Wednesday, March 31, 2010

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | Joy Whitlock

Joy Whitlock was initially discovered by Todd Agnew, when he stumbled upon her cover band at a local Memphis venue. Surprisingly impressed with her captivating vocals and even more inspired by her testimony, Todd pitched Joy to the label and in 2005 Ardent released an EP titled 'The Fake EP.' In 2008 she released her first nationally distributed LP, 'God and a Girl.' Reminiscent of singer songwriters Jennifer Knapp, KT Tunstall, Lucinda Williams, both albums weave candid lyrics and compelling vocals showcasing her authentic spiritual journey and communicating hope within struggle and faith despite fear.

Always a fan of music, Joy professes that her first Sarah McLachlan concert as a teen is what truly ignited her passion for music and songwriting. Here she shares five albums that were influential in shaping her musical career.

1. Sarah McLachlan – 'Possession'
As an adolescent and pre-teen, I was into R&B and rap music. Looking back now, it surprises even me. Around the age of 17, I was taken to a Lilith Fair concert and was introduced to the music of Sarah McLachlan. My life now is a direct result of that night; the very next day I owned my first guitar. Her album “Possession” ripped my heart out. I had never heard lyrics so real and articulate. It changed the course of my life.

2. Garrison Starr - 'Eighteen Over Me'
This was my first introduction to “acoustic driven” music. Again, it blew my mind. It was raw and full of emotion that was completely identifiable to me. This album helped shape the way I began to write.

3. Foo Fighters - 'The Colour and the Shape'
This album was amazing then and is amazing now. It is in my opinion, their best album after all these years. My writing style, in no way, resembles theirs, but if I could write a rock album, I would reference the Foo Fighters and only the Foo Fighters. This album is pure rock 'n' roll.

4. Jennifer Knapp - 'The Collection'
I became a Christian in 2004 and was no fool to the stigma placed on Christian music. I was already confused about what form my songs would take. I knew that my passion was completely God and completely music, but I was disheartened by the “manufactured” sound that often came across on Christian radio. So I was not prepared for what I found when I walked into a Christian bookstore looking for CDs to buy. I simply began walking through the aisles picking up CDs that looked interesting. I stumbled upon one with an album cover of a girl and a guitar. Sold! And when I heard her music…. I was home. Nobody was writing like this girl. And still, nobody is.

5. Brandi Carlile - 'Give Up the Ghost'
This chick is a class act. Sometimes you don’t have the complete picture with musicians until you see them live. There have been a couple of artists that I have enjoyed until I went to their show. They were either too withdrawn and wanted nothing to do with the audience or they were completely obnoxious. This young lady is the real deal. She is intelligent, humorous, has a great personality, and is truly engaging. All of her albums are winners, but this one is my favorite.

Joy Whitlock - Faith Don't Fail Me Now (Mp3)

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | John Hampton Remembers Alex Chilton

When I hung the phone up, I had just finished going through my iPhoto pictures, trying vainly to categorize them for the thirty seventh time. I kept coming across one in particular that fit into 9 of my categories and I had to get it down to 1. It could be “Ardent Folk”, “Music Folk”, “Family”, “Bizarre”, “Bigger that Life”, “Clients”… it was a picture of Alex with my first wife, before I had met either. Hmmmmm. When my phone rang, I answered it with my “EEEYELLOW.” Adam, my assistant, was telling me that Alex Chilton had just died. That was followed by that eerie silence. First I thought “he can’t be dead. I just saw him.” I guess it’s a weird form of shock. Adam was saying something about Fry – John Fry, our founder. Since I was going right by his house on my way home, I thought I would just drop by and check on him. His wife was at home, but then again, she wasn’t around in the day.

I first met Alex at Shoe Studios in Memphis when he was producing another friend, Tommy Hoehn. And Jon Tiven was there as pseudo executive producer. Tommy and Alex had written a song called “She Might Look My Way” which someone said had missed the cut for Big Star’s Radio City record.

The drums weren’t quite the “vibe” and they needed a drummer. I got the gig. At Shoe, you couldn’t see into the control room. The usual glass ONLY through the headphones. Being the first time for me to ever play in ANY studio, it was … disconcerting at best. So I played as directed and the record was eventually released on Henry Loeb’s “Power Play” records which had also released the Scruffs first single. WOW! I had just played on my first record ever and Alex, the Big Star, had produced it. I was hot stuff, right? Well,considering I was just out of high school and already headed toward my goal-working in a recording studio. I was a happy dude. It was 1974.

March 17, 2010. As I headed down John’s street, I first looked the 1/4 mile to the garage to see if he had company. He did, but I drove up anyway. I called him from his driveway and when he answered, I asked him if everything was cool in there. He replied he was in the “shock bubble”, but assured me he was fine (for now). John had worked extensively on both of the Big Star records and had become very close with Alex, Chris Bell, Andy Hummell and Jody Stephens. They were his friends as well as his label’s pride.

