Jimbo Mathus “Jimmy the Kid” Out 9/30


“Jimmy the Kid by Jimbo Mathus ” was recorded at Jimbo’s Delta Recording Service in Como Ms in 2006-2007. It signalled a departure from the more bluesy recordings Mr Mathus had been releasing since disbanding Squirrel Nut Zippers and doing a four year stint with blues patriarch Buddy Guy.

“I was seeking to put more honky tonk and country harmony singing in my music”, says Mathus. The recording involved a rotating cast of characters from the Memphis and North Mississippi as well as future members of Mathus’s current Fat Possum Records based Tri State Coalition . The recording includes some of Mathus’s best songwriting and some true honk tonk gems like “check out time”, and “Highway at Night” as well as some good old redneck rock and roll.
The recording and original artwork by Mathus has been unearthed and properly released now by Big Legal Mess . God bless Mississippi and pass the antiseptic.

Jim Mize Self Titled Album Out June 24th



Arkansas native’s breakthrough plumbs the depths of love — reflected via a life amidst hurricanes, tornadoes and auto wrecks — with help from fellow mavericks Jimbo Mathus and John Paul Keith

CONWAY, Ark.—The South has a legacy of great, iconoclastic storytellers — artists with a kudzu-shaded vision that cuts straight to the core of the human soul. Arkansas native Jim Mize’s new breakthrough album, simply called Jim Mize, stakes his claim among them.

As its nine songs reveal, Mize is a primal rock ’n’ roll visionary who colors his music with hues borrowed from blues and garage psychedelia, and writes with a stark brevity that punctuates every heartbeat of the characters who draw the attention of his pen: car parkers and bar tenders, boozehounds and love-drunk couples, the longing and the satisfied, the faithful and the lost.

Songs like “Drunk Moon Falling,” culled from an overheard conversation at an Austin restaurant, and the gorgeously textured “Eminence, Kentucky” reflect the same dirt-road view of life limned with traces of the surreal that permeate the writings of such masterful Southern novelists as Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, both of whom hail from Oxford, Mississippi. Coincidentally that’s also the home of Mize’s label Big Legal Mess, a subsidiary of Fat Possum Records.

Mize has spent most of his 57 years wandering among such characters. As an insurance adjuster traveling the South and West for more than 30 years, he’s seen people at their most resilient and at their most vulnerable.

“I’ve been through nine hurricanes and I don’t know how many tornadoes, and seen way too many car wrecks where people got killed,” Mize says in his big, bawling voice. “I saw two guys carrying a rolled up carpet with a pair of legs sticking out of it after Hurricane Andrew in Florida … and all kinds of people pushed to their limit. That’s connected to the songs I write. I always keep my antennae up. All of my tunes boil down to one thing, and that’s observations.”

Listening to Jim Mize, it’s easy to observe that despite all of the harsh reality Mize has experienced, he’s still an incurable romantic. “Rabbit Hole,” which kick-starts the album with Mize’s hypnotic, staccato guitar, is about falling helplessly into the vortex of love. And “This Moment With You” captures the ignition point of blissful, all-consuming infatuation. The emotional flip side is the bare-knuckled “Bleed,” in which a couple slices each other’s hearts with intractably venomous words.

“I enjoy love songs the most, whether they’re happy or sad,” Mize muses. “With love, you can never run out of things to write about. But the most important thing is, my songs have to be honest. When I’m out there playing I believe every damn word that I’m singing.”

Mize is joined by two fellow maverick Southern songwriter-guitarists on his third album: dusty blues modernist Jimbo Mathus (formerly of Squirrel Nut Zippers) and burgeoning American root-pop alchemist from Memphis John Paul Keith, who take turns as instrumental foil to Mize’s raw-but-inventive riffing and expressionistic solos — a style he developed playing juke joints, sock hops and dive bars around his native Conway, Arkansas, which is 30 miles, but a world away, from the concrete corridors of state capitol Little Rock.

