And here’s a related article from The Memphis Flyer (ran earlier this year):
At 20, Shangri-La — the little record store on Madison Avenue — has lived a rich life.
By Chris Davis
In his novel Lost Horizon, James Hilton writes of an isolated Asian lamasery called Shangri-La, located high in the Himalayas, where the enlightened inhabitants are so filled with purpose, love, and inner peace that they have shrugged off death and become nearly immortal.
Shangri-La Records, the tiny music store on Madison Avenue in Midtown, across the street from the original Huey’s, can get a bit rowdy if the right band is playing in the parking lot. So no matter how serene Jared McStay, the store’s current owner, may seem as he sorts through new arrivals, his store can’t perfectly reflect the monastic calm ascribed to Hilton’s exotic utopia.
But the homey record shop, and its namesake indie label, celebrated 20 years in business earlier this year and has, over the years, known the touch of immortal hands like those of Charlie Feathers, the incomparable rockabilly pioneer who recorded classics such as “Tongue Tied Jill” and “One Hand Loose.” Feathers visited fans at Shangri-La shortly before he passed away in 1998.
Legendary Memphis garage rocker Sam the Sham, known for weirdo hits like “Wooly Bully” and “Lil’ Little Red Riding Hood,” has signed CDs on the porch. The savage Japanese rock-and-roll band Guitar Wolf once tore it up in the parking lot. Sub Pop recording artists the Grifters, who were, along with the Oblivians, one of the two most influential bands to roar out of Memphis in the 1990s, recorded much of their best material for the Shangri-La label. The store has since grown into a nexus for progressive musicians, preservationists, and historians alike, as well as an effective incubator for local musical talent.
For 20 years, Shangri-La has specialized in underground and edgy pop, Memphis music old and new, and vintage vinyl. It has become a true paradise for record collectors from around the world and a repository for useful, if sometimes esoteric, information, compiled for the benefit of adventurous tourists who want to immerse themselves in Memphis food, music, and culture. To that end, the record store has much in common with the fictional utopia for which it was named. And there’s something quieting, almost spiritual, about this place out of time where Memphis’ past and future collide.
One beautiful April day, McStay begins a familiar routine by sorting through a recently acquired stack of old soul and rockabilly singles, gleefully separating the good stuff from the junk. McStay, who was the principal songwriter and frontman for Shangri-La and Sugar Ditch recording artists the Simple Ones, says the current slow economy has actually had some positive impact on the store. For starters, the weak dollar has attracted bargain-hunting European tourists.
“When the Europeans ask for a discount, I tell them they got it when they got off the plane,” he jokes.
And as tragic as it may sound, whenever times get tight, record-store owners see an uptick of collectors who, for whatever reason, need quick cash and are looking to unload a lifelong collection.
A few feet away from McStay, Sherman Willmott, Shangri-La’s founder and the immodest personality behind the immodestly named Ultimate Memphis Rock and Roll Tour, prepares to hold forth on another, even older Memphis record store.
“I can’t believe nobody has torn down the Pop Tunes on Poplar,” he says, happily astonished, considering how everything else in the area has been modernized in recent years. “It’s been there for 60 years,” he continues. “It’s got to be one of the oldest record stores in the country.”
Willmott, who turned the store’s keys over to McStay five years ago to pursue his tour business and to expand Shangri-La Projects, recounts Pop Tunes’ pivotal role in the creation and evolution of the Hi Records label, which recorded Al Green’s most famous material. He worries that the historic location isn’t long for the world.
“When it finally is torn down, that’ll be a big chunk of my tour just gone,” he complains, bemoaning the fact that it’s a big Elvis stop too since the King shopped for records at Pop Tunes and his last job as an anonymous civilian was at Crown Electric, originally located just across the street from Pop Tunes.
“Hey, look at this,” McStay says, interrupting Willmott’s sermon by holding up a 45 rpm single with a cherry-red label. “It’s a Charlie Feathers on the Holiday Inn label,” he says.
