Host Post: Mississippi rocks ‘Memphis Rent Party’

by Jim Dees – If space aliens came down and asked about Mississippi and Memphis and you handed them Robert Gordon’s down-home gonzo collection of music essays, Memphis Rent Party – The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown (Bloomsbury), they would assume this whole area is pretty nuts.

Gordon, who has chronicled Memphis musicians and related history for 30 years, gives us close-up glimpses of eccentric geniuses we thought we knew: Junior Kimbrough, Furry Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Alex Chilton and, the Zen master of Zebra Ranch himself, (and our Thacker brother) Jim Dickinson, among a dozen others.

Living here in north Mississippi, one big Blues R Us store, locals have heard countless tales of these titans, some, like Junior and Jim, we’ve actually met or known. And yet, Gordon offers a fresh view: flesh and blood portraits, more humanity than mythology. He hangs with his subjects, drinks with them, accompanies them to gigs. His investment reveals the soul – tortured or otherwise – behind the exploding talent.

Gordon takes us to Junior’s Sunday house party in 1988 (before the gatherings moved to his juke joint in Chulahoma). There is Junior’s furniture piled up in a side room and a house lady selling drinks: regular beer, corn liquor and, when in season, some of Junior’s homemade “fruit beer.” A true rent party.

“Music filled the house like water in an aquarium,” Gordon writes. “We must’ve stayed there for twelve hours. Maybe it was the fruit beer.”

Gordon takes on the myriad mysteries of Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil; James Carr and his haunted life and haunted vocals on “Dark End of the Street;” the origins of the guttural love cry, “the squall,” of Bobby “Blue” Bland; Otha Turner’s goat sandwiches; the guitars and chainsaws of Tav Falco. The book ends with Gordon having a blues epiphany while watching Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band conjure spirits across the scorched earth of the North Mississippi Hill Country picnic in Marshall County.

More good news: There is a companion CD/album, Memphis Rent Party, from Oxford’s own, Fat Possum Records. The record showcases a dozen acts featured in the book and opens with a delightfully demented version of “Desperados Waiting For a Train” produced by Dickinson and featuring Ry Cooder’s otherworldly slide guitar. The vocalist, Jerry McGill, one of the wildest characters in Memphis Rent Party, sings like the song is about him. Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long,” is taken from a cassette recording by Gordon at the above-mentioned house party with background hell-raisin’ and guitar distortion intact.

Furry Lewis is recorded at his house, presumably after a cash payment and a trip to the liquor store. There’s a ragged reggae cover, “Johnny Too Bad” by Alex Chilton. Jerry Lee adds an up tempo jolt to one of his country weepers, “Harbor Lights.” Memphis group, the Fieldstones, rock live and raw, again from a Gordon cassette recording. Tav Falco goes full tango on “Drop Your Mask.” Pianist Mose Vinson plays old school Memphis barrelhouse piano that’s flat-out bordello-ready. Charlie Feathers cries harder than Hank on the excellent, straight ahead country, “Defrost Your Heart.” The album roars to a close with Dickinson blasting out the world’s most unlikely blues song, “I’d Love to be a Hippie.”

After reading this book and listening to this wild record (that actually sounds like a house party), I feel like I’ve visited with the coolest cats on earth… while admitting those space aliens would probably be right after all.

Hear Robert Gordon Thursday, March 8th at 6 pm on The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour at Off Square Books (129 Courthouse Square). FREE admission. Plus, north Mississippi bluesman, Cam Kimbrough and veteran Americana musician David Olney (“Don’t Try to Fight It”).
Hosts: Jim Dees and our house band, the Yalobushwhackers.
Radio: 92.1 FM (Oxford)

NOTE: There will be a listening party for Memphis Rent Party with author/producer Robert Gordon at 4 p.m. Thursday, March 8 at The End of All Music on the square at 103A Courthouse Square (upstairs above Nella and next door to University Sporting Goods). Gordon will sign records and hang out before his reading on Thacker Mountain Radio at 6 p.m. at Off Square Books.

To order a copy of the record on “Rent Money Green” vinyl from End of All Music:

To order a copy of the book from Square Books: