Since 2019, one of Memphis music’s biggest hidden gems has been Mark Edgar Stuart’s monthly Memphis Songwriters Series at the Halloran Centre. For just $5, guests can experience some of the city’s finest talent in an intimate setting that promises to bring a greater appreciation of their work. Before this Thursday’s show on November 10th, which will feature Amy LaVere, Will Sexton, and Wyly Bigger, we sat down with creator and host Mark Edgar Stuart to discuss the series and the importance of such events.
How and when did the Songwriter’s Series first come about ?
About three years ago, I got approached by Ron Jewell of the Halloran Centre who asked if I’d be interested in doing something like this. I’d been considering doing a songwriters series for a while, but I wanted to make sure it was the right time with the right space. Once we chatted, it felt like a perfect fit.
What was their initial vision for the series, and how has that evolved over time?
Well it really started with me expressing my vision to Ron, which was essentially to bring a Bluebird Cafe [the iconic Nashville listening room] thing to Memphis, with three or four songwriters in the round just jamming on their instrument and sharing the stories behind their songs. A good old fashioned song swap is something I encounter pretty regularly when I’m on the road, but we haven’t had much of that in Memphis since Keith Sykes was doing it about 20 years ago. Thankfully they loved the idea and thought it would be a great addition to their programming. The one thing they added was that they wanted to keep it relegated to Memphis musicians, at least for now. That’s been great and I’m glad we went that direction, although I still think we can make it bigger with more outside artists coming in in the future.
One of the things I wanted to do was to have one heavy-hitter on the bill, such as Greg Cartwright or Don Bryant, along with two up-and-coming artists and have them rub elbows together. I want it to be both a showcase for the bigger names, while also allowing newer talents to learn some things while also showing their skills. Wherever you’re at in your career, I want you to feel welcomed.
You are of course a well-respected song-writer yourself with a lot of records under your belt. I know that your official role in the series is as the host, but do you ever jump in and perform?
It’s funny that you ask, because originally I didn’t really play, I just sort of curated it and hosted. But, after this last one, I decided to throw myself into the round. So starting with this month’s show I’ll probably play a few songs at each event. That’s largely by audience request, which is a good feeling.
Tell me about some recent highlights from the series.
Well, our last event featured Alicja Trout, who I’ve been a fan of since I moved to Memphis. It was cool to see someone like her play acoustic, which is completely out of her comfort zone. She was really nervous about this, because she’s obviously used to playing electric in front of a more rowdy crowd, but hearing her songs and lyrics completely stripped-down was absolutely fantastic.
Greg Cartwright performed at that show as well, and of course he’s a master. I’ve been a super fan of his for forever, and he just slayed it. There’s a reason he’s been so successful for so long.
And then there’s Don Bryant, who might be my biggest highlight out of all of these. He just stole the show. He didn’t play an instrument–Scott Bomar accompanied him a bit–but it was basically just Don singing these iconic hits into the microphone. He’s such a cool guy and he seemed genuinely excited to be there. It made for an amazing evening.
For people who have never been to a singer in the round event, can you help give them a sense of what takes place and what can be gained in contrast to a more standard concert experience?
It’s definitely a unique experience. When I first take the stage, I normally explain to people “this is a listening room, which means we ask for your undivided attention.” No talking, in other words. And I think there’s a whole audience who craves that. It’s not a social hour, but rather an opportunity to just really engage with the artists, their music, and their stories. Engaging with music in this way is something that Memphis hasn’t done a bunch of in the past, but it’s certainly picking up. In addition to our event, they are also doing a songwriters series at the Lamplighter and Graham Winchester does one from time to time at Bar DKDC as well. Also, I’d feel bad if I didn’t mention James Manning’s series at Otherlands, which is where I got my start. He has since passed away, but he deserves credit for really relaunching this type of thing here in Memphis in the early 2010s.
You mentioned other similar series and the fact that you have a lot of people reaching out to you to participate in your series. Do you see a more vibrant singer-songwriter scene emerging in Memphis?
I would say so. I could be wrong, but I think this whole pandemic business has helped in the sense that you started to see a lot of videos of folks with just a guitar and a song popping up. I think the isolation of that period may have sparked people to put themselves out there more as solo artists than before.
If money and scheduling weren’t an issue, what would your dream line-up look like?
Valerie June, for sure. I think she would just be perfect for this. Keith Sykes as well, just because he’s such a Memphis songwriting legend. And for my third I’m going to go with someone not from Memphis…perhaps a young up-and-comer from Nashville or something. I don’t have a name at the ready, but to my previous point, I always want a mix of established artists and younger ones. You know what, scratch that. Let’s go with Cory Branan, who has already agreed to participate in the future.