Way back, back before you were born, before the moon landing, before color television, before the nonstick pan, Sam Phillips heard the future.
He heard it in Alabama, then he heard it in Memphis: something he recognized, and something he didn’t. The blues, he knew: “The blues, it got people—black and white—to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it can be. They would sing about it; they would pray about it; they would preach about it.” But there was something else in the air, the walls of segregation beginning to give way to the force of a musical and cultural revolution. He felt the thirst for something new at the nightclubs where he ran sound; he saw musicians finding their way to a style they couldn’t yet name. He searched through the recordings that came to him at WLAY, then to WREC, but it wasn’t quite there. He sensed the opportunity for a new freedom in music, sensed the time was right to tap resources that hadn’t been tapped.
And so he built a petri dish, a studio designed not for any particular artist or style, but for capturing and cultivating the music that he knew would come, sitting behind the piano or stumbling through the door with a guitar and something to say—not in words, or not words alone, but with feeling.
He listened, and he waited. The studio reels ran on and on. In those early days he’d audition anyone that came in, listening for something beneath the surface, between the notes, an expression of humanity and artistry that exposed something true and vital, something he couldn’t turn away.
Howlin Wolf. Elvis. Johnny Cash. Jerry Lee.
We all know those names, and we have Sam Phillips to thank for it. There in his Memphis Recording Service, a small rectangular room with sound insulation he designed and installed himself, Rock ‘n’ Roll was born.
In these days of analytics, penny-sliver accounting, and private-equity owned record labels, it’s hard to fathom that a man from the sleepy town of Florence Alabama, a self-trained audio engineer gifted with not much more than his own two hands, a good ear, and enthusiasm, would dare to dedicate his life to creating a space for sounds that didn’t yet exist.
My guess is, you may know about Sam Phillips. I had heardhis story, too. But it’s another thing to stand in the studio he made, with Scotty Moore's guitar in your hands, and step up to the same microphone Elvis first sang into. How does a musician hold up his end of the bargain? What can we do to be worthy of that legacy of unfounded faith?
It’s a question every artist needs to face.
It’s the final test, the ultimate audition: Play me something, you can hear Sam Phillips say, play me something you really feel. Play me something alive enough to carry through that wire, onto a record, and back out into the world with a force strong enough to make the globe spin just a little differently.
So we stood in Sun Studio and took our best shot at a performance worthy of this room, and of the man who built it, from the tile-shaking sax solo of “Teacher’s Blues” to the gospel harmonies of “Patricia” to the deep swamp of the future-blues “Discount Store.” Standing in front of this band, slide and guitar in hand, is like standing on the front of a train. You get it started, then you hang on tight, leaning into the turns, understanding that
you’re part of something bigger than yourself, that it can take you somewhere you could never go alone.
The Kudzu Choir was founded with the belief that sharing the human experience and power of human emotion through song is a higher calling, and that together we can create new sounds while paying tribute to the roots of American music. And one night we got to return to the source, the studio that Sam built, playing and singing together, live, no walls between us.
I can only hope this music will resonate with you the way it did for us as we played.
A few dedications: “Crave” is for Tony Hoagland, “Teacher’s Blues” for Michael and Jessica, “The More I Think” for Zy Rae, “Patricia” for my grandmother, and “Do For You” for my parents.
Thank you for listening,