#1 record and Radio City were two of the most influential records ever made. But with distribution problems surrounding Stax… well, Big Star’s sales just never happened. I had heard rumors of Big Star’s records ending up in the soul music section of record stores, which I guess made sense in a weird sort of way. If the rumor is true, it would explain why such an influential band had such dismal sales. When you want to buy a rock record, you go to the rock section and if the record isn’t there, you usually buy something else instead of asking “Where are your Big Star records?” I tend to believe the story given the track record Stax had at the time.

Cut to 1977. A guy named Miles Copeland (as in IRS Records, as in Stewart as in The Police) had called to book time for a band he wanted Alex to produce called “The Cramps.” Alex asked if I could engineer the record. Since all I knew at the time was how to align a tape machine and repair faders, I was the perfect choice! Right?

We had a ball doing that record. Lux Interior was always in character, Brian threw a cinder block at a pile of stuff we had built from folding chairs, flourescent tube lights, a couple of cymbals … and we recorded the subsequent chaos. Lux sang “Human Fly” and “Sunglasses After Dark”. It was NYU performance art becoming a validated rock music scene. Alex basically taught me how to make a rock-a-billy record, and we superimposed that methodology on the Cramps. NOW Alex had been there when I engineered my first record.

As luck would have it, I had inadvertently caused some distortion on the Cramps record. And Alex wanted remuneration for it. So Ardent gave him a week to fix the problem, which he used to record his record “Feudalist Tarts” (a cute little trick he had learned from his producer, Jim Dickinson) But wait! That’s cheating! No, I guess in Alex’s eyes, it was legit. I mean, Dickinson did it, so why can’t Alex? Jim always avowed that ‘you can’t have music without some element of crime.’

After that, I hadn’t seen Alex until it was time for him to produce a record on Tav Falco, who had just returned from Belgium where he was learning to Tango. That record, “Behind the Magnolia Curtain” was yet another cult fave, and Alex was now an underground super-star.

1968. Alex Chilton came out of the chute at 16 and within a couple of years had made a plane-load of money having his voice heard around the world. When the “Tops” were opening for the Beach Boys on tour, he stayed in drummer Dennis Wilson’s guest house with none other than Chuckie Manson! (Dennis had thought Charles was harmless enough, so Alex figures what the heck?)

After his ginormous success as the vocalist for the Box-Tops, as in The Letter, Soul Deep, Neon Rainbow, Cry Like a Baby, … a rock-pile of smash hits … he met Icewater’s Jody Stephens and Chris Bell (more on Chris soon) and rocket scientist Andy Hummell. Alex and Chris were fairly confident they could make a PowerPop band ala Raspberries, Byrds, Badfinger; PowerPop was music largely influenced by ’60s British Music: Todd Rundgren’s “Runt” LP, Raspberries single “Go All the Way”, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” and “No Matter What” (a song Paul wrote for the Beatles), Dwight Twilley, Matthew Sweet … that was PowerPop. It’s a long list. And Alex was standing right in the middle of it’s birth. Had it not been for the demise of their distributor, Stax, I’m convinced they would have been the hottest thing since sunburn. “Back of a Car”, “September Gurls”, “Thirteen” … come on. Tell me that isn’t some of the best music you’ve ever heard.

Though Alex could be cantankerous, i.e. kicking his Fender Twin at the famed and packed Antenna Club or slapping my hand away from the e.q. on a mix, I’m convinced that was the inveterate showman he was. Because he really was a great dude. I told him my birthday once around 1976. One day in 1997 at Ardent, he walked up to join me and a friend at 7 card stud, and out of nowhere, he looked up at me , kind of gazing through me, and said “November …(pause) … seventeenth.” Uncanny.

1986. When we started the Replacements “Pleased to Meet Me”, I was listening to their demos-soon-to-be-masters they had recorded the week before, and I thought to myself, “Paul sure sounds like Alex.” Again in 1988, as we heard Tommy Keene’s demos for “Based on Happy Times,” I thought to myself, “Tommy sure sounds like Alex.” Influenced.

Alex made an indelible mark on music. A big one. Anyone who is highly influenced by this art form, call me. I love recording PowerPop. Just ask Gin Blossoms.

R I P Alex. We love you. God loves you. We’ll miss you.

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | Jeremy Horn Interviews John Hampton

I recently sat down with the legendary and always entertaining producer extraordinaire John Hampton. Hamp is best know for his work with artists like Gin Blossoms, The White Stripes and The Raconteurs; but he’s also been a long time producer and engineer for many Christian label projects as a producer in residence for Ardent Records/Studios. Join us in our conversation as we run the gambit of our A.D.D. minds and talk a little about all things Ardent Records past, present, and future.

Horn Interviews Hampton | The TVD Podcast [105Mg] (Mp3)

Jeremy Horn | Jeremy Horn is an interesting guy.

He grew up in Memphis—“Home of the Blues” and the “Birthplace of Rock-n-Roll”—but his music sounds more like the Beatles than B.B. King or Elvis.

He writes songs for the church and songs for the radio—yet his songs are often deeper and more complex than either has traditionally allowed.

He lives in a city that is known as much for its racial unrest and inner-city violence as it is the place Elvis called home—yet leads worship at one of the largest multicultural churches in the South, where half the congregation is African-American.

