Pulling the Reigns

Jan 15, 2003 at 12:00 am

Prediction: In 2003 Greg Cartwright will become a household name. Well, maybe. If not the man himself, then perhaps his band, the Reigning Sound. If not in every nuclear household from Memphis to Missoula, maybe just in the apartments and dorm rooms of the growing army of vinylphiles and music fans that have made “garage” the buzziest of buzz words.

Memphis-based Cartwright would rightfully transcend his cult reputation. Having spent years stomping through the much-lauded garage rock underground with blues-based punk notables the Oblivians and the soulful rock rants of the Compulsive Gamblers, Cartwright’s reputation as a songwriter is pristine among contemporary garage purists. His resurrection of ’60s rock, soul and garage predates all of his more media-savvy contemporaries including the amazingly popular Hives, who named the Reigning Sound’s Time Bomb High School the best record of 2002 in a recent Rolling Stone. He’s probably closer to a minor household name than he knows.

“I think the world has a musical culture that is ever-expanding and a lot of people that have been unrecognized for years are benefiting from that right now,” Cartwright says via telephone from Memphis. “All of the good things about pop music that led up to the turn of the century were forgotten about for a while,” he explains.

“That is the best thing about the music that is happening today, people who are making important music have a grasp of where their music came from.”

If there is a notable quality to all of Cartwright’s varied projects it is the strong character of Memphis’ rich musical history. When he talks about slugging it out in the dive bars of the Memphis underground, parallels between his own experience and that of local notables like the Dirtbombs and Detroit Cobras are inevitable.

“There are three big cities for me, three cities where music ferments and grows out of its own history — Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans,” Cartwright says. “They are important cities not only in the history of pop music but also blues and country and soul, and each for its own special reason. Memphis in the middle of America, right on the Mississippi River and a major thoroughfare for all kinds of traveling. … Detroit had a similar melting pot going on for a different reason. With the explosion of the car industry there was a migration from Tennessee and Ohio and Kentucky, all people moving to Detroit hoping to get work there. People moved from all over the United States and brought their music with them. A lot of good stuff comes out of that in such a musical stew.”

The stew present on Time Bomb High School is one that is able to dig through piles of dusty records to reinterpret the rich crossroads of Memphis’ music history. It gives thoughtful nods to country, gospel, soul and blissfully tinny mid-’60s rock ’n’ roll. If this reminds you of Detroit’s downtown music scene you wouldn’t be so wrong. Just be prepared to fight off the teenagers.

“All of a sudden the same bands who had fans in their late 20s and 30s and 40s now have people who are in high school coming to their shows. In the past couple of years that I’ve played in Detroit and been to shows there, I see that all of a sudden there is this huge teenage audience. That’s great too. It’s great to see teenagers connect with people like Mick Collins, Jeff Meier and Steve Shaw, and it’s great to see that happening in their hometown.

“In the end that is who rock is made for anyway.”

The Reigning Sound will be performing at Small’s (10339 Conant, Hamtramck) Monday, Jan. 20, with the Fondas. Call 313-873-1117 for more information.

E-mail John Scout at [email protected]