“That’s pretty good,” Willmott responds, acknowledging that while he’s seen his share of Feathers singles and Holiday Inn singles, he’s never seen a Charlie Feathers on Holiday Inn before. It’s a perfect Shangri-La moment.
“One funny thing about the record store,” Willmott says, standing amid neatly organized crates of vintage vinyl, his arms spread out like an evangelical minister calling souls to Christ. “When it started, vinyl was virtually dead. The market (chain stores mainly) was rushing to rid itself of vinyl and vinyl bins, and the CD-reissue/box-set craze was just beginning. Now, almost 20 years later, most of the chain stores are gone. Wal-Mart, Target, and iTunes, as well as electronics dispensers like Best Buy, are the big sellers for Top 40. And many of the independent stores are throwing in the towel or reducing their total number of stores. Shangri-La Records has outlived most of the industry. And that’s pretty impressive for a store that began at the end of the vinyl era. And look at Goner Records in Cooper-Young. It’s going strong too, so Memphis is lucky to have not just one but two great record stores that are thriving.”
How Rhodes College’s big mistake led to Shangri-La’s conversion
Willmott, a graduate of Memphis University School, never intended to open a record store. In fact, the music business was the furthest thing from Willmott’s mind when he finished his undergraduate degree at Williams College and moved back to his hometown. His plan was something much weirder. In 1988, before there was a Hi-Tone Café or a Young Avenue Deli or any of the things easily associated with Memphis’ Midtown-centric rock-and-roll scene, Willmott opened a New Age-friendly relaxation center, offering massages as well as an opportunity to float in the kind of sensory-deprivation tanks featured in Ken Russell’s hallucinatory 1980 film Altered States. The business also offered a curious treatment called a brain tune-up, which Memphis musician Tav Falco once described as getting “psychodelicized.”
In a 1998 interview with The Memphis Flyer, 611 band member Brian Collins recalled putting on the special tune-up glasses. “You closed your eyes … and it was like when you’re riding in a car with the sun going down through some trees, the way the light plays on your eyelids,” he said. “You start to hallucinate.”
Willmott, who considers the center’s entire first year to have been a big waste of time and money, has pointed to the proliferation of day spas and described his relaxation center as being ahead of its time. Still, after 18 months in the relaxation business, Willmott realized that he wasn’t going to make his fortune from brain tune-ups or sensory-deprivation tanks.
Fortunately for Willmott (though virtually nobody else), in 1990 Rhodes College’s excellent community radio station, WLYX 89.3, was shut down by President James Daughdrill along with the whole of the college’s media department as part of what some have called a liberal purge. The one fortunate byproduct of the station being closed was the glut of used records that suddenly hit Memphis. Willmott, who once hosted a popular show on WLYX, acquired many of them. Shangri-La’s original inventory was culled from WLYX’s vast, diverse music library. Soon, Willmott had converted his shop into a full-time record store.
611 & The Grifters
In the late 1980s, a ramshackle house at 611 Patterson was occupied by a bunch of University of Memphis art students who liked nothing more than to smoke pot, take acid, and jam until the neighbors called the cops. The house became a fertile breeding ground for a group of musicians who would go on to be members of such memorable groups as the Simple Ones, Professor Elixir’s Southern Troubadours, the Idiot Patrol, and the Joint Chiefs. And it was the hangout of choice for members of K-9 Arts and the Grifters, as well as various folkies and assorted groupies.
Sculptor and installation artist Libby Pace was producing a lot of rock-and-roll shows at the time, and, on her recommendation, Willmott decided to record and release three songs by the Patterson house’s spacy house band, 611. It turned out to be a disaster since the band, which included future folkies Brian Collins and Michael Graber, as well as Two Way Radio drummer Joey Pegram, broke up immediately after playing their record-release party. Still, the artifact is a deliciously silly collection of stumbling songs about magic mushrooms, complicated relationships, and a Saturday-morning kids show from the ’70s called Land of the Lost.
