MEMPHIS BEAT: The Story of America's Musical Crucible by Larry Nager

MEMPHIS BEAT: The Story of America's Musical Crucible

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Nager is a documentary filmmaker and former music editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the only daily paper in the Home of the Blues, a fair set of credentials for the author of a chronicle of the city's musical history. Memphis was unusually well positioned to become a musical crossroads for America. A large port city on the Mississippi River, just north of the Delta country that gave birth to the blues, only 210 miles from Nashville and every bit as much a part of the hill-country heritage that created country and bluegrass, it's also a gateway to the north and the big industrial cities that disseminated America's music as a commercial product. As portrayed by Nager, Memphis was also a unique breeding ground for America's various musical forms, a place where black and white met surreptitiously. There is, Nager shows, considerably more to Memphis than Elvis, although he doesn't short-change the King. However, he is ostensibly more concerned with the key figures who came before and after, and who have received somewhat less attention. Given that, it seems odd that Nager spends so much ink on W.C. Handy, Jimmy Lunceford, and some figures with a relatively peripheral relation to the Bluff City, like Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith. All too often this book is a catalogue of musicians who passed through Memphis, or recorded in Memphis, or were born in Memphis. And too much of the musical history recounted in its pages has been told better elsewhere by Peter Guralnick, Francis Davis, and others. The book does come alive in its chapter on Stax/Volt records and the '60s soul music craze, and Nager does give ample space to many musicians who might otherwise be forgotten. But this is at heart an unsurprising work with no fresh insights.

Pub Date: April 24th, 1998
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: St. Martin's