He who has the gold makes the rules.

That’s always been especially true when it comes to local musicians.

After all, they’ve watched over the years as big ideas have been chased and big promises have been made while the small matter of helping put money in the pockets of local musicians rarely hit the civic radar.

Off Notes

It’s too bad, because it has sent the unmistakable message to the creators of our most famous export – music – that we are awfully good at talking the talk, but just can’t figure out how to walk the walk.

While our tourism industry and our city brand are built on music, our economic development pitch hits the high notes, music CD’s are handed out to VIP’s and nothing is bragged about more than Memphis Music, we continue to give our musicians the blues.

We thought of all this recently when we read that the members of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission are still waiting for someone in local government to make them a priority.

Off Key

It’s been 10 months since the public music group broke away from the private Memphis Music Foundation and Memphis city government promised to make priorities of the commission’s funding and the hiring of a new executive director.

Of course, it was a priority that would be address in government time, so only now is city government even getting close to starting the selection process for the new head of the agency. Sadly, City Hall officials say that the appointment will be made by the city mayor.

It sounds like an off key decision, because once again, it suggests that the city fathers don’t believe that musicians are capable of controlling their own destiny. We don’t want to be too harsh, because the administrative officials who’ve been heading up this process are unquestionable music fans. We just think they don’t understand how much the confidence in our music industry has been eroded, and how top-down decisions like this are interpreted by musicians.

Blown Deadlines

Besides missing the deadline for the selection process for the executive director, city government has also blown the schedule for re-launching the website of the Music Commission. That’s especially frustrating, because before the Music Foundation was created, the Commission had an interesting, entertaining and perfectly serviceable website that the Foundation blew up during the period that the two organizations were sharing staff and agenda.

That was in the heyday of the big talk and small results. Time and time again, the Music Foundation claimed that a breath-taking project was about to be announced, and time and time again, it just died without another word.

There are encouraging signs from the Music Foundation these days as a result of the much-needed change in leadership. New head of the Foundation Dean Deyo promikses a musician-centric approach in the group’s agenda, and refreshingly, he has sought to build bridges rather than create headlines.

Moody Blues

Hopefully, city government will soon untie the hands of the Music Commission members, and that new Director of Public Service and Neighborhoods Kenneth Moody will put this at the top of his to-do list and see his role as enabling the musicians to set their own agenda rather than City Hall dominating their decisions.

Commission member and blues musician Billy Gibson said it well in an interview with David Williams of The Commercial Appeal: “We are in desperate need of some leadership. I just have to say this, as a Memphis musician. It’s a frustration because we’re always waiting to move forward. We’re always in a ‘transition.’ I hear that term used. I’ve been on the board for a year and we’ve been in transition for a year. It’s time to get to work.”

That’s a tune we all should be humming, because it’s time for transition to be a wrap and allow the Music Commission to compose a new future.

More Than Elvis

Speaking of music, one of our city’s best events, the International Blues Challenge, was featured yesterday in Crain’s Business of Life under a headline we’d love to see more often: “Memphis beyond Elvis. There’s more to see than Graceland.”

We were reminded last year of just how important this Blues Foundation event is when a city official from Monckton, New Brunswick, dropped by to talk about urban policy. She was in town with her husband to book acts for the city’s yearly music festival.

They try to attend the Blues Challenge every year, and her effusive praise for the event, the special Memphis vibe and the quality of the acts was enough to make the toughest Memphis critic break into a smile.


As Crain’s pointed out, “The most hard-core blues fan will want to snag the all-inclusive $150 package, which includes receptions and a keynote luncheon. For everyone else, the $70 option will get you in to hear the semifinals and finals.”

Other recommendations included a “different music experience” from American Dream Safari, the National Civil Rights Museum, “tiny, eclectic” Talbot Heirs Guesthouses, the ducks at The Peabody, Central BBQ and Circa. All in all, it was a big hit for Memphis and the International Blues Challenge.

This year, the 24th edition of the Blues Challenge runs from January 31 through February 2. It promises to be even better than last year when 90 bands and 60 solo acts and duos filled clubs up and down Beale Street on the first two days, culminating with the finals at the Orpheum Theater on February 2.

World Beat

It’ll be a good time to enjoy some great music from around the world, but more to the point, it’s a good time to support the Blues Foundation, which continues to reflect positively on Memphis by keeping our blues traditions alive and well. There was a time when it seemed inevitable that the Blues Foundation would have to close its door, but under the new management team there, it has not only survived, but it’s organizing outstanding events like this.

Come to think of it, another of its fine programs is Blues in the Schools, which has scheduled programming throughout the week of the Blues Challenge, and it will feature Gary Allegretto, Spencer Bohren and the duo of James Nixon and Shannon Williford.

At least, while we too often give our own musicians the blues, we can take some time to honor the musical tradition that started it all.