. Four other local artists have been two-time cover subjects: Stax icon Isaac Hayes, subterranean godfather Jim Dickinson, and underground rock flag bearers Tav Falco & Panther Burns and the Grifters.

Other local musicians who have appeared on Flyer covers: Phineas Newborn, Linda Gail Lewis, Joyce Cobb, Phoebe Lewis, Charlie Feathers, Ann Peebles, Bill Hurd, James Carr, Ollie Nightingale, the Hombres, Jeffrey Evans, Junior Kimbrough, Garrison Starr, Rufus Thomas, Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Ace, Lois Lane, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Lucero, the North Mississippi Allstars, Cory Branan, Richard Johnston, the Reigning Sound, Al Green and Willie Mitchell, and the Porch Ghouls.

But good writing, particularly in the arts, isn't just about information --a historical record of who's hot and who's not, who got signed and who got dropped. It's also about language and ideas, about capturing the passion, the sound, shape, and meaning of a subject Memphians are quite passionate about. In that spirit, here's a look back at what Flyer music writers have had to say about some of the city's most compelling artists over the past 15 years:

On Panther Burns:

"They've been with us so long -- through mayhem and tranquility East Coast rockabilly revivals, West Coast rockabilly revivals --that they are constantly revising and recreating their own folklore while still remaining the same. And enduring it all, Tav Falco has proved himself to be a man who can stick with his rockabilly-lives-forever vision, not to mention his beatnik politics, his oratory, and his hairdo."

-- Belinda Killough (March 2, 1989)

On Jim Dickinson:

"The Mississippi River flowed behind the keyboard, and when he stepped up to play, James Luther Dickinson looked like the Swamp Monster from the barge channel. With bedraggled hair, unkempt clothes, and eyeglasses made from a crash between a Harley-Davidson and a human fly, this man did not represent the South of lemonade and porch swings." -- Robert Gordon (November 14, 1991)

On The Grifters:

"At their best, the Grifters shatter all preconceptions about what rock-and-roll should do and how it should be done. The way they corral the rage and aggression of their guitars just as they threaten to explode off the record grooves; the way they play with rhythmic tension, allowing it to ebb and flow with unpredictable grace; the way David Shouse's vocals pull you into the songs even when you can't figure out what he's saying -- it defies all explanation and all expectation. Surprises like those usually make for great rock-and-roll, and "Corolla Hoist" is a great rock-and-roll single. I don't know what it's about, and I really don't care. Until I get tired of the buried but emotionally clear vocal, the mathematically arranged guitar riff in the right channel, and the two abrupt rhythm shifts during the noisy parts, I'll keep playing it." -- John Floyd (November 26, 1992)

On Big Ass Truck:

"By and large, white funk makes me puke, and with '70s disco making inroads into trend bars and dance halls, the future looks grim. Luckily, the guys in Big Ass Truck don't fall into the Chili Peppers' pseudo-minstrelsy puke pit; their four-song EP on Sugar Ditch trades the pump-bass hysterics of most white funksters for the careening, pummeling style of early-'70s Miles Davis -- equal parts funk explosion and jazz improv. Think Agharta and On the Corner, mixed with Trouble Man-era Marvin Gaye and hip-hop scratches. Wake up, kids. You don't need the Chili Peppers. Big Ass Truck is the real deal."

-- John Floyd (August 19, 1993)

On R.L. Burnside:

"R.L. Burnside exists so far from the blues mainstream he almost deserves his own category. It's not that he's doing anything new with the music; there's a direct lineage in Burnside's guitar playing and singing that goes back to such blues progenitors as Lightnin' Hopkins, Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, and Son House. But in a field that's become dominated by rock-derived guitar pyrotechnics, banal songwriting, and hackneyed vocal histrionics, you can't help but hear Burnside as the real deal -- a progeny of the music in its purest form, standing outside current trends while revealing the lifelessness of those trends."

--John Floyd (January 27, 1994)

On Junior Kimbrough:

"There, in one of the ground-floor apartments, stirring himself up into a sitting position on the couch as we walk in, is the man who stares out at you from those album covers, his shirt off, wearing blue slacks and one shoe, the right one. His exposed foot is swollen with a round scar on the top of it. 'I dropped some hot oil on my foot,' Junior explains as he settles himself on the couch. I take a seat in a metal folding chair across from Junior and next to the television, which is showing America's Funniest Home Videos, a program that apparently interests Junior a lot more than I do." --Mark Jordan (June 19, 1997)

On The Oblivians:

"9 Songs shows admirable restraint, perfectly balancing the band's tendencies toward sonic assault with crazed and swooning come-to-Jesus vocals and clean, deep guitar furrows. From the reworking of the traditional "Live the Life" to the soul-bursting "Final Stretch" to the Pentecostal proclamations of "What's the Matter Now," this record reeks of the tension between religion and the devil's music while pointing once again to the identity of the two as spontaneous flashes of ecstasy. With its distinctly Southern hybrid of gospel, blues, rockabilly, punk, and soul, it just might be [a record] Memphis music-heads will be searching for in old record bins 40 years from now." -- Jim Hanas (September 11, 1997)

On The Clears:

"Less than a year ago, the Clears seemed to come, fully formed, out of nowhere. Whether that's because they really were fully formed or simply because they had no precedent on the local music scene is tough to say. And there really are no precedents for the Clears. Not in Memphis, and certainly not in this decade. With their synthesizer-driven sound and terse, mechanistic phrasing, new wave is, of course, the handy term for what the Clears are about, but new wave of a particular sort, one at the same time older and newer than the Eighties. Imagine early Wire filtered through the smarty-pants aloofness of ever-less-inventive irony-rock, and you find some yet-to-be-named category for this trio."