“I don’t care how good a record is,” Willmott says. “I can’t sell it if the band’s not out there playing it.”
At the end of a long evening in 1992, a somewhat inebriated guy zigzagged through the thick blue fog of cigarette smoke and the thicker crowd of actors and artists who gather at the P&H Café on Madison Avenue every Thursday night. He was on his way to a dimly lit booth where the Grifters guitar player and co-vocalist Scott Taylor sat flicking a cigarette lighter, chugging a Zima, and chatting quietly with friends.
“I just got your CD today,” the fan blurted out, betraying, perhaps, a little too much excitement. “It’s really good,” he said, holding up a freshly opened copy of So Happy Together, the Grifters’ first LP.
“That’s it,” Taylor acknowledged sarcastically, rolling the one visible eye peeping out from a dark shock of unkempt hair that obscured half of the underwhelmed rocker’s chiseled face.
“Where’d ya buy it?” he asked pointedly, like a man with a big chip on his shoulder.
“Shangri-La,” the fan answered, surprised by both the question and the furious snarl that accompanied it. “Is there somewhere else you can buy it?”
“That’s good,” Taylor said somewhat approvingly. “Maybe Sherman can make a little money at least.” He then dismissed his speechless visitor with an icy, monocular glare.
Taylor is famously gregarious and his uncharacteristically terse behavior resulted from a frustrating record deal he, singer/songwriter Dave Shouse, inventive bassist/songwriter Tripp Lamkins, and powerhouse drummer Stan Gallimore made with Chicago’s Sonic Noise label. All of the Grifters were a little raw at the edges and ready to turn to Willmott, a friend, longtime advocate, and occasional business associate. He’d produced the band’s first release — under the moniker A Band Called Bud — a split flexi-disc distributed in the very first edition of Kreature Comforts, a ‘zine-style traveler’s guide to Memphis. His new Shangri-La label had also just put out a pair of astonishing Grifters singles: “Soda Pop”/”She Blows Blasts of Static” and “Corolla Hoist”/”Thumbnail Sketch.” Next came a couple of underground-classic LPs: 1993’s One Sock Missing and 1994’s Crappin’ You Negative.
The Grifters’ relationship with Shangri-La lasted until the group finally signed with Sub Pop in 1996. During that time, the band toured relentlessly and were widely considered one of the pillars of an indie-rock movement that included more enduring artists like Guided by Voices and Pavement.
“The Grifters are still our best-selling band,” Willmott says. According to McStay, he’s regularly asked by out-of-town customers who don’t know how to use the Internet when the next Grifters record is coming out.
Who You Calling Preservationist?
“I was working on making the Wilroy Sanders CD and the documentary video The Last Living Blues Man when I started working for Stax,” Willmott says of the period beginning at the end of the 1990s and continuing into the first part of the new century. Shangri-La Projects was turning its attention to rootsier artists like the Fieldstones’ guitarist Sanders, a master of the minimal barroom shuffle and an alleged author of the blues standard “Crosscut Saw.”
“While I’ve done a bit of preservation stuff lately, everything I have done salutes the past but also includes the present and future,” Willmott insists, afraid of being pigeonholed as some “just looking at the past” kind of guy.
“Even the History of Garage Rock CD series brought things up to current times,” he says, referring to Shangri-La’s popular survey of garage rock in Memphis from the 1960s through the 1990s.
“The [next] Memphis Pop Music Fest [I'm putting together] will be two days long instead of one,” he adds.
“The main thing I’m working on now is promoting the new Antenna Shoes Generous Gambler CD, with a worldwide distribution deal that allows for downloads in virtually every country and with every company possible,” Willmott says.
There was no Internet when the Grifters were making waves at Shangri-La.
“Now I’ve got the best distribution I’ve ever had,” Willmott brags contentedly.