Mize still lives in Conway, although he spent time in Germany after faking his ID to enlist in the Army at age 17. And while the dirt road he grew up on is now paved, little else has changed. Despite Conway’s bucolic college town status, in true outsider fashion Mize prefers keeping to himself. On Saturday afternoons, when his wife’s gone grocery shopping, he can be found pacing the front porch of his house, cogitating over chord changes and the other makings of new songs. “That’s my favorite time to write,” he says. “Or at night in my living room over a toddy. I love the writing process and I like to write mostly when I’m by myself, which makes sense, because I’ve never really fit in, exactly, even when I was kid. I guess you could say I was a misfit.”

Being a juvenile loner sharpened Mize’s perspective as an artist. At age 12, while struggling to get a handle on guitar — “I never could copy what musicians played on records worth a damn,” he offers — Mize fell in love for the first time. He lost his heart to Glenn Campbell’s 1968 hit “Wichita Lineman,” swooning for Jimmy Webb’s sweeping, orchestral arrangement. Mize’s affection for the song may have been ripened by the fact that his father was a wire chief crew for the telephone company, but “Wichita Lineman”’s combination punch of textural sweep and artful lyrics sent his head spinning and inspired Mize to spend his alone hours writing songs.

“From then on, I understood how powerful words could be in creating pictures and I understood that the notes on the guitar weren’t as important as the sounds it could make,” Mize attest. “Today I base my songs on the chords and riffs I come up with, but what I really do is think sonically.” That explains Mize’s arresting use of open tunings and slide guitar textures, as well as the adventurous route of his solos in numbers like “Eye to Eye,” where Mize’s guitar see-saws between two notes, dancing like the seductive Gypsy described in the song before exploding into a series of growling partial chords.

Mize didn’t enter a recording studio until his late 30s, instead channeling his creative energy into stockpiling songs and occasional live performances. Initially both reflected his passion for the classic country music he heard on the radio and on TV, as well as the blues that seemingly crept out of the soil in Arkansas and Mississippi. As time passed, rock also slinked into his musical vocabulary and fellow eccentrics like Tom Waits and Junior Kimbrough took their place alongside Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf and Merle Haggard among Mize’s influences.

Mize says his “big break” came in 1994, when he was cutting some demos at Fat Possum’s studio in Water Valley, Mississippi with label co-owner Bruce Watson, who has since produced all of Mize’s recordings. “Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirrat from the band Blue Mountain were there, and when they heard my song ‘Let’s Go Runnin’ they decided to record it,” he recounts. That well-loved tune appeared on Blue Mountain’s 1995 disc Dog Days.

The new Jim Mize captures its namesake at the apex of his art and follows 2000’s No Tell Motel and 2007’s Release It to the Sky. Together they trace his evolution as an off-trail songwriter distilling his influences into an original voice of power and depth. Those recordings and his ongoing relationship with Blue Mountain, who also cut Mize’s “Emily Smiles,” have given Mize his own eager fan base. But so far he hasn’t traveled beyond Arkansas’ bordering states as a musician, limiting his extended forays to investigating insurance claims. Which is how he likes it … for now.

“The music business is tough,” Mize observes. “My friends in bands tour, and I’ve got to admit that crowding into a van, sleeping on people’s floors and eating bad food is not for me. I like livin’ comfortable.”

But Mize plans to become a guitar-toting road dog in just a few years. “When I retire I’ll have a good pension so I can stay in decent hotels and eat good food. By then, I’ll have a bunch more songs, too. I’ll be ready to roll the dice and live my dream!”




The Soul of Designer Records captures the nexus of Bluff City soul and spirituals, pays tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit of label founder Style Wooten and to legendary guitarist/producer Roland Janes

MEMPHIS, Tenn.— If passion and fervor were electricity, the performances on The Soul of Designer Records could put the glow in every neon sign in the city on the Mississippi River where they were recorded.