Jeremy Horn is an enigma. But when you meet him, he looks and sounds just like the guy next door—if the guy next door has a traditional southern drawl.

“The best way for me to describe Memphis,” laughs Horn, “is that it's a small town with one million people. I can't go anywhere without seeing someone I know. It's not the cleanest city and it's seen some tough times. But at the same time, there are real people here. There’s a lot of musicians here who are just interested in making music, not being famous.”

Making music is what has preoccupied Horn ever since he was given his first guitar at the age of fifteen. Growing up on the sounds of Tom Petty and The Beatles, Horn spent most of his early years emulating the sounds and songwriting styles of the popular culture. It took him a few years and one wise, older friend to realize there was more to being a songwriter than just sounding like one.

“I thought he was taking me to lunch to talk about getting a record deal,” laughed Horn. “Instead, he wanted to help me meet Jesus.”

“I used to write songs about social injustices in the world. My friend said, ‘Hey man, why don't you try to give people some hope? You have this talent and this skill, but what are you going to do with it? Are you going to try to find something to say, or just write what everybody else is writing?’”

Jeremy Horn is a new artist on Ardent Records. His new album “We Welcome You In” comes out this week. Check out a song from it here, then download the entire album for FREE here.

Jeremy Horn - Now Is the Time [Live] (Mp3)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | Alex Chilton's Years with the Panther Burns

by Tav Falco

Let us raise our glasses to a fallen comrade. And ask ourselves did we celebrate this man in life as we do now in death? Ah yes, we embraced our comrade and drew him close to our hearts and minds... as close as he would allow. Sure he touched us literally and he touched us profoundly: as an artist with lyrical intensity, as a person with camaraderie granted and camaraderie rebuffed. Such are the complexities of the artist and of the person. We realize it's not so easy to be friends with an artist, especially a gifted one. His smile often twisted into a leer, even when he was amused by your bonhomie and by your adulation. Be careful of tendencies: OK we’ve created it; now let’s deconstruct it. Godhead on the one hand, destroying angel on the other… Lord help you if you were caught in between. His tones were golden, and he knew that... better than anyone. Was he resentful because he had given so much, and had received less than the key to the temple of abiding good fortune and fame immemorial? Was he content in his rickety 18th cottage on the edge of the French Quarter surrounded by his guitars and aquatints and a cognoscenti of musicians who celebrated him as we do now? Did he draw all that he could take from his talents? Did he quaff draughts of indolence? The answers mean little, and the questions even less. What matters is that those whom he touched, were touched immutably. His legacy is of the mind, of the soul, of earthly pleasure, and of just and lost causes. He left us that redeeming spark of wit and flame to keep us going when were hovering down in the foxhole of doubt and uncertainty and dodging the adverse missives of Lady Luck... comforted in thinking that Alex would have liked that, or he would have appreciated this, or he would have been elated by this or that, or let’s do it the way Alex does it. His opinion, his taste, his love is what matters in the end. The last time I saw Alex was in Paris visiting in his posh suite at Hotel George le Cinq. He was pleased with his rooms, and we stayed up late while he merrily tutored me with the unending music lesson that had been on-going since I met him some twenty-five years before... the lesson that never seemed to quite 'take', and which I understood little better than the first time he drilled me. He would say /Tav, somebody's got to keep the rhythm/. And now I wonder, as the last grain of sand has sped through the hourglass, /who... /will keep the rhythm? Raise our glasses to console the living for the loss of a comrade fallen in the snow, which in its chill and whiteness is purifying, rather than fallen in the desert, which is barren.

TONS OF REVERB: Alex Chilton's Years with the Panther Burns
by Ross Johnson

I played drums with Alex in Tav Falco's Panther Burns off and on from 1979 until 1998 (I played my last gig with Alex in '98 in such an intoxicated state that I was too ashamed to contact him again afterward and he was clearly through with me as a drummer after I let him down for the last time at that show in New Orleans).

The Panther Burns were a noisy, irritating insult in early days and Alex delighted in punishing audiences with our blend of demented, tuneless rockabilly, blues and tango. I've said it before in print, but Alex was the only musician in the group who could actually play his instrument for the first year or two of his tenure with the "band." I had never played with a musician of his caliber before and, frankly, I know that I never will again.

Since his death a few days ago I've been reflecting on Alex both musically and personally, and I can't easily separate the two realms. His singular guitar playing style (you heard traces of Lowman Pauling, Reggie Young, Pop Staples, Steve Cropper, Teenie Hodges, and many other masters whenever he strapped on a six string) seemed such a function of his own unique personality and approach to life. As with most great artists, it was impossible to separate the person from the art; they often seemed one and the same with him. Alex always did things his own way whether that approach seemed commercially profitable or personally advisable for him or not. He knew his own mind, you might say. He was many things, Alex was, but a sellout, never.

As to the issue of his personality, well, let's just say that if you displeased him he was very clear and direct in letting you know the full and exact nature of his dissatisfaction with you. I still wince at the memory of the well deserved verbal "corrections" he handed out to me for musical and other shortcomings. Alex could be brutally honest in certain situations and dealing with that direct communication style of his was often difficult.

