Why Country's Coolest Outlaws Are Moving to Memphis

Margo Price
Suzi Pratt/Getty Images

Price has recorded two albums in Memphis.

Beginning in the 1970s, Austin reigned as the hotbed of Outlaw Country -- the place where Willie Nelson, The Flatlanders and other nonconformists turned their backs on Nashville’s slick production and set down roots. But with a real estate boom bringing more glitz to Texas’ capital much as it has in Music City, the outlaw spirit may find itself on the road again with Memphis as its next destination.

In addition to recording there, Texas troubadour Dale Watson bought property in Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood and moved his annual Ameripolitan Music Awards show there.

“Quite frankly, the atmosphere in Memphis now amounts to what Austin was in the early ’80s,” he says. “It still has a maverick style. All the independent labels are still going, but there’s also a rebirth happening.”

For Margo Price, who says she had felt like “an outcast in Nashville for years,” a 2015 trip through Bluff City proved career-changing. After touring Sun Studio, where visitors can pay to cut their own singles, Price booked time on a whim -- a move that would ultimately connect her with Matt Ross-Spang, the Grammy-winning producer, engineer and mixer whose credits include work with Jason Isbell and Chris Isaak.

“I hadn't felt that encouraged by an engineer or a producer in Nashville in so long,” she says of Ross-Spang, who produced Price’s critically acclaimed debut, The Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, at storied Ardent Studios. When Price was ready to work on a follow-up, she returned to Memphis, where Ross-Spang now runs Southern Grooves Productions out of the beautifully renovated Studio B inside Sam Phillips Recordings.

Alt-country artists Brent CobbValerie June and Charley Crockett have also recently logged studio time in Memphis, and Ross-Spang says that part of the city’s appeal is its lack of distraction.

“Down here we don’t have the labels, we don’t have the publicists, we don’t have the management,” he notes. “We still talk and move slow. It’s not as crazy as Nashville is right now.”

Rosie Cohe
Ross-Spang outside the Sam Phillips Recording studio.

But mostly, there’s an intangible, old-school magic that up-and-coming producers like Ross-Spang and Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, son of Royal Studio founder Willie Mitchell, are intent on preserving as the city undergoes a quieter renaissance.

Royal Studios, where Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson tracked “Uptown Funk!,” is virtually unaltered from the days when Al Green recorded there; ditto for Ardent, where Memphis native Julien Baker recorded her latest LP. Ross-Spang’s Studio B, equipped with a 1969 custom-built Spectra Sonic console and echo chambers, is down the hall from Sam Phillips’ completely intact office. “These places pull something out of you,” says Ross-Spang.

“Memphis is not the place where they tear down something just to put up something new and call it the old thing,” adds Watson. “I don’t call what’s going on in Nashville construction. I call it destruction.”

KG for Street Savvy Media/ShotByKG
The Paula & Raiford’s disco in Memphis.

Which isn't to say there’s nothing new happening in Memphis. Paula Raiford has reopened her dad Robert’s ’70s disco as Paula & Raiford’s (a Price fave), and James Beard Award-nominated chefs Michael Human and Andy Ticer are lighting up the culinary scene with their new restaurant, The Gray Canary.

“We’re experiencing growth and innovation but without Nashville’s population increase,” says Gebre Waddell, CEO of Memphis audio-technology startup Soundways and a Recording Academy member. “We’re observing what’s going on there and learning how it might be best managed when it happens here.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2 issue of Billboard.