Memphis, Tennessee, has become a place of musical myth and fable, where tourism and hunters of legend often eclipse its present reality. Songwriter, singer and doghouse bass rocker Amy LaVere has made a home there, felt a connection to the city's history — and found her own voice in the present. After small roles in Black Snake Moan and playing Wanda Jackson in Walk the Line, she recently starred on the low-budget MTV hit Five Dollar Cover and has made records with Jim Dickinson, the pivotal Memphis producer and session keyboard player who passed away on August 15. Her sound — sultry, gritty and crisp at once — naturally unites the jazz, rockabilly and soul of her hometown. She gave B-Sides a tour of her side of Memphis.
B-Sides: I just watched some episodes of Five Dollar Cover online. I was like, Wow. How did that start?
Amy LaVere: This was a few years back, but Craig Brewer [the show's director] loves live music, and he'd often come to a show and talk to me about the project. It was never supposed to be for MTV. It was just going to be some webisodes. He wanted to involve all his favorite Memphis bands, and we would play ourselves. He had the whole concept years and years ago. Then Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan came out; when he had some downtime he'd work on it. Somewhere early in the filming MTV came in and swooped it up. Some of us were a little concerned, but we kept going. It lost a little something along the way, by not being something you had to search out. But we all had a blast, and I'd do it over again.
As far as I know, MTV has taken it and run with it, and they're going to try it in another city, rather than do a Part 2 with the same people.
Were you involved in the story line?
No, it was scripted as far as the story goes, but the rest was improv-ed, as far as dialogue is concerned. Pretty much everybody knew each other, Memphis being a small town. It strengthened some relationships and launched some artistic collaborations that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
Are you being flooded with scripts now?
I would not say flooded. I've had a few scripts sent to me, which is great. I've picked up one that I'm going to be filming in September. It's so much fun to have another way of expressing yourself, but music is still my first love.
What's the film?
There's an up-and-coming filmmaker from Memphis named Brian Pera, who has a film called The Way I See Things, and it's done really well at festivals. He approached me with a new script, Woman's Picture. It's very peculiar, and I'm co-starring with Ann Magnuson. It will be challenging. My character is a bit off. I get to play a freak! My character is very, very odd. So I'm excited to play that role. Not that I'm not odd, but she's odd in a different way.
What took you to Memphis to begin with?
I was living in Nashville briefly, working as a receptionist. The first time I went to Memphis was to see Todd Snider for the What the Folk Fest downtown. I became enamored with the city. I was playing in a band and traveling around painting houses. We were spraying this stuff called "liquid vinyl" for this company that opened an office in Memphis. So we moved there to paint houses and live in Memphis.
A band in a van with painting gear. Why didn't I think of that? Are you still working with the Sun Studio tours?
Definitely. I might just do that forever. I love that place. I love the people there, and I enjoy making milk shakes and telling people about the history of rock & roll.
Can you sum up what Jim Dickinson has meant to you?
He helped me return to a more youthful feeling about music. I've been playing in bands since I was a teenager. It was always so spontaneous, loose and free. It wasn't "agenda-driven music," which is a term I learned from Jim. So I got a record deal and recorded all my old songs and some favorites, and then I had the second album, Anchors and Anvils, which was new material. I felt like I was building the house of my musical future. I was taking myself really seriously. I had people I was making music for, like a label. I wound up really nervous. Jim just lifted all that off of me. He encouraged me to take risks, to make mistakes and to experiment. He reminded me that music is about being spontaneous and youthful and not agenda driven. I'll never forget that.