COUNTRY, RAP, BLUES: ONE NIGHT IN MEMPHIS
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
MEMPHIS — It took a great cause to bring some of America’s finest musical artists and their range of music together.
It’s the kind of thing that sometimes happens in Memphis — and other places, too, but not often enough.
Gathering at the progressive First Congo Church, on this night the decades-old Acoustic Sunday Live! Concert series benefited Protect Our Aquifer, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to preserving clean water in the greater Memphis area. The nationally broadcast Beale Street Caravan, which originates in Memphis and is heard on NPR stations, recorded the event for future programs.
Memphis rap and hip-hop icon Al Kapone, perhaps best known for his songs in the 2005 film, Hustle & Flow, kicked off the show.
Then the show shifted to a song swap with reigning blues queen Shemekia Copeland, veteran folk singer-guitarist Livingston Taylor, country-and-Americana legend Jim Lauderdale and singer-songwriter and guitarist Will Kimbrough.
A shining night
Kapone appeared first with two hip-hop dancers, a guitarist, a singer and a backup emcee, performing the catchy, upbeat single “Shine Like Brand New Jewelry.”
“We’re gonna shine!,” the rapper ad-libbed. “Protect the aquifer!”
Kapone also covered his famous Memphis song, “M’s Up,” becoming the largely middle-aged-and-older audience to wave their hands turned upside down to form the letter with their fingers.
“For those who don’t know, I represent Memphis. Ain’t nobody reppin’ like I rep my town,” he rapped. “We got some really good water! Let’s keep it that way.”
His city still stunned by the brazen murder of popular rapper Young Dolph at a bakery only a couple of weeks earlier, Kapone turned more serious for a moment, performing “D&G” (or “Dead and Gone”) from his latest album, Hip Hop Blues. He's released the new record under the name AK Bailey (his real name is Al Bailey).
“Just gotta keep moving on ‘til you’re dead and gone,” sang Kapone’s vocalist, with the rapper’s spoken-word parts in between.
After Kapone’s performance, members of his group hung around and seemed captivated by the other musicians' performances.
Livingston Taylor, who teaches at Boston's Berklee College of Music, began the rest of the show by confessing that he’s such an advocate for clean water, he sometimes visits water-treatment plants when on the road.
“I love water,” said Taylor, intense and self-deprecating, wearing a sweater and bowtie. “I really love water.”
Jim Lauderdale played the first song after Taylor’s little speech, from his latest album, Hope, which he completed and released as the pandemic kicked in. The album version of “The Opportunity to Help Somebody Through It” sounds like a very sunny Waylon Jennings.
Will Kimbrough was up next. He talked about growing up in Mobile, Alabama, and returning home from Nashville annually for fundraisers to benefit the Dog River, a short tributary that flows into Mobile Bay.
Playing his ode to the river, “Mud Bottom,” Kimbrough began with a classic guitar riff.
“I stole that from Jimmy Reed,” he said, before slicing into the song, originally released by his band of Alabama musicians, Willie Sugarcapps, with a great slide solo.
Living with ghosts
Shemeika Copeland, performing with her longtime touring guitarist Arthur Neillson, said it was her second concert to benefit the aquifer project. She admitted to having a longtime crush on the handsome, gracious Lauderdale.
She turned to Livingston Taylor and said his bow tie was sexy, too.
Copeland immediately drew in the audience with “Clotilda’s On Fire,” written by Kimbrough and John Hahn, about the last known ship carrying enslaved persons to arrive in America. It was later burned and sunk off the coast of Alabama.
The song is a poignant, upbeat opener from Uncivil War, recently nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and produced by Kimbrough, with guest appearances by Jerry Douglas, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Duane Eddy, Jason Isbell and others.
“Clotilda’s on fire,” Copeland sang in the chorus. “We’re still living with a ghost.”
The singer then handed it over to “my new boo over here,” she joked with Taylor.
In a festive mood, the folk singer began with his lovely, “Christmas Is Almost Here.” The lyrics say the holiday has arrived even “for those in doubt.”
The entire night of performances seemed restorative for many audience members who’ve been limited in seeing live music in the past two years—and for most of the performers, as well.
“So beautiful,” Lauderdale said after Taylor’s first holiday song.
One of the founders of the Americana (or alt-country) genre, mainly for writing great country songs far too interesting or soulful for mainstream radio, Lauderdale introduced another song from his new album — the stunning “Memory.”
The carefully paced country ballad, also from the new album Hope, was one the last songs Lauderdale wrote with his late friend and former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
“But this one thing I know
you’re with me everywhere I go
Like sunset glimmering on the rusty pines
Deep down inside my heart and soul.”