It was for me, I know that much. He could also be the dearest and most sympathetic of friends too, offering thoughtful and heartfelt advice if it was solicited. His occasional verbal toughness masked a rather fragile, vulnerable core, I thought. I will remember him not as a rock star or as a mythic cult figure or even as one of the world's greatest musicians (although he was most certainly the latter) but rather as a man who was always deeply interested in other people and whose own pain and suffering were transformed by his transcendent musical gift into some of the most universally affecting and haunting music ever made.

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records & Studios | Jump Back Jake

There is a lot of nostalgia for the way in which consumers interacted with music in the past. Music writers like Greg Kot and Jim Derogatis are constantly lamenting the death of record store culture on their excellent Sound Opinions radio program. They often discuss the fact that there are fewer and fewer places where kids can walk in and chat with an older more knowledgeable clerk and leave with records they never would have found on their own and go home and be blown away.

This used to fuel the music industry, which is now defined by instant access to nearly everything you’d ever want to listen to without ever leaving your house. As a musician, there is no doubt that this is an invaluable resource that has allowed me to discover hundreds more records that I might not have found just hanging out in stores like Other Music (for the record I do still hang out there and buy things based on the recommendations of their very knowledgeable staff.) But even still, the record companies large and small cannot move as fast as the music bloggers who link us up with lost records by people like Jesse Ed Davis who played guitar with Gene Clark and Taj Mahal, in a matter of minutes at no cost. This is undeniably amazing and I am grateful for it.

For me, what is lost in this process of discovery is the period between when you read about something and when you actually hear it. When someone writes about a piece of music on a prominent music blog like Pitchfork, there is either an audio player or a link that can deliver the music in question immediately, and for me, as much as I enjoy this, it might prevent me from liking things as much as I could were there space for me to process what I’ve read before approaching the record.

When I was a teenager I remember the process going something like this:
1.) Someone older and trustworthy tells you about a band in one form or another; this was often a record store clerk.
2.) Through books, magazines and friends you begin collecting information about the band over a period of time to the point that absolutely have to hear what it sounds like.
3.) You end up in a cool record store and see the album on the shelf you've been thinking about and buy it.

This could all take anywhere from a week to a year, depending on the artist. Between when my Mother’s high school friend’s 30-year-old musician son told me at 17 to listen to Big Star’s 'Third', and when I actually found a copy of it was a year and a half. At 16, I read an article about the Faces and the next day while searching for them in my local record store, a Warner exec happened to be there and had extra promos of the new compilation they had put out in his car. He gave me one for free.

Something happens between the moment when you hear about something and when you actually hear it and in my case, I would develop a fantasy about what the music sounded like based on what I had read. When I heard the actual music, my fantasy of what it sounded like and the music itself would engage in a dialog that heightened the music listening experience. More importantly, this allowed me to write my own music based not only on the records themselves, but what I believed they might sound like. This dialog between my own vision of the music that inspires me, and the vision of the artist who created it is perhaps the most integral force in my aesthetic decisions as a songwriter and musician.

Just as there is a difference between the music composed by hearing something in your head and writing it down and music composed with a synthesizer with which you can hear the arrangement right away, modern technology has changed the way we interact with music and as a result, the way we create it. I don’t know if we can put this paradigm shift in a dichotomy of “good or bad” but I do think that some imagination has been lost with the absence of a period of gestation between hearing the rumble of the train, and then watching it go by. Even if we are disappointed by the drab freight cars that all look the same, without the announcement of its existence, we never would have imagined the magnificent silver stream-line in our minds.

That said, although there maybe fewer kids hanging around record stores hoping to discover "Smile" bootlegs or hearing the Gun Club for the first time, I can say with confidence that record store culture is not dead. Yesterday I spent my afternoon at the listening station of 3 different stores. I listened to some new music that had just come out as well as to some old records I had been searching out for a while. And on a Wednesday afternoon, I was not alone.

Perhaps there will be a difference between musicians who experience the journey from word of mouth to listening station - if for no other reason than the music they are looking for is even too obscure for the internet and perhaps this will have an influence on the future sounds of tomorrow. I'm sure it will fit nicely along side the aesthetic choices of those who are listening to anything and everything all at once on shuffle on their ipods.

Jump Back Jake - Terrible Mistakes (Mp3)

Enter to win Jump Back Jake's 'Brooklyn Hustle / Memphis Muscle' on vinyl by telling us your favorite 'process of musical discovery' story in the comments to this post. Please remember to leave a contact email address. The winner will be notified next Monday, 4/5/2010.

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records & Studios |Jake Rabinbach Interviews John Fry

When I was 19 and a freshman at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, I heard a record by Big Star known as "3rd" or "Sister Lovers." Memphis may as well have been in another country, and Memphis in the 70s seemed to only exist as a mythic place in my mind.

At first, the music sounded like secret messages coming from a distant radio frequency in the middle of the night, and then it got closer and closer until it began to do what any great record can do and define my day to day reality. Back then, I could not have known that 8 years later I'd be recording in the same rooms where Big Star recorded and signing a contract with John Fry, engineer on all three Big Star albums, to release a full length lp on Big Star's label, Ardent.

