Luke Powers has a Ph.D. in songwriting—actually in English, but he's built a reputation as an original Americana songwriter drawing comparisons to Warren Zevon, John Prine and James McMurtry.
Memphis Mermaid (2012) is his fifth solo release.
The Nashville resident takes inspiration from his sister city in his latest work.
“There's a real mermaid,” he explains, “though I'm not sure how she ended up in Memphis.”
The song cycle revolves around the famed City by the Bluff, home to Elvis, Sun Records and Stax/Volt, but also the city where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and Elvis imploded in Graceland.
“Memphis is a microcosm,” Powers muses, “of living in the aftermath of the American Dream.”
Once a melting pot of races and musical cultures---blues, R&B, rockabilly, soul and rock-n-roll—the city now has one of the highest murder rates in the country and suffers from insoluble problems of racial division, social inequality and urban blight.
Powers recalls the legend of the Chickasaw, expelled by Andy Jackson and Memphis' founders, who cursed the ground upon which city was laid out.
“But who knows,” Powers adds, “maybe the mermaid is the miracle that will turn things around.”
Miracle or morass? The songs explore both visions of Memphis and America.
The CD opens with an trainbeat-driven “Trainssong” that shouts out Memphis' rockabilly roots. “Memphis Belles” combines an upbeat tune with downbeat message: “Drugs, gangs, girls, guns/rape and murder just for fun.”
The title song “Memphis Mermaid” records a close encounter of the Mississippi kind, and “Confederate Air Corps” tells the true story of the South's famed glider company. The CD also explores “mermaids” such as the transgender tween “Jacqueline” and Picasso's “Girl with Mandolin.”
The CD features Chris Leuzinger (Garth Brooks, George Strait) on guitar; Michael Smotherman (Glen Campbell, Roger Miller, Captain Beefheart) on keyboards; Tim Lorsch (Goose Creek Symphony) on cello, mandolin and fiddle; and Tommy Spurlock (Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Highway 101) on steel guitar.
Suzi Ragsdale (Ray Stevens, Guy Clark) sings harmony vocals—offering the mermaid a human voice.
Bradley Hartman (Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris) mixed and mastered the CD at Austinwerks Sounds in Austin, Texas.
“I don't want to sound like I'm down on Memphis,” Powers emphasizes, “any more than I'm down on reality. It's an incredibly 'real place' but with a mythic pull as strong as the river. Every musician goes to Memphis in one way or another. Some sell a million records, some jump off a bridge.”
“I've been to Memphis,” he closes, “and I think I saw the mermaid—or one helluva catfish.”