The Road to Memphis

May 30, 2016

The drive from Nashville to Memphis wasn’t quite what I’d imagined it would be. I’d woken up on a cold February morning a little earlier than I needed to, in anticipation of the journey ahead. I picked up a cup of black coffee from Crema at 6:30am on my way out of town, put Dan Penn’s Nobody’s Fool album on the car stereo, and took off. I felt all of the excitement that comes naturally to one who’s never visited the city of Blues before. But rain; leafless trees; huge, modern signs for Subway and McDonalds; and the very long, straight, pot-holed highway, made it not quite the exciting route I had conjured up in my mind. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the drive. I made a quick stop over at Loretta’s Kitchen: a tacky tourist shop and café where you can get a mug of coffee, a plate of pie and countless trinkets on which Loretta’s face smiles fixedly at you. (I came away with a Loretta thimble, Loretta nail clippers and an Elvis postcard. Why the heck not.)

As I arrived in Memphis, ‘Raining in Memphis’ by Dan Penn came on the stereo. I heard above the music, the wonderful, mournful sound of the trains rolling in and out of town – just as they do in the Jim Jarmusch film, Mystery Train and just as they do in so many blues songs. “Hello Memphis!” I replied to their call.

The reason for my visit was to meet producer/engineer, Matt Ross-Spang (great name hey). Matt worked at the legendary Sun Studios for eleven years as head engineer, but before being at the helm, he was a tour guide and an intern there. At sixteen years of age, he would finish high school, drive to Sun, show the tourists around, and then when the last one had left the building, he’d begin his work as assistant engineer learning how to record. I got to visit Sun Studios on the final day of my trip and got a personal tour from Matt, who switched into tour guide mode, and told me all about the history as we walked around the building. It was incredible. Seeing where Jerry Lee burned out a cigarette on a piano key, Marion Keisker’s desk, and all the beautiful, old analogue equipment. There was also a great mock up of of Dewey Phillips’ WHBQ radio studio including a smashed 78 record laying on the ground – if Dewey didn’t like a record, he’d smash it on the ground, on air!

Matt no longer works at Sun Studios as he was recently poached by Nashville’s award-winning producer, Dave Cobb, to come and work for him. One of Matt’s first jobs with Dave was recording the Grammy-winning album by Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free.

I’d been looking for someone to produce my next album and asked various Nashville friends for recommendations and Matt’s name came up straight away. We were introduced, had a few emails back and forth and then, somewhat tentatively, I sent him a handful of my new songs (it’s always incredibly nerve-wracking sending your unpolished, home-made, heart-felt, bare-bone demos out to a stranger, especially one you want to make your album!) Fortunately, he liked the songs and had a very inspired and clear idea of the sort of record we could make together. Awesome! But always best to meet up before launching in to make a record with someone…

Matt asked me to meet him at a place called Sam Phillips Recording Service (‘Phillips’ for short). Obviously I knew who Sam Phillips was, but I have to admit, that I’d never heard of the building before. I pulled into the car park and walked towards the front door. Stepping over sheets of plastic (there’s renovations being done), I wandered in, ushered by the builders through a number of doors until a woman popped up and said, “You must be Emily! Matt is through here.” Another door opened and suddenly I realised I was in a huge, old-school recording studio. Studio A in fact. I was about to learn that this room, and the entire building, was made in 1960 when Sam Phillips wanted a bigger live recording space. He decked it out with state-of-the-art recording equipment of the time and it was used by many great acts including Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam the Sham, The Yardbirds, Alex Chilton, The Cramps, John Prince, Jerry Jeff Walker, Phil Collins, Robert Plant, and many more!

Sam Phillips Recording Service Studio A

Matt and Rick Steff (more on him in a moment) gave me a tour of the building. There were rooms stacked full of analogue recording equipment, synths, old Sun Records 7” label stickers, master tape reels, etc. etc. My favourite room was Sam Phillips’ office – still decked out with the original red carpet, desk, white vinyl armchair, entertainment system (record player and television in one cabinet), lights, and with…

Sam C Phillips, President

…in gold lettering on the front of the door. It looked like he’d just walked out of the room! And I felt like I’d gone back in time. We went out to the balcony, which once upon a time had a dance floor on it. Apparently the secretaries used to sunbathe there with a view over the “Pink District”.

Matt and Rick went back and forth telling me one incredible story after the other about Sam, the legendary musicians who had recorded in the building, the quirky characters of the city, and the Memphis music scene of old and now. It was fascinating, and I felt very fortunate to be shown around the private rooms of such an iconic building.

Back down in Studio A, the three of us started to work on my songs. We played them through, and talked about arrangements and production ideas. Rick sat at the Baldwin grand piano during our session and completely blew me away with his playing. Rick plays anything with keys and is in an awesome band called Lucero. He was also the music director on Cat Power’s The Greatest album, and has played keys for Dexy’s Midnight Runners, James Blood Ulmer, and Hank William Jr. His father was Dick Steff who played trumpet for Elvis!

Matt then proceeded to tell me about the other musicians he had lined up to play on the album. They’re all from Memphis, and all local legends: Steve Potts on drums (Booker T and the MGs, Ann Peebles, Al Green, Neil Young, Isaac Hayes and so many more!) and Dave Smith on bass (Johnny Lang, Buddy Guy, Norah Jones, John Mayall, Cat Power and the list goes on). Whoa!

And so the plan had formed, we would make our record at ‘Phillips’ in Studio A working with some of Memphis’ finest musicians and then, for horns, head across to Boo Mitchell’s, Royal Studios, where his father Willie Mitchell recorded Al Green’s classic 70s albums. How ridiculously exiting. I was over the moon!

I also hung out on Beale Street drinking “Ice Picks” and listening to Leroy Hodges in the house band at Blues City Café; got to hear Dave Cousar at the Buccaneer, and ate creamy, cheese grits with Matt and Rick in a restaurant opposite the studio – it wasn’t so hard being vegetarian in Memphis!

Suffice to say that Memphis stole my heart. I cannot wait to record my new songs at ‘Phillips’ with Matt, Rick and the boys, and to explore more of the incredible city and story of Memphis.

Join me in Memphis >>