-- Jim Hanas (October 16, 1997)

On Lois Lane:

"If you haven't heard Lois Lane's 'Chinese Checkers' either you don't get out much, you don't own a radio, or both. The song has been a staple on K-97 for close to a year now, but you're just as likely to hear it on the tape deck in an aerobics class, an office building, or a hair salon. Lane's ability to juggle currency with familiarity is probably her strongest asset, and in terms of pre-millennial trendspotting, it's fashionable to the nines. In a city that tends to view its music in the past tense, revisionism is proving to be one of the few sure bets left. 'Chinese Checkers' is the perfect elixir for a pop landscape straddled between a rich past and an uncertain future."

-- Matt Hanks (August 13, 1998)

On The Neckbones:

"Though the comparisons are not readily evident, the Neckbones are kindred spirits with Fat Possum's stable of old black bluesmen. They share a love of grimy guitar and, occasionally, even dirtier lyrical content, the main difference being that the Neckbones do things a little faster and a little louder. Blues for the white, suburban set."

--Mark Jordan (August 12, 1999)

On The North Mississippi Allstars:

"Memphis music lovers have had not so much the pleasure as the privilege of watching the North Mississippi Allstars' Luther and Cody Dickinson grow up on stage. Their first band, D.D.T., became a fixture at the Antenna years before either of the D-boys were old enough to even be there. Their skronky jug band Gut Bucket proved they could bust out the world-boogie using nothing but the bare essentials, and the subsequent D.D.T. Big Band demonstrated their skills at living large and loud. The Allstars released 'Shake Hands With Shorty,' their long-overdue first CD, last week. On it, the primitive moaning drone and the marching rhythms of Mississippi hill-country blues meet hot Hendrix-inspired licks and tight Allman-style jams. 'Shorty' is getting a great deal of national attention, and it's absolutely worthy."

--Chris Davis (May 11, 2000)

On Lucero:

"Lucero's music is raw but tuneful in the finest rock-and-roll tradition. [Ben] Nichols' and [Brian] Venable's guitars -- Nichols banging out power chords and Venable filling the spaces in the music with sharp, tasteful leads -- signify honky-tonk even at their most punkish, while [drummer Roy] Berry and [bassist John] Stubblefield brew a quiet storm below. The songs are simple, direct, and emotional, yet remarkably memorable and well-crafted. They convey a lovesick/lovelorn attitude that's closer in its youthful spirit to great punk bands like Jawbreaker and the Replacements than it is to tear-in-your-beer weepiness of classic country." -- Chris Herrington (December 14, 2000)

On Three-6 Mafia:

"Three-6 Mafia arrived in the mid-'90s with raw, wild albums such as Mystic Stylez and Live By Yo Rep --a vaguely satanic, wildly sensational horror-core hip-hop crew that was as threatening as it was silly. They were an underground, regional phenomenon, almost as ignored by the hip-hop press and radio nationally as they were by the larger pop culture. But for a few weeks this summer that all changed. You couldn't turn on the television or open a music magazine without seeing Three-6 Mafia. The woozy 'Sippin' on Some Syrup' video, a parade of local big-ballers sippin' doctored hot-pink cough syrup out of baby bottles, was in heavy rotation on the video channel the Box. A few channels down, on BET, the group was busy scaring the bejeezus out of the bourgie hosts on one of the station's talk shows, who wanted to know um why one member was called 'Crunchy Black'? Meanwhile, 'Sippin' on Some Syrup' was wreaking havoc, as the fad of sippin' this 'liquid heroin' was reemerging around the country. The ever-quotable DJ Paul tried to convince a Commercial Appeal reporter that the song was cautionary and informational: 'We just want the kids to know that what's in those bottles ain't Enfamil.'"

--Chris Herrington (January 4, 2001)

On Saliva:

"This music isn't cosmopolitan and is proudly anti-elitist, speaking directly to middle- and working-class suburbanites who couldn't find a home in the college-radio-bred world of alt-rock. Alt-associated bands as diverse as Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nine Inch Nails have blown kisses to this sizable audience, but they were all too arty and removed to hit these kids where they live. Saliva aims to score a direct hit."

-- Chris Herrington (February 1, 2001)

On Shelby Bryant:

"With giddy-verging-on-goofy synth rhythms and gently psychedelic keyboard arrangements informed by everything from Bach to gospel, Cloud Wow Music is a real treat for the headphones-only set. It's bright, sometimes tongue-twisting lyrics, Ö la Syd Barrett, and its rhymes as sweet and sincere as a Jonathan Richman couplet sneak up on you and induce perma-smile. It is mathematically precise music for very sophisticated children who never want to grow up. It is genius."

--Chris Davis (June 14, 2001)

On The Reigning Sound:

"The Premier Player Awards are a source of constant frustration to those of us who actually listen to virtually every local release. The fact that the Reigning Sound was not nominated for best band is a shame, and the fact that Greg Cartwright has yet to receive a nod as best songwriter is a borderline crime. Not that he would even care. Perhaps Cartwright's work with the Compulsive Gamblers was too raw to meet certain standards, and there can be little doubt that while the Oblivians were big enough to merit a spread in Variety, lyrics like 'I'm not a sicko, there's a plate in my head' were punk enough to insulate them (and thereby him) from a typically Bealecentric clique of voters. But by the mid-'90s, [Cartwright's] softer side had begun to show. The punk facade dropped away and what remained was nothing short of astounding. Here is an artist able to merge garage rock, pure country, gospel, folk, blues, and soul and imbue this hybrid with the finest qualities of mid-century pop. Here is also a songwriter confident enough to step out from the camouflage of noise-rock to embrace complexity and polish without fear of being labeled a sellout." --Chris Davis (May 2, 2002)

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