I met John Fry in the summer of 2004 when I was conducting archival interviews for the Stax Museum of American Soul music in Memphis. I went and sat in the studio A lounge while he recounted stories of early home studios, Dewey Phillips groundbreaking radio show "Red, Hot and Blue," the heyday of Stax Records, and the birth of one of my all time my favorite bands, Big Star.

He described the way Steve Cropper mixed Sam and Dave's 'Soul Man' and how he had to signal to Isaac Hayes when the tape was running out on some of the long takes that eventually made up the "Hot Buttered Soul' Sessions. That day I got to listen to stories from a man that has not only run an amazing recording facility for 40 years, but someone who had a hand in some of the most important cultural contributions of the 20th century. But I also felt I was talking to a man who had very forward thinking about the future of an industry in trouble. It was for this reason that I felt confident about working with him as a label president.

So when I was asked recently to sit down and conduct another interview with John Fry, I didn't hesitate. I am thrilled to share this interview that covers everything from the drum sounds on an obscure early Ardent records single to the tumultuous and ling standing relationship between Rock and Roll and Christianity.

—"Jump Back" Jake Rabinbach
Memphis, TN 3-2010

Jake Interviews John | The TVD Podcast [39.5Mg] (Mp3)

Monday, March 29, 2010

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | 'Goodbye El Goodo' By Robert Gordon

Alex Chilton became a public figure at the age of 16 when, not long after he’d first seen the inside of a recording studio, a song from that session became a #1 worldwide hit, “The Letter” by the Box Tops. At that impressionable age he became a product packaged and sold, considerable talent yielding considerable profits—for the manager and not the artist. Soon, the monkey walked away from the organ grinder to do his own thing.

His thing: He channeled the future by capturing the underground zeitgeist, three times in the 1970s alone—an audience for the clean pop of the first two Big Star Records caught up to the music a decade after it was made; the third Big Star album was nihilistic and beautiful (hello Elliot Smith and the ‘90s); the shambolic 'Like Flies on Sherbert' deemed hip the wealth and diversity of Americana roots while becoming a punk rock classic. The art of these efforts has become canonized, but the financial return was—again—basically nil. Big pop hit or great art, same result: no money.

Instead of profit, his fans assigned him prophecy. But the Replacements only got it half right in their tribute song. Children by the million might have screamed for Alex Chilton, but he’d never have come running. Waves of admiration and love were an assault, and he was scornful of those who needed to make more of his songs than he did. His lifelong interest in astrology makes sense: What is colder, more beautiful, more distant than the stars? Astrology is the province of the seeker, not the sought.

Alex Chilton’s career in song is a testament to his seeking, to his eye for precise detail, his adventuresome ear, his empathetic heart. In a few lines he could chillingly evoke the angst and maelstrom of young adulthood, touching strangers in a personal way (their responses leading to his notorious friction with some fans). His mind remained curious all his life, exploring politics, the humanities, and sciences with the same avidity he mined R&B, country, classical music and everything in between. He refused to be predictable, and preferred his audience be kept on its guard. In the same late-night radio appearance when he sang Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”—years, of course, before Whitney Houston made a career out of it, he also broke into a filthy racist ballad. His songs were not unlike William Eggleston’s photographs—crisp, saturated, and composed, with an underlying menace, with a throat-aching wistfulness.

Alex was as complicated as Memphis itself. XL Chitterlings, my favorite of his stage names, stole Wilhelm Reich books from the Memphis Public Library because he said no one checked them out, and he gave them to people whom he thought would appreciate them. When a friend heard him explain his world view, he chided him, “You're right Alex, the world is wrong.” Telling me about this later, Alex added “And, hell. I believe that. The world is wrong, I am right.”

To the end, he did it his way. Apparently he’d been feeling bad for several days, but not so bad he couldn’t refuse advice to visit the doctor. Dead at 59, the loss magnified by its abruptness, the musician is stilled but his great recordings live on. The eulogies will too, much to his likely irritation.

Robert Gordon is the author of the quintessential book on Memphis music history - 'It Came from Memphis.'

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | 'My Big Star Story' by John Fry

One day in 1968, I walked into my office to find a young man still in his teens, seated in my chair, with his boots propped up on my desktop, smoking a cigarette. Once I relocated him, I learned that he was Chris Bell. I would soon meet Andy Hummel, as the two, along with Steve Rhea, were starting to join the after-hours recording crew at Ardent. I already knew Alex Chilton from his visits to Ardent for Box Tops overdub and mixing sessions. A bit later I would meet Jody Stephens as he joined Chris and Andy on drums when Steve left for college.

Of course, there would be no Big Star band until a few years later, but this day is as good as any to mark the start of a journey that Alex, Andy, Chris, Jody, and I would wind up taking together. That journey has been well described in several different formats. The life stories of the individuals involved would progress in ways that none of us could have envisioned.

For me, the experiences included getting to participate in the recording and release of music I loved then and still love now, the bitter feeling of total commercial failure in the Memphis ashes of 1975, an early morning phone call in 1978 with bad news, and the ultimate acceptance of the music by generations of fans and musicians, many unborn at the time it was recorded.

