I’ve never travelled or been close to Memphis, Tennessee, but it strikes me as being a nexus, at least as far as the genesis of the American “id” is concerned. From the advent and subsequent growth of the recorded music industry in the early 20th century, it has seen many iconic musicians leave their mark, whether it be the early ragtime and country blues of (Gus) Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Robert Wilkins and Furry Lewis in the late 1920s, the proto-rockabilly of Sun Records in the 1950s, the Motown-south counterpart of Stax Records and Hi Records in the 1960s, or Anglophilia of Alex Chilton and Big Star in the 1970s. As a result, when it comes to the record I have chosen to review today, Sid Selvidge’s The Cold of The Morning, we see a product that is distinctively Memphis-ian; that is to say influenced by the city’s past, but taking it in its own idiosyncratic direction.
The constant that holds this album together is the pressure cooker that was Memphis in the early 1970s. A lift on a late-night liquor ban in bars on the Beale Street strip meant that establishments on that iconic strip were again privy to much merry making, and that there had to be, by extension, artists who would perform for these masses. Enter Sid Selvidge, former Stax and Elektra artist, and a student of Memphis’ country blues and ragtime history (and close friend and student of said elder artists like Furry Lewis), who held a residency which mixed his originals with folk covers and classic country blues. Through mutual acquaintances, Sid managed to befriend a financial benefactor in the form of the fledgling Peabody Records, and enlist the production services of the late Jim Dickinson (the man who played piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and produced Big Star’s “Third”). It was from these circumstances that Sid entered the studio with the aim to distill his residency setlist into a 45 minute snapshot.
The end result, The Cold Of The Morning, shows itself as being a respectfully reverent but enrapturing work. Opening with an understated cover of Fred Neil’s I’ve Got A Secret, the album continues along as a love letter to past influences. These influences manifest themselves in different ways – whether it be the 1930s and 40s field recordings of John Lomax (from which the field holler Boll Weevil is taken), the tutelage of Memphis’ own Furry Lewis (whose Judge Harsh Blues from 1927 is covered here under the title Judge Boushé), or worn chestnuts like Danny Boy. Another important factor is producer Jim Dickinson himself, whose rough-and-ready approach is best reflected in the albums spartan production, and himself participates in the two ragged cuts where his band Mud Boy and The Neutrons play, Wished I Had A Dime and the standard I Get The Blues When It Rains. (Note: as Jim himself said, tuning is a decadent European concept). This respect also informs Selvidge’s original material as well, whether it be the folky Frank’s Tune or The Outlaw, which itself sounds like it was lifted and appropriated from an old Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers 78.
This record proves itself to be the sum of its parts, and a cohesive work, and an artifact of Memphis culture, past and present. Omnivore has put out a rediscovered gem that deserves to be cast alongside Big Star’s Radio City as an essential 1970s Memphis classic.
∆ Words by David Sampson