Between 1967 and 1977 Designer label founder Style Wooten and his studio main man Roland Janes, a heroic figure in Memphis music, produced between 400 and 500 gospel singles. Many of the artists they recorded came from Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, but as the label’s reputation grew they began arriving from more far flung locales — Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Ohio, the Carolinas, Florida, California — sometimes literally waiting in line for their turn to cut at Janes’ Sonic Studios.
What’s astonishing is how seamlessly this set’s 101 songs by dozens of groups and solo acts lock together. That’s due to more than the unbridled sound of pure faith welling up in the varied voices of such largely obscure performers as Elizabeth King, who wails like Aretha on “Testify for Jesus,” and Rev. Leon Hammer, who howls like Blind Willie Johnson on “He Won’t Deny Me.” Many of these numbers share a badass, wild-eyed energy — the same primitive, reverb-soaked mojo that drives the classic Memphis rockabilly, garage rock and blues that was Janes’ specialty. The protean roots rocker also plays guitar on many of these sides, drawing on a do-it-all trick bag of riffs that range from needlepoint blues licks ’n’ leads to funky James Brown-style strumming to bristling country bends to unrepentant power chords.
The Designer singles also capture the evolution of Memphis blues and soul as reflected in their sanctified cousin of a genre. The musical timeline starts in 1963 with the traditional quartet approach of Grand Junction, Tennessee’s Gospel Songbirds, who telegraph call-and-response vocals over simple blues chord changes, followed by the hot Bobby “Blue” Bland boogie of the Dynamic Hughes Gospel Singers’ “Beautiful City.” It climaxes in the Hendrix-fueled six-string of Elgie Brown, whose 1975 “When Jesus Comes” and “A Helping Hand” navigate a psychedelic sea of wah-wah, phase shifter and distortion pedals.
Along the way there are stops for the New Orleans second-line grooves of the Foster Brothers, the driving post-Stax urgency of the Magnificent Soul Survivors and the Mahalia Jackson-influenced Cora Bell Watkins, whose 1973 “Love King Jesus” sounds like an anachronism among the frequently percolating singles of Designer’s later years, wrought in the city where the Staple Singers and Al Green were cutting Top 40 pop crossover smashes.

What’s also astonishing is that none of this — the variety, the quality and durability of the material, the consistently impressive level of talent — was calculated. Designer was a “custom” record label, a now-vanished musical equivalent of a vanity press. With few exceptions, the groups and artists who recorded for Designer paid owner Style Wooten a fee, advertised once in the ’60s at $469.50, for cutting two sides in the studio. There were no fancy talent scouts involved. Performers contacted him, and anybody with the cash, sometimes paid in rolls of quarters on the installment plan, could make a record — just like Elvis did on his first visit to another famed Memphis institution, Phillips Recording Service.
“His attitude was: ‘Come in and cut a record and I’ll give you 25 copies. When you sell those, come back and buy another 25,’” Roland Janes told Michael Hurtt, who authored The Soul of Designer Records’ entertaining, informative liner notes.
If the artists slated to record hadn’t brought sufficient musical support for the work at hand, Janes would strap on his guitar or call on his cast of studio players to fill the keyboard, drum or bass seats as needed. Typically the performers that cut for Designer were amateurs: truck drivers, barbers, school teachers, farmers, housemaids and factory workers who played gospel music on the side. Most came to Sonic Studios as part of a long-weekend pilgrimage to play gigs around Memphis and the Delta. Some were more accomplished. Memphis’ own Jubilee Hummingbirds, for example, launched the careers of soul greats James Carr and O.V. Wright and remain in operation today. They’re represented here by four tunes including the tremolo-guitar spiked “Stand By Me.” Others, like the Mighty Blytheville Aires of Blytheville, Arkansas and Alberta Powell, for whom no biographical details can be found, literally had their day in Sonic and quickly slipped into history.
What nearly all of Designer’s customers shared besides religious conviction was the wide-eyed thrill of recording in a real studio for the first time, and that’s audible throughout this ambitious collection.
The Soul of Designer Records is also a tribute to Style Wooten and Roland Janes, who were truly mavericks in an industry, city and era known for iconoclasm.