Recounting some recent events may express my feelings better than talking about the distant past. Fast forward to 2008. Jody Stephens shouts from his office across the hall from mine “Hey, we’ve got a show in London on August 28”. My response is, “I’m going.”

It’s three hours until show time, and I am having dinner with friends in an Indian restaurant around the corner from The Shepherds Bush Empire. Seated at the next table are what turn out to be a dad, mom, and teenage daughter. After a while dad leans over and says “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing, and it sounded like you were talking about Big Star, We’ve driven down here from North Yorkshire to see this show. We’re all huge Big Star fans. Do you know anything about that?”

I responded, “Yes, a little” and enjoyed making some new friends.

The show is now in progress, and I’m studying the audience. Their ages range from older than my own to teenagers who are obviously in a band (note playing of imaginary instruments). They know the songs and the lyrics. “Cosmos” kicks off, and the room becomes very quiet; the crowd knows about that too. I walked back to my hotel, feeling a sense of closure about a number of things which had eluded me for decades.

I am grateful to Cheryl and Andrew at Rhino, and to Alec Palao for the vision and persistence that made the Big Star box set 'Keep An Eye On The Sky' and the 'I am the Cosmos' 2 CD Deluxe Edition possible (The new Cosmos Handmade edition presently is available only from and their affiliated international sites). I can’t say enough about the hard work by Adam Hill at Ardent in finding and gathering materials. Thanks to Ken and John for ably filling their roles since 1993. Finally, thanks to Alex, Andy, Chris, and Jody. Mostly you made me smile, sometimes you made me cry, but this journey has been the best thing about my 44 years of doing this job. I love you all and always will.

—John Fry

Addendum | Since writing this, an unexpected and unwanted event occurred on March 17, 2010. At about 7 pm, I received a call from Jody Stephens, who had gone to Austin that day to participate in SXSW. He quickly said that he had received a call from Laura, Alex Chilton’s wife. Alex had suffered symptoms of heart failure at home and had been taken to a hospital where he died in the emergency room. There initially was nothing more to say beyond “What, say that again, are you sure?”

Then we said to one another, I guess we better cancel everything. I was about to hang up when it occurred to me to say “It’s your decision, but you guys should talk about it among yourselves. Maybe you want to go ahead with everything as a tribute to Alex.”

They called back in a couple of hours and said they were going to perform with guest artists. I think it was the right decision.

There was a tremendous outpouring of love and support from the artist community at SXSW. The media were courteous and respectful in as far as I have seen. We all are grateful.

There was a previously booked Big Star show at the Levitt Shell in Memphis on May 15. The remaining band mates and family are in agreement that this will also go on as a hometown tribute to Alex.

A memorial for Alex will be held at Minglewood Hall on March 30th from 5-8PM. It is open to the public.

One week ago, I picked up the Big Star boxed set, looked at the cover photo with their smiling faces, and reflected on the fact that there are now two of these four people about whom I have received shocking sudden death phone calls, one in 1978 and another in 2010.

Alex and Chris are sorely missed, much loved, and deeply respected.

—John Fry,
Ardent Studios, Memphis, TN, March 24, 2010

Enter to win Big Star's '#1 Record' on vinyl by telling us your Big Star or Alex Chilton story in the comments to this post. Please remember to leave a contact email address. The winner will be notified next Monday, 4/5/2010.

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios

The Vinyl District's Ardent Records, Ardent Music, and Ardent Studios Week has been in the planning stages since last January, and in fact was the project that ignited the idea of a month of label spotlights as we count down to Record Store Day 2010.

We've been plotting and mapping out this week that would highlight not just the studio's storied history, but the history of the people and records that Ardent has fostered.

What we certainly didn't foresee was that the history we were chronicling would be irrevocably altered with the passing of Alex Chilton—and it was during one of those planning back and forth email volleys less than two weeks ago that we were informed of his passing soon after it occurred.

So, we've scrambled a bit and reconfigured that map of the week to allow for not just an Ardent spotlight but a series of reflections on Alex Chilton, the man and the musician and the deep well of affection that he leaves behind—which will run in tandem with what we had set out to do initially.

And there will be a lot to read and take in. If you ever thought TVD might be a little light in the content arena (as I might have in the past) this week will undo that notion. We'll have a few surprises along the way, and of course, we'll be giving away some vinyl - not one big contest per weeks past - we're piggybacking the giveaways with pertinent posts.

And the most pertinent now as we kick things off with Ardent Week is a brief historical overview:

Something Good Happens Here
by Robert Gordon

“I had an interest both in music and in electronics,” says John Fry, founder of all things Ardentstudios, labels, video production, and various other ventures over the years. “We started getting our hands on the equipment, then asking, ‘What can we do with this?’ Well, we can record music. ‘What are we going to do with the music?’ Well, we could try to sell it.”

These are simple beginnings for a passion that has lasted forty years, has become an industry-leading enterprise, and has produced some of the best music in modern history. And even as Ardent has grown and changed, the founding characteristic has remained true. “Back then, our studios were unusual around this part of the country,” Fry continues, “because we had a higher technical standard than was common, allowing for a controlled recording situation.” Ardent’s high technical standards, well-maintained equipment, and an appreciation for both the vintage and the cutting edge have always been its essential elements.

