Sun Studio Sessions - Part 1

Photos by Rosie Cohe

Memphis, Tennessee.
Sun Studio.

 

Photos by Rosie Cohe

The vibes are heavy in that modest, little place and you can't help but joyously join in it's song and dance. It's been going on for close to 70 years and everyone knows the melody and the moves even if they've never been.

It sort of courses through our musical veins.

The walls have soaked up some of the greatest music to ever be performed and they're still hungry.

After recording "The Beast In Me" there in spring of last year, I really prayed those walls would ask us back. I truly did. I'm not much of a religious man, but I prayed.


A few months after releasing the record, I got a call.


Photos by Rosie Cohe

We we're invited back to Sun to perform "The Beast In Me" LIVE for a filming of the PBS show "Sun Sessions". They bring in a film crew, light it up neon-style, and you perform your music facing the sound booth where Sam Phillips once practiced the alchemy of blues and rock & roll. True musical voodoo.

The thought made my head spin and my hands sweat.

Holy shit.

I'm going BACK to Sun to perform for a PBS show that the likes of Jakob Dylan, JD McPherson and Dale Watson have performed?!
I can't fuck this up! I'm signing my name in blood onto the family tree of Sun Studio which contains artists that I've admired my entire life. I have to do this right.

I collected myself and quickly contacted my friends who played on the record.

The Band. Mike, Me, Austin, Corey & Adrienne (not pictured: Scott Rabino)
Photos by Rosie Cohe

Mike Amacher (lead guitar), Austin Cook (piano)Corey Kaiser (bass), Adrienne Walker (back-up vocals) and Scott Rabino (drums).

They were all on board.

All I had to do was line up some Memphis horns.
I've spent countless hours listening to records from Stax, Hi Records and Sun. The horn players are one of the key ingredients. There's something in the soil and the air down there that resonates in the brass.
After a few phone calls and recommendations I was thankfully led to the talented Randy Ballard (trumpet), Nathan DuVall (trombone) & Art Edmaiston (saxophone).

Nathan, Randy & Art.
Photos by Rosie Cohe


So the months crawled by and finally the time came for Rosie and I to climb into a rental for an epic road trip to the delta. The lovely lady piled up the photo equipment while I hauled guitars. Two lovebirds flying south.

We had 2 days.
1,131 Miles.
17 hours and 5 minutes.

I was stressed.
I felt nervous heading back to Sun.
I felt nervous taping for PBS.
What if the walls didn't have the taste for my music like last time?
What if I suddenly forgot all the lyrics to my songs?
What if it all fell apart?

Funny how sometimes you turn into your own worst enemy, your own obstacle, your own roadblock, your own soar throat, your own headache, your own bag of coal, your own TV dinner, your own Halloween bubblegum.

Luckily I have a lady in my life who offers me peace and kind words of encouragement to ease my weary and broken mind. She had her work cut out for her but she saw it through.

I'm thankful.


We swept into town after what felt like an eternity on the road. I'm always amazed at the amount of caffeine and jerky you can consume while tending behind the wheel. The road hypnotized while the mind played it's demonic records on repeat.
"Paul is dead."

We checked into the Holiday Inn on Union and got prepared for the shoot which would happen the following day.

That night we swung by Sun to meet up with Matt Ross-Spang for a little songwriting session and a post travel beer.

Me & Ol' Matt Ross-Spang
Photos by Rosie Cohe

Matt's the genius behind restoring Sun back to its original state and original purpose. He's a connoisseur in the vintage and rare equipment of mid-century recording techniques. I had my first opportunity to record at Sun a few years back in 2012. I cut a yet-to-be-released R&B number titled 'Hot Mama'.
Matt and I instantly hit it off. We have the same audible sensibilities and see eye to eye on a good joke. I was very impressed with the fact he was committed to capturing a perfect performance rather than fussing with isolation booths. When I recorded with him again last year, it was one of the most enjoyable creative experiences I've had. He navigates the energy of the place like a train conductor and is able to funnel it through the room, mics and tape. It's like Nikola Tesla as a recording engineer.

And not just anyone can harness that power.

Sam Phillips

You see, Sun Studio was the brainchild and passion of the visionary Sam Phillips. He was the kerosene that fueled the furnace of blues and American music that came out of Memphis in the 1950's.

He sat on a humble throne built upon the honesty of music. The honesty of recording a performance so true and authentic it transcended race, politics and religion, leaving the listener closer to their personal version of God.

That seat is now occupied by Matt Ross-Spang. Deservedly so.


The next day came quick.
We had time for one rehearsal with the horns before the taping.

I had been concerned about where we would rehearse while in Memphis. We would need space and a facility that would instill a feeling of the importance of our musical trip before we embarked.

A few weeks before the journey, after an unsuccessful google search I decided to check Yelp.
Second hit was Ardent Studios, home of the famed Memphis-based band, Big Star.
Ain't no way, I thought.
But the studio was listed under Recording AND Rehearsal Studio so I decided I would reach out. It's funny how even having gone through Sun a few times, now coming down to film a PBS show, that studios still hold a certain intimidating mystique.
Must be due to the fact that certain places act as divining rods.

After a few emails, a deposit and 1,125 miles we were inside the doors of Ardent ready to rehearse. Just hours before the gig.

Photos by Rosie Cohe

It went as smooth as good bourbon.
Randy, Nathan & Art were incredible professionals and with the guidance of Austin as music director we were off the ground in no time. It had the grease and it had the steam.

We steamrolled the tunes for a few hours in one of the beautiful wooden paneled studios and then packed it up once the time was exhausted. Even ahead of schedule, it's a hell of a thing.

As we were packing our gear in the parking lot I happened to hear Mike say, "Hey! I know you!"
As I turn I see one Jody Stephens, the drummer from Big Star, walking towards the car.

"I heard you guys were here," he said.
Mike shook his hand like an old friend. Mike grinned.
"Yeah man, we're here for a thing at Sun tonight."
"That's right! I heard that, that's fantastic."

Small talk. Then of course a photo.

"Have a great gig guys. Come back and see us!" Stephens walked back towards the studio.

As we got in the car I turned to Mike, "Holy shit, you know Jody Stephens!?"
He just smiled. "Nope, never met him. Hell of a nice guy though."

Old souls.

Mike, Corey, Jody Stephens & Me.
Photos by Rosie Cohe

Me, Austin & Corey at Gus's.
Photos by Rosie Cohe

We wrapped rehearsal and made our ways over to Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken for some din.
Now, friends, let me tell you...
Fried chicken is like a drug for me and I've consumed quite a lot of it over my years.
The fried chicken at Gus's is hands down the best I've had. It's perfection in the frying of a bird and it makes for an ideal pre-show meal.



We arrived at Sun and waited while the film crew set up. Lights were put into place, stands were erected, cameras were focused. There was no turning back. Nerves be damned, this was gonna happen.


Photos by Rosie Cohe

You could feel it in the air. Anticipation, excitement, the electric thrill of being back inside those walls.
The ghosts of the place still rattling their chains to the beat...

Continued in part 2