Wooten was a literal giant of a man, standing six-foot-six and with a full, furry beard and a wax-tipped handle bar moustache. Born Jesse Corbett Graham in 1921, he was an enigmatic character who led a band, ran a trucking company and started a music management company that all bore his adopted moniker before launching Designer when he was already in his forties. He also founded the pop oriented J’Ace Records.
Wooten knew how to make a homemade blackjack, enjoyed driving the smallest cars that could contain his broad frame, had issues with alcoholism that toppled his first marriage and is rumored to have left secret bank accounts all over Memphis when he died in his sleep in 1998. As his son Jason told Hurtt, “You knew parts of him, but you never knew all of him ’cause he never told anybody.” Yet those who did business with Wooten spoke of his fair, honest and pleasant nature.
Janes and Wooten intersected shortly after Janes opened Sonic in 1963. By then Janes had already laid the foundation for his place in music history. Starting in 1956 he was the house guitarist for Sun Records, playing on singles by Jerry Lee Lewis (including “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”), Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Rich, Sonny Burgess and many others who would define the sound of rockabilly and nascent rock. He also became a skilled engineer and producer, developing microphone placement and tape-to-tape recording techniques that helped revolutionize recording. Janes built Sonic after a faltered attempt at running his own Rita Records label. And at Sonic he minted the sound of Memphis ’60s garage rock, working with a plethora of teenaged bands with names like the Yo-Yo’s, Flash & the Casuals, the Rapscallions and the Memphis Charms. On weekends he and Wooten made gospel recordings for Designer.
Janes closed Sonic in 1973, leading Wooten to purchase his own gear and move the Designer Records operation into his home at 3373 Park Avenue in Memphis. But Janes kept on as a session player and producer until his death last year, at age 80, once again manning the board for Sun Records founder Sam Phillips at Phillips Recording, and cutting tracks for a string of albums by his many torchbearers, including Mudhoney’s Tomorrow Hit Today in 1998.
By the early 1970s, Designer Records was one of the most successful independent gospel labels in the United States due largely to its sheer volume of releases and Style Wooten’s unmitigated willpower. And while today many of the artists who took advantage of Designer’s services have given up performing, and a good many have also given up the ghost, The Soul of Designer Records upholds Wooten’s promise that for a reasonable fee their musical pursuits will be immortalized.

Water Liars’ Third Album Out February 4th


Mississippi’s Water Liars will release their self-titled third album on February 4th, 2014 via Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum Records.

“My sisters were the heavens / My brothers were the depths / Now I’m rolling into battle with a smoke between my lips,” Justin Kinkel-Schuster sings on “I Want Blood,” and it’s a presiding image on Water Liars. Joined by GR Robinson on bass, and fresh off the success of sophomore album Wyoming and the reissue of debut LP Phantom Limb – both released earlier this year – Kinkel-Schuster (vocals, guitar) and Andrew Bryant (drums, vocals) strut into this effort with their feathers out, driven by a need to create. Forget taking years to release a new album; Water Liars don’t know how to stop working. A punk aesthetic – a desire not to overdo songs until they’re shiny with emptiness – is the band’s defining feature, and it’s why their songs are filled with such raw sorrow. To call the songs here an improvement over what they’ve done before would be to sell the earlier work short: Wyoming, released in March, earned praise from The New York Times, Alternative Press, Penthouse, and All Music Guide, among others.

Recorded over three studio sessions in Water Valley, MS in late spring and summer, Water Liars finds the band expanding on Wyoming’s classic, soulful songwriting and warm yet heartsick expanse. The songs, written by Kinkel-Schuster and fleshed out with Bryant on the road, were tracked mostly live and exhibit diverse and divergent styles. Opener “Cannibal” sets the tone with resounding guitar and crash of drums; “I Want Blood” is a bright, resonant embodiment of the band’s determined spirit; “Let It Breathe” offers a heartrending, haunting appeal of simply guitar and vocals, as bare as it is vulnerable; “Ray Charles Dream” is a blistering take on ‘50s rock/pop; and “Swannanoa” is poignant, rolling waltz. A study in contrasts, the album captures the stark dynamics of both Water Liars’ live show – the restrained moments made all the softer by their roaring bookends – and their lyricism, all the while effortlessly towing the tenuous line of harsh and tender. For every lonesome ache, there’s a hopeful promise; for every stumble into despair, a wide-eyed reach for life’s wonder; for every broken heart, there’s one patched back together. These are songs about leaving and staying, about lost fathers and new loves, about distance and memory. A full track listing is below.

