A few snapshots from my pilgrimage to Memphis (the music mecca!) for the Folk Alliance conference:
* Roger McGuinn summing up his career with a song-punctuated keynote address
* John Sebastian demonstrating how “Do You Believe in Magic” was copped from “Heatwave” (who knew?)
* Bela Fleck hosting a screening of “Throw Down Your Heart,” the documentary film about his trip to Africa (the motherland of the banjo) to play with local musicians in remote villages.
* The Duhks kickin’ out the jams in the middle of the afternoon.
* A showcase with Rodney Crowell and Will Kimbrough that, unadvertised, became the song swap from heaven with Jim Lauderdale, Freebo (on bass) and the dazzling, dueling guitarists Albert Lee and James Burton, ending with “Pancho & Lefty” (which brought tears to my eyes) and “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.”
* The return of Susan Cowsill, backed by a tight band, with Victoria Williams in the audience (missed HER showcase-damn!). Also on the scene, Susan’s old Continental Drifter cohorts, Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey.
* Most exciting new discovery: The Bittersweets, a 20-something male-female duo from the West Coast ( now in Nashville), with great energy, looks, harmonies, and, most important, songs.
But BEST of all was a detour on the way to the airport Sunday morning for a visit to the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, pastor and founder the Rev. Al Green!
The Church is just a few blocks from Graceland in a residential neighborhood - an octagonal building with white walls, one large chandelier in the center of the ceiling, surrounded by a dozen smaller ones. On the walls a portait of black Jesus and a bizarre painting of a massive car wreck on a city expressway with angels flying into the sky.
On the stage, a podium in front of three leather easy chairs, in one of which sits Al Green himself in a chocolate brown velvet blazer, white shirt and tie. Behind him the choir pews and the musicians (organ, of course, bass, drums, and guitar - all killers). The choir director, a middle-aged black woman, steps forward, starts to sing, and the joyful noise begins. The band rocks, the choir claps and wails behind her, and the congregation is on its feet. A large woman in lavender does a dervish dance down front. On and on it goes. You know you’re at the right place.
There are announcements, then the creed, and an old woman with a cane sits in a chair surrounded by little children and tells them about her childhood growing up in a one-room shack.
Finally, Bishop Green, who’s changed into a black robe, steps to the podium. He begins to sing, “One Day at a Time” - not the Willie Nelson song, but still “a little country music,” he says. “Yee-haw! I can do that, I own the building. I love the South. Is anybody here from other countries? Other states?” There are people from Illinois, Pennsylvania, France, Texas, and Scotland. Not to mention the bald white guy in the back from New York taking notes.
“Don’t come here looking for a song,” preaches Al Green. “A song can’t save you. The only thing that can save you is the word of God. I’ve got nothing against the Catholic Church, but we get down in here!” (”Amens” all around.)
“Something got a hold of me,” he continues. “I’m sorry I can’t be what some people want, we can only be what God tells us to be.” (”Praise Gods” all around.) He is charismatic, he is funny, he is full of the holy spirit. Then he sings, “I Saw the Light,” and you know he has, and maybe you have ,too. (”Clap your hands, somebody!”)