It's June. The music is over, the pigs are cooked, and the last obnoxious cannon blast of the "1812 Overture" has faded into memory. Mid-Southerners are now left with two options: Wait patiently until next year's Memphis In May celebration or complain.
Year after year, with notable exceptions, MIM officials blame low turnouts at its kickoff event, the Beale Street Music Festival, on excessive rain, heat, or both. This year they also blamed soaring gas prices. It would be easy enough, at this point, to look at similar festivals around the country and suggest that MIM is simply out of touch, but that wouldn't be fair. As any local club owner will tell you, Memphis' peculiar demographics make it a tough town to book. Nevertheless, MIM is by its very nature overextended, underspecialized, and locked into a cookie-cutter formula that requires serious reconsideration.
Downtown continues to grow into a shining jewel on the river, and it's time for MIM to take full advantage of that growth. It's time for the festival to consolidate resources, outsource labor, and rebuild the whole of Memphis In May around its signature event: the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. It's also time for MIM to start thinking outside the muddy, smelly confines of Tom Lee Park. For starters, the barbecue contest and music festival should be combined and re-imagined as a weeklong, multi-tiered wristband event filling the whole of downtown, from South Main to Mud Island. A stage or two near the grillers in Tom Lee Park could be filled with crowd-pleasing musical acts and top-tier headliners like B.B. King or James Brown. Everything else could be booked into downtown's many clubs, restaurants, and outdoor performance spaces. Club owners could use their experience in filling seats night after night to book filler slots in between sanctioned festival bands. MIM should also work with the Center for Southern Folklore to fill the streets of downtown with the extraordinary local and regional acts the music festival regularly ignores. If the center's annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival (which has always been a free event) could be moved to coincide with the barbecue contest, it would be a marvelous gift to Memphians and music lovers. After all, not everybody who wants to participate in Memphis In May can afford to pay for tickets, food, and parking for the whole family. And nobody relishes the notion of hauling kids around the inevitably muddy, drunk-infested confines of Tom Lee Park. Given the proper incentives, perhaps the good folks at New Orleans' Ponderosa Stomp could be convinced to bring their amazing golden-oldies show back to the Gibson Lounge to showcase the surviving cream of Memphis' Sun, Stax, and Hi Records crop. Maybe MIM could partner with the Memphis Music Commission -- an organization famous for not doing much of anything -- to create a producers' showcase featuring emerging national and international talent, modeled along the lines of Austin's immensely popular South By Southwest festival. The barbecue contest already attracts the kind of crowds and international media attention a boilerplate event like the Beale Street Music Festival could never hope to generate. If, however, MIM worked as an umbrella for several smaller music festivals -- Ponderosa Stomp, Heritage Fest, and a showcase of emerging artists -- it could distinguish itself as one of America's premier musical events. Combining a massive musical component with the built-in appeal of the barbecue contest is a no-brainer. When the air in downtown Memphis is saturated with the sounds of the world's best music and scented with the overpowering smell of the world's best barbecue, nobody will remember why they ever wanted to go to Bonnaroo in the first place. But before any of this can happen, Memphis In May has to think outside the box of Tom Lee Park. That's the first step to a much brighter future.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."