Water Liars track listing:

1. Cannibal
2. War Paint
3. I Want Blood
4. Swannanoa
5. Let It Breathe
6. Tolling Bells (For Molina)
7. Ray Charles Dream
8. Vespers
9. Pulp
10. Last Escape
11. Turn Me On

Water Liars tour dates:

  • Feb 14 – Proud Larry’s – Oxford, MS
  • Feb 15 – Martin’s – Jackson, MS
  • Feb 18 – Vinyl – Atlanta, GA
  • Feb 19 – Normaltown Hall – Athens, GA
  • Feb 20 – The Royal American – Charleston, SC
  • Feb 21 – King’s Barcade – Raleigh, NC
  • Feb 22 – The Mothlight – Asheville, NC
  • Feb 24 – DC9 – Washington, DC
  • Feb 25 – Milkboy – Philadelphia, PA
  • Feb 26 – Mercury Lounge – New York, NY
  • Feb 27 – Cafe Nine – New Haven, CT
  • Feb 28 – Book and Bar – Portsmouth, NH
  • Mar 2 – Club Cafe – Pittsburgh, PA
  • Mar 3 – Beachland Tavern – Cleveland, OH
  • Mar 4 – The Union – Athens, OH
  • Mar 5 – The Brass Rail – Ft. Wayne, IN
  • Mar 6 – Schubas Tavern – Chicago, IL
  • Mar 8 – Off Broadway – St. Louis, MO
  • Mar 10 – The Basement – Nashville, TN


Bobby Bare Jr. “Shame On Me” 7″ Out January 7th

BLM0284_BBJ_Cover (2)


• Has a degree in psychology from the UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE.

• Made 2 albums for Immortal Records with his band “BARE JR.” -
one for Sony Records in 1998 and one for Virgin Records in 2001.

• Born raised and still lives in Nashville, TN.

• Is VERY afraid of elves.

• Has 3 children -two boys and one girl.

• Nominated for a Grammy at the age of 6 years old for a duet with
his dad called “Daddy What If” – written by Shel Silverstein. That year the Grammy for “Country Duet of the Year” went to THE POINTER SISTERS.

• Believes that blue is a flavor and not a color nor a feeling.

• Has made three albums and one EP for BLOODSHOT RECORDS
since 2002.

• Co-produced his dad’s last record THE MOON WAS BLUE in 2006.

• Grew up in HENDERSONVILLE, TN with George Jones and Tammy
Wynette as his next door neighbors.

• Has been romantically linked to the BOB’S BIG BOY boy.

• Can NOT speak Mmandrin Chinese.

• This 7” was recorded at Dial Back Sound Studio in Water Valley,
MS with producer Bruce Watson.

Leo Welch “Sabougla Voices” Out January 7th


Over the years, gospel music has received all kinds of accolades and lip service from critics and musicians attesting to its profound influence on American popular music. Rock and roll began in the church after all. But unless you grew up around or in a church and absorbed all the Bible verses, preacher chants and sermons and, of course, the music, you have to really dig to start uncovering the music itself. Precious little has been reissued and made accessible to a wider audience. But things are beginning to change. The last ten years has seen an increasing appearance of gospel reissues and the vast, previously uncollected vinyl corpus has finally drawn the attention of the influential soul and funk collectors. The lost are coming to the Lord.

At the same time, misleading overly romantic stories and myths too often mar accounts of American popular music: Jimi Hendrix injected LSD into his eyeball; Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to gain his musical skills; and Hank Williams was always drunk.  Here we have the Saturday night blues vs. the Sunday morning gospel cliché to overcome. One can’t play the blues and the gospel the story goes. Leo “Bud” Welch lays all this nonsense as low as the shrubs and trees he cut for over 30 years with his chainsaw.  With his guitar sounding like a well-oiled Husqvarna, Welch uses the weapon that has killed many a lie, myth and story: the truth. I don’t know what you came to do but I came to praise his name; I came to sing my song.

