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Memphis, North Carolina

by Jordan Green

Scott Morgan (left) is the poet behind Memphis the Band, shown here with wife Shannon Morgan on drums and bassist Ryan Davis. (photo by Jordan Green)

Scott Morgan is a rough-hewn Carolina Piedmont literary man who tosses off novels at the rate some people turn out custom houses. He also writes damn fine songs that evoke the gritty milieu of those novels, set to a roadhouse soundtrack replete with greasy, high-octane twang, tender Muscle Shoals soul and Stonesy raunch rock. That’s Memphis the Band. Over the years the ensemble has absorbed Scott’s wife, Shannon, who belts out high-spirited harmonies and vocal leads, with an arsenal of percussion instruments; keyboardist Peter Lucey, a degreed music major who regularly haunts the Chapel Hill music dives; Ryan Davis, an audiophile whose ears voraciously consume an eclectic range of music; and drummer Jeremy Thompson. “When I write lyrics I like piling ’em on,” Scott says, nursing a Miller Lite outside the band’s Ford Econoline in the parking lot beside the Garage in Winston-Salem. “You don’t want to confuse them with too few words. You want to send them home with a whole fucking cake pan of words.” Inside, a band from New York City called Yarn is doing a convincing job of conjuring mandolin-laden Southern alt country sincerity. It’s gonna be a light night. Most of the local music connoisseurs turned out the previous night to see Old Stone Revue – the bartenders are hoping – in vain, as it turns out to catch the spill-off from the Wake Forest-Mississippi game. Still, Memphis is in every sense a band: a collection of individuals surviving by their wits on the road, sustaining adversity through high spirits and camaraderie. They’re gonna tear off the gig in pursuit of their own pleasures, ride it out on their own steam. The trek from the club to the parking lot includes passage through a weed-strewn vacant lot. Chain-link fencing lays nearly horizontal still connected to two poles flopping uselessly in the night. Davis runs up on the metal flotsam and pins it beneath his feet to allow Shannon to step over, posturing as Vietnam platoon leader. Adventure. “The drummer is not here tonight,” Scott Morgan says.’

“Shannon will be drumming in his place.” “I’ll be doing percussion,” his wife clarifies. “Get that straight.” “It’sthe first night Ry plays upright bass, and I piss onstage,” Scottcontinues. “I puke onstage,” Shannon says. They’ve had some difficultyhanging on to electric guitarists, so the present incarnation ofMemphis the Band’s sound is constructed around Scott Morgan’s acousticguitar and Davis’ throbbing bass line, the rhythm flavored by anoverlay of Lucey’s keyboard playing. “My electric guitarsounds like Neil Young in kindergarten,” Scott says, “like Neil Youngon Quaaludes.” “Neil Young sniffing Play-Doh,” Davis exults. “Ithink a lot of his songwriting harks back to the thirties,” Lucey saysof Scott Morgan. “It’s ragtime or old blues. Circus music.” “Ilove circus music, too,” Scott says. “Love clowns,” Shannon adds. Theband’s influences are not so much an evolutionary chain as a buffet:Ryan Adams, Beck, Amos Lee…. “We love hip hop,” Scott says. “Eric B andRakim,” Davis says. “EPMD.” “We even had an Eazy-E day, coming offsomething,” Scott says. “I think it was in Ohio.” Shannon has on occasion inflicted the willowy Texasfolksinger Nanci Griffith on the rest of the band. Driver’s choicedefines the play list. “Listening to new music is a turn on,” Davissays. “Have you ever heard Tool? When you put something on the stereo,whew…. I remember when my friend first played it to me. I was sooverwhelmed I had to go home.” “We don’t play cover tunes,” Scott says.“We should, but we could never agree on anything. We’d never do a Dylansong. We’d never do a Tool song.” “That’s not true,” Shannon protests. “Sometimesyou and I do some Lucinda Williams together.” They’ve accumulated about60 songs since their latest release, ***Radio***, in 2006. They’llwinnow down the batch to 30 before they come close to settling on asong list. And after some discussion they concur that the next recordwill have no stylistic theme. Scott hears Yarn bid theaudience goodnight, and he gives the signal for Memphis the Band tohead inside. They check their levels onstage for what seems to be aneternity, and then launch the first song without ceremony. A middle-aged woman with sandy blond hair sits at the back of the horseshoe bar smoking VirginiaSlims and moving her flip-flop-clad feet in time with the music. Shewears a pink, paper tiara. By the time the encore rolls around – it’s asweet, New Orleans style ballad with the Dadaist refrain “Ain’t nosnake under the rock, ain’t no rock under the snake” – someone isclinking an empty bottle on beat. Butt planted on the stool, thecelebrant scrunches her shoulders and extends her elbows, moving fromthe waist up, and lights another Virginia Slim.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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