Kimbrough reminisced about his days in rock bands that would play Memphis’ old Antennae Club, one time playing the night following an appearance by Henry Rollins and Black Flag.
The guitarist spent a lot of time in Memphis decades ago when he worked closely with the brilliant songwriter Todd Snider, who once lived around the corner before moving to East Nashville.
He noted that Memphis is a great guitar town, once home to legends B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Steve Cropper, Teenie Hodges and countless others. Then he played “Horseshoe Lake,” a roots-rocker co-written and first performed by Todd Snider that sounds like what Bruce Springsteen might’ve sung if he’d been from across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas.
“I need a ride to Horseshoe Lake,” Kimbrough sang. “What difference can one man make?... How did I get here? Where will I go?”
For many people, the year of 2020 was a “crapper in tall cotton,” Copeland said. Then she learned she had cancer back in May.
Now healthy again, Copeland’s latest records indicates a migration into more socially conscious records while still rooted in the blues like her late father Johnny Copeland also played.
Her new soul-blues number, “Walk Until I Ride,” earned a standing ovation. “The cabs don’t roll to my part of town,” she sang. “I’m gonna walk until I ride. … They can try to take my freedom, but they can’t take my pride.”
At the end, Copeland’s song sped up to double-time. “Come on, Memphis!” she coaxed the crowd, which clapped along and arose with applause.
After that, Taylor just looked at his guitar and said: “I guess I won’t be needing this anymore.”
He answered Copeland with a bluesy tune, perhaps titled “It’s Been a Helluva Ride,” a song with some killer guitar licks and lines about how “Old man time wants to kick my ass” and feeling “greener than a leprechaun’s pecker in spring.”
After an intermission, Lauderdale sang “Way Out Is Fine,” a dreamy soul number on his 2015 double album, Soul Searching, with its Volume I recorded at Memphis’ Royal Studios with Cody Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Leroy and the Rev. Charles Hodges of the Hi Rhythm Section, co-producer Boo Mitchell and Muscle Shoals pianist Spooner Oldham.
The song would fit pretty well into the Stax and Hi Records catalogue—showing Lauderdale’s prowess in both country and soul, remarkable for an artist who’s been nominated for Grammys in bluegrass. The song even includes an Isaac Hayes reference.
“Country-soul,” Kimbrough commented after Lauderdale’s number.
Introducing his own soulful song, appropriately called “Soulfully,” Kimbrough recognized aloud that he was sitting next to one of the preeminent country-soul songwriters of all time.
Kimbrough said his song is a musical tribute to Oldham and lyrical ode to his wife, and it featured one of the best guitar solos of the night.
Copeland then introduced the title cut from Uncivil War.
“There’s so much divisiveness, and I’ve been fighting it,” she said. “I love everybody, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.”
In a nice acoustic arrangement of the song, Kimbrough strummed his mandolin as Copeland sang about the “same old wounds we opened before.”
“The lines are drawn,” she sang, like a modern-day “blue and gray.”
“How long must we fight this uncivil war?”
Taylor’s final answer of the night was “Must Be Doing Something Right,” his song about being lucky in love but with the weight and feel of an American standard. It’s a blues number, really, with some jazz chords or fingering here and there.
Lauderdale then said his farewell with “King of Broken Hearts,” his soulful tribute to George Jones and Gram Parsons that was covered nicely by George Strait, and originally sung by Lauderdale and Emmylou Harris on his major-label debut album back in 1991, Planet of Love.
Kimbrough ended playing only mandolin on “Rocket Fuel,” which first appeared on Todd Snider’s 1998 album Viva Satellite, recorded at the old Ardent Studios in Memphis.
Copeland then sang her Christmas song, “Stay a Little Longer, Santa.”
It’s a good one.
“For a man your age, you sure look cute,” she sang. “Stay a little longer Santa — forget about that sleigh.”
Taylor then stood and walked into the hardwood church floor, closer to the audience sitting in a half-circle facing the performers, and sang Bill Withers’ classic, “Grandma’s Hands” as he and the audience gently stomped to the song’s beat.
The singer-songwriters closed by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with Taylor on lead before he stepping aside for for Copeland’s warm, soothing vocals.
The songs brought some levity to the evening’s end — and to a couple of years that for many have been like “a crapper in tall cotton” indeed.
MORE: Check out our earlier profile of Will Kimbrough as we talk with him about his stirring song "Alabama (for Michael Donald)" as he released his album focused on the South, I Like It Down Here.
AND: Our overview of Jim Lauderdale's long, incredible career, helping found the Americana music genre and his interesting forays into country, soul, rock and bluegrass. Includes a look at all of his albums, with lots of videos and links to his music.