It seems incredible that Leo Welch has until now remained unknown to the wider musical world. Born in 1932 in Sabougla, Mississippi Welch has lived his entire life in the area. Raised with four brothers and seven sisters, Welch’s musical ability was first noticed by his family when he and his cousin Alandus Welch. took to an older cousin’s guitar quicker than the owner R. C. Welch. Soon, Leo andR.C were picking out tunes heard on the radio and playing them for family and friends. Welch also picked up the harmonica and fiddle along the way. As the years passed Welch continued to entertain at picnics and parties in the area usually accompanied by his friend Otis McCain and often joined by first cousin R. C. Welch. Their repertoire consisted of many of the blues and radio standards and favorites of the day. On several occasions, Welch came to the attention of professional musicians, but planned auditions or jam sessions never worked out. When the Mondays rolled around, Welch was back at work, logging with his chainsaw or working on a local farm. Still, Welch played on, absorbing songs and listening to anything on the radio. Gospel music was a particular favorite and Welch learned the gospel repertoire at church and by listening to gospel groups like the Fairfield Four on Nashville’s clear channel WLAC. Even the name of Welch’s then current group, Leo Welch and the Rising Souls, suggests a belief in spiritual redemption anticipating the direction Welch would take.

One possible reason Welch flew under the radar for so long was his move into the church around 1975. The vast network of churches in Mississippi and the South offered consistent, safe venues to perform.  Welch’s brand of blues was becoming old fashioned and gigs were harder to come by. The churches offered a place where a musician like Leo Welch could still play his style, just slightly modified for the gospel. To this day these music programs and services often pass unnoticed to even lifetime residents in the local communities. Outside music enthusiasts who have obsessively canvased places like Mississippi over the last 75 years have largely overlooked the churches in their ceaseless attempts to discover a juke joint out of time. It wouldn’t be that far from overstatement to say that any single county in Mississippi probably has more churches than the all-time sum total of juke houses.

But Welch never let the blues go. He has never seen any reason to: “I believe in the Lord, but the blues speaks to life, too.  Blues has a feeling just like gospel; they just don’t have a book (a Bible).”  Welch continues to sing with two local gospel groups in the Bruce, Mississippi area, The Spiritualaires of Bruce, Mississippi and Leo Welch and the Sabougla Voices. You can also catch Leo hosting The Black Gospel Express TV show every 1st and 5th Sunday on WO7BN-TV in Bruce.

Lately, there seems to be a tolerant and accepting Samaritan like empathy appearing among former church goers and the like outside of the physical churches themselves.  Preacher’s kids and individual exiles from Baptist and Pentecostal churches who still quietly respect and follow the teachings of Jesus but suffocated under the dogmas of the physical churches have quietly set up shop in the cultural nooks and crannies of America. Some of these very same exiles have come together to make this record with Brother Leo Welch. And make no mistake; this is a gospel record.

So don’t go looking over your shoulder when you are listening to these songs. Come on into this church. There won’t be any old church ladies staring you down from the self-righteous section of the pews. It’s all right. Despite what some folk might insist, church isn’t always under the steepled roof. Where ever you are, have a sip, tap your foot, stomp it even fellowship with your friends and rejoice with the Lord and Leo “Bud” Welch.  Crank it.

Kevin Nutt
WFMU / Sinner’s Crossroads
Montgomery, Alabama
September 26, 2013

Listen to a track from Leo Welch’s “Sabougla Voices” below.

Sam Langhorn “The Gospel According to Sam” 10″ Out November 12th



Sam Langhorn (1933-2007) was known among locals as the best blues guitarist to come out of Oxford, Mississippi, but he somehow eluded the blues mafia who scoured the state looking for talent. The recordings here are the first ever issued by Langhorn, who demonstrates his skills performing traditional gospel in a style remarkably similar to Mississippi John Hurt. He learned guitar from his mother Camilla, who played at sanctified church services, but eventually chose the blues lifestyle.

The recordings were made around 1963 by two former Ole Miss football stars who befriended Langhorn and simply made the recordings for fun before putting them aside for half a century. Jimmy Hall went on to pursue a career of acting in New York City and L.A., and Robert Khayat a Pro Bowl career with the Washington Redskins then later returning  to the University of Mississippi, where he became a celebrated Chancellor.

Get a glimpse of Sam Longhorne’s upcoming album “The Gospel According to Sam” with the track “Keep Your Hands on the Plow” featured below.

John Paul Keith “Memphis Circa 3AM”


John Paul Keith’s new album Memphis Circa 3AM will be out on Big Legal Mess Records on September 17.