John began tinkering with electronics in the late 1950s, his particular interest being radio. “As kids, we couldn’t get a radio station, so we started recording, which was the next best thing.” The afore-mentioned “we” refers to John Fry’s first two partners: John King and Fred Smith. King stayed in the music and radio business, publishing a radio magazine, working in promotion for Ardent Records in the 1970s and more recently, programming internet radio; Smith went away to college and turned his passion for aviation into a fly-by-night operation named Federal Express. In 1958, they were just sophomores in high school stumbling into a hired studio with a band they’d found. “This studio we rented was a thing from the era of live radio broadcasting,” Fry recalls. “All technology was pretty primitive then, but this place had things like Presto disc recording lathes that even then were approaching obsolescence.”

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That first studio experience was exactly what John Fry did not want, and he set about building his own studio in a converted garage off his parents’ house in what had been his grandmother’s sewing room. “I’d pore over the catalogs and brands and all that. We built a lot of our equipment, and what we didn’t build we inter-connected. Things just didn’t exist in an off-the-shelf form. Until well into the 1960s you put the thing together and made it yourself.”

The desire for a label had spawned the studio. The first incarnation of Ardent Records released four singles. Notoriety came with singles by local favorites, especially the Shades. (Collectors take note: Ardent 101 is by The Ole Miss Downbeats; “The Hucklebuck” b/w “Slewfoot.”)

Then John Fry spent some time in the radio business. “A little bit after I graduated high school in 1962, a friend got a grant to build a radio station in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. We thought, ‘Well it’s not exactly a major market but this guy’ll let us mess with it some.’”

A couple years later, in 1964, recording artist James Luther Dickinson talked Fry into reviving the label. Dickinson had production ideas and Fry’s ears were open; their working relationship continues today. Terry Manning played organ in Lawson and Four More, the revived Ardent label’s first release. By 1966, when Fry’s family was moving, the studio was also ready for a new location, and Ardent had its official opening on National Street, where it stayed for five years.

“Our facility coincided with the rapid upswing of the technology,” Fry reflects. “If you had four-track equipment, you had as many tracks as anybody and more than most. Between 1966 and about 1970, we went from four to sixteen tracks and to much larger consoles; outboard equipment began to appear, and so did Dolby noise reduction. The equipment required a fair amount of alignment and attention in order to work right. We were good at that. Ardent wound up mixing a lot of stuff that other people would record because we could apply some technological efforts that seemed to enhance it. Also, our console was the same make as Stax’s, so anyone from there could feel at home with what we had. We stayed busy.”

Clients came from far and near. Led Zeppelin, Leon Russell, and James Taylor sought out the place, and Ardent became a second home for Stax artists, including Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, Don Nix, the Bar-Kays and Booker T. and the MGs. The Stax relationship blossomed, and in the early 1970s, Ardent Records became a Stax distributed label. Unfortunately, Stax got caught up in its CBS Records quagmire, and some of Ardent’s greatest albums, including Big Star’s '#1 Record' and 'Radio City,' did not reach a wide audience until years later.

Big Star ultimately seeped into pop culture, their reissued albums influencing generations of talent. A range of artists cite those Ardent albums as formative inspirations, including R.E.M., The Bangles, Primal Scream, Matthew Sweet, The Posies, Elliot Smith, Sister Hazel, Ryan Adams, Golden Smog and Wilco. A treatment of Big Star’s “In The Street” by Cheap Trick became the theme song for Fox-TV’s long running 'That 70s Show.'

In November of 1971, while in the midst of recording the first Big Star album, Ardent moved to its current home on Madison Avenue. The new facility was outfitted with two studios, adding a third in 1980. Its reputation growing, Ardent Studios continued to attract national recording acts. And they came: ZZ Top, Freddie King, John Prine, Cheap Trick, Joe Cocker. The 1980s kicked off with Ardent alumnus Alex Chilton bringing in the Cramps, thereby introducing the studio to a new generation. And they came: Green On Red, the Replacements, R.E.M., the Georgia Satellites, the Gin Blossoms, the Tragically Hip, the Afghan Whigs.

In the mid-1980s, Ardent began to develop a relationship with the burgeoning Contemporary Christian Music market. DeGarmo and Key became Ardent regulars, recording 'Heat It Up', 'To Extremes', and many others. Ardent Records launched a Christian rock label in 1995; so far it has released 36 albums and garnered 7 Grammy nominations from an artist roster including Big Tent Revival, Skillet, Smalltown Poets, Jonah33, Todd Agnew and developing artists Joy Whitlock and NonFiction.

Blues artists have always come through Memphis, and in the late 1980s, Austin’s Fabulous Thunderbirds began recording at Ardent. After their guitarist Jimmie Vaughan brought his brother, Stevie Ray, there for 'Family Style', Jimmie returned to complete Stevie Ray’s posthumous release 'The Sky Is Crying'. Ardent then became a mecca for modern blues artists. And they came: Robert Cray, Luther Allison, Jeff Healy, Albert Collins, Bernard Allison, B. B. King.