Check out the track list and listen to “Everything’s Different Now” from the new album below.


1. You Really Oughta Be With Me

2. We Got All Night

3. Everything’s Different Now

4. Ninety Proof Kiss

5. Walking Along The Lane

6. True Hard Money

7. New Year’s Eve

8. There’s A Heartache Going ‘Round

9. If You Catch Me Staring

10. Last Night I Had A Dream About You

11. She’s Almost You

12. Baby We’re A Bad Idea



John Paul Keith, the brilliant singer-songwriter and blistering guitarist who exploded out of a self-imposed musical exile in Memphis with 2009’s critically acclaimed Spills and Thrills and 2011’s The Man That Time Forgot, returns in September with Memphis Circa 3AM—his most accomplished and moving collection of songs yet.

Less a tribute to the spirit, soul and sound of the city than the living, crackling embodiment of it, Memphis Circa3AM finds Keith reaching the songwriting depths and musical heights that his previous two releases foreshadowed. Produced by the truly legendary Roland Janes—house guitarist for Sun Records in the 50s and longtime engineer and producer at Sam Phillips Recording Services—the album is a time-stopping 12-song duet between two deeply kindred artists, as Keith’s songs and Janes’ direction achieve a sonic balance that is both familiar and original. Cut live to two-inch tape—with Janes providing direction from the booth and not a computer in sight—the album sounds deeply rooted and incredibly fresh at the same time.

“When you think about the sheer scope of the work Roland has done, it is intimidating,” Keith says. “So many of my favorite records he either played on or worked on in some capacity. Working in there, I had to put it out of my mind. You can’t get anything done if you think too much about it. But Roland never brings it up. He immediately makes you feel comfortable. It became clear to me in my first meeting with Rolandthat he had no interest in doing any sort of nostalgia project. He wants to do something new and fresh and creative. It really helped us work.”

It shows. On each song—from the raucous stop-start rave-up of “You Really Oughta Be With Me” to the sad resign of “She’s Almost You,” Keith is backed with incredible power and delicacy by his band the One Four Fives. Bassist Mark Edgar Stuart and drummer John Argroves are arguably one of the deftest rhythm sections going, and their ability to propel, ground and bolster Keith’s songs recalls nothing short of the Band. Years on the road supporting the two previous albums, as well as crisscrossing the U.S. and Europe both alone and as backup for Jack Oblivian, has solidified Keith and the One Four Fives into an intuitive and powerful live band.

And as his band musically ups the ante, Keith meets it with his finest songs to date. There are few songwriters today that can match his ability to invest a simple turn of phrase with so many layers of meaning. From the hungover romance of “Ninety Proof Kiss” (“No one ever looked finer still wearing last-night’s eyeliner / I’m sure gonna miss that ninety-proof kiss”) to the plaintive moving-on heartbreak of “She’s Almost You” (“Why should I pine for you everyday, when she loves the words I used to say to you / they’re almost true”), Keith’s lyrics have an amazing ability to sound effortless and impeccably crafted. On “New Year’s Eve”—a stunning blue-eyed soul ballad that matches the melancholy sweetness of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham—Keith has written a song worthy of becoming a standard. “Next thing you know, I’ll be lying about my age / I’m reading the book, but I don’t want to turn the page /Can you believe it is already New Year’s Eve?”

It is a feeling and theme Keith returns to unflinchingly throughout the album. The songs hint of time slipping away, somewhere between midnight and morning, of feeling at the same time lost and in the right place, of being heartbroken and happy, optimistic and fearful, inspired to move forward by looking back. Keith’s ability to let these contradictions stand together unresolved has created a work of great and subtle complexity.

With the seamless balance itstrikes between Keith and his songs, and Janes and his production, Memphis Circa3AM is like discovering a musical Rosetta stone that decrypts the deep and mysterious codes of Memphis music to reveal the truths they hold. With Janes’ help, Keith has managed to harness the power of the city’s musical history and traditions to create a collection of songs that is truly timeless. In keeping with the album’s themes of contradiction, Keith has created a work that rightly stands in the pantheon of Memphis’ best while remaining adamantly and uniquely his own.