When Nashville wouldn’t let Steve Earle get the sound he wanted, he hit the hillbilly highway and showed up at Ardent. Word spread that there was a place down the road where the sounds were professional and the possibilities were great. And they came: Travis Tritt, Tanya Tucker, Little Texas, Mark Chesnutt.

As the post-punk world settled down and major labels became comfortable with alternative rock, Ardent Productions served as liaison between Memphis talent and the corporations. Under the direction of Big Star drummer (and Ardent Studios manager) Jody Stephens, Ardent Productions developed several artists in the 1980s and 1990s, landing deals at Geffen for John Kilzer, A&M for Tora Tora, and Elektra for The Eric Gales Band. In the 1990s wave of indie rock, Ardent Records got into the game with Neighborhood Texture Jam, Spot, Jolene, and the return of Big Star front man Alex Chilton.

Since its earliest days, Ardent has fostered producers. Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, Jim Gaines, Joe Hardy, John Hampton, Paul Ebersold, Jeff Powell, Skidd Mills, Jason Latshaw, Matt Martone, and Pete Matthews are among the many producers who have had long relationships with Ardent. In a business known for big egos, flaring tempers, and hardened grudges, these enduring associations speak volumes about the Ardent environment.

Times have changed, but Ardent has remained true to its character, embracing the technological advents, collecting world-class vintage gear, and offering hospitality that is among the South’s finest. As Memphis’ connection to Hollywood grows stronger, the filmmakers behind 'Hustle and Flow', 'Black Snake Moan' and '40 Shades of Blue' have turned to Ardent for recording their soundtracks. Hip hop artists and twenty-first century stars continue to walk through the doors: Three 6 Mafia, Juvenile, Al Kapone, Cat Power, the North Mississippi Allstars, Three Doors Down, the White Stripes, Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, the Raconteurs, and a reunited Big Star. Ardent’s passion for the music has translated into more than 70 gold and platinum albums and singles. You can walk the halls and feel that same passion.

“Anybody that’s traveled knows there is an emotional influence that you experience from being in different places,” says John Fry. “Your moods are affected by your surroundings. I think there is something that operates in Memphis, and at Ardent—I can’t explain what it is or how it operates on an analytical basis, but having been an observer for forty years, I know there’s something that animates all this activity that causes it to go on here and not other places. You come record here, something good happens to you!”

Robert Gordon is the author of the quintessential book on Memphis music history - 'It Came from Memphis'

Sunday, March 28, 2010

TVD | SXSW in Hindsight

The legendary Big Star was to be celebrated at SXSW this year. A panel was planned on the band and its influence, as well as a closing set at Antone's on Saturday. So it was a mighty big blow felt by everyone attending when news started circulating Wednesday of Alex Chilton's death. What was to be a performance by Big Star became a tribute to Chilton, with various singers slated to "borrow" Chilton's mic.

I've got photos forthcoming of it all, but it was widely agreed upon by those who attended that Sondre Lerche's performance of "The Ballad of El Goodo" was definitely one of the evening's highlights. Lerche's serene and moving voice was the right fit and brought the song, and everyone listening, to a whole new level.

The video below is of Big Star/Poisies guitarist Jon Auer rehearsing beforehand...

and of the performance at the tribute. I really wish you all could have been there, video doesn't come close to capturing the beauty of Lerche's sound. It was truly something special.

(Erica Bruce is a local DC writer and photographer for Between Love and Like.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

TVD's The Idelic Hour

"Circles" | This year’s SXSW conference in Austin was an amazing convergence of all things “music.” Being a long time SXSW attendee and music bizz “insider,” I knew to expect thick, drunken crowds and lots of “walk-about.” More than anything else I saw tons of great friends. I think all of “us” spent all week walking in circles.

I arrived back into the arms of Laurel Canyon drained. I know I had seen some great music but I was humming not a note. What comes to mind was an expression Don, the lead guitar player from my old band use to use…

“Blown out by rock”!

Upon putting together this week’s mix, I had not a clue what I wanted to hear. I was moody. By chance I stumbled on the Soul Coughing album El Oso. “Circles” seemed like a fitting muse and I started playing off a theme of being drained & lost.

I had just gotten the new Pavement greatest hits album and had read the lengthy press bio on what an important band they had become. It reminded me of moving to LA, after spending the late 80’s in east village NYC. I had been friends with Mark Ibold and was excited to see the band’s 1st LA show.

Funny, back then I often felt a bit lost as a New Yorker in LA. There has never been a time since then that I stopped listening to the songs of Steven Malkmus. It will be surely cool to have Pavement back for one more summer “babe!”

This week in the “mix” a dose of new bands, Portugal The Man is sounding pretty cool. Lo-fi teenagers from Chicago, The Smith Westerns have a buzz coming of out Austin. So does LA’s Fool Gold, don’t sleep on band leader, Luketop’s solo album “Friends.” His song “Lord, Save Me From This Valley” is at the top of the set. Sultry Jonneine Zapata sums it up with the question, “What are we gonna do?”



The Idelic Hour [3/26/2010] (Mp3, 90Mg)