From the store’s earliest days as a relaxation center, Willmott and Shangri-La Projects have published Kreature Comforts. Each issue has begun with a somber disclaimer reminding tourists that, “as with any area rich in history, it is easier to tell visitors to Memphis where things used to be.” “This is a guide to what’s left,” the opening passage concludes.
When Willmott talks about the longevity of Pop Tunes, it seems as though he has a hard time wrapping his head around the idea that something like Willie Mitchell’s recording studio or a historic record store might find some way to perpetuate itself without intervention.
“Record stores just don’t last for 60 years,” he says. But apparently they do last for 20, at least, and thrive in spite of all early predictions.
Where They At?
By Chris Davis
For 20 years, Shangri-La has been an incubator for Memphis talent. Several of the record store’s first-generation staff members, who worked at the store from 1988 to 1998, have gone on to make a big impact on the local music scene. Andria Lisle and Andrew Earles have become published music writers in a variety of local and national publications (including this one) while delving into the record business as label-owners (Lisle’s Sugar Ditch) or performers (Earles’ two-disc comedy set Just Farr a Laugh is coming out this spring). Bassist Scott Bomar went from laying down a groove in cult surf-rock band Impala to giving local soul legends a second life in the Bo-Keys and scoring movies for Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer. Eric Friedl, a founding member of the Oblivians, transferred his record love from clerking at Shangri-La to opening his own store, Goner Records. — CD
Based on name alone, I’ve never come within 6,000 mouse clicks or 1,000 yards of Tiny Mix Tapes, but they reviewed my record with a bit of unknowingly brilliant fan fiction. Jeff and I did indeed assemble a release of prank phone calls, so that claim is true. I will not write a detailed response to this review, and my problem with it has nothing to do with the lukewarm or negative nature (bring them on!!). What I will do is offer easy-to-follow instructions on how to properly read said review.
1. Imagine that the writer has also included a paragraph (or more) about the 60+ page booklet that accompanies the release, therefore negating the “prank calls….and nothing else” classification.
2. Other than the base declarations that the audio portion of the release is actually made up of prank phone calls, the reader should take every single remaining sentiment and imagine the exact opposite. This should be no more complicated than when you played “opposite day” as a child. Again, I don’t care that the review is negative; my concern is based on factual inaccuracies.
And here is the review copied into the body of this blog entry:
(note: This was originally published on the tinymixtape.com site, and was originally written by an individual rocking the very stupid pseudonym “Fillmore Mescalito Holmes”…..something I could spend all afternoon dissecting if my time wasn’t as valuable as it is)
They were the pride of first-year college students and the scourge of convenience store clerks. They pushed millions to laughter and millions to the brink of laughter. Yes, prank calls were a veritable coming-of-age institution for generations until the popularization of caller ID virtually destroyed anonymity. Since then, prank calls have become providence of lukewarm radio personalities and odd stand-up.
The Jerky Boys, perhaps the most famous prank callers, enjoyed about a year of mainstream success between the release of their eponymous platinum debut in 1993 and the poorly received film Jerky Boys: The Movie. Every album they released did increasingly worse on the Billboard charts, and since 2002, they seem to be non-existent in pop culture. The Comedy Central show Crank Yankers brought prank calls back into fashion with puppets for about four years starting in ’02, but it has never truly been a fad like the hula-hoop or mullets. Bart Simpson never calls Moe anymore, and creator Matt Groening said not one fan ever told him it was a favorite bit. It’s just one of those things that pops up every now and then, like herpes.
Way out of leftfield, Matador decided it needed to take a stab at the comedy market. Instead of going the touring stand-up route like Sub Pop, Matador decided to reissue the out-of-print albums from well-traveled columnist Andrew Earles and former member of the terribly poor Star Spangles, Jeffrey Jensen. Just Farr A Laugh is an exhausting two-and-a-half hours of prank calls without pause. And many of them are funnier in theory than in execution. For example, Ed Asner’s assistant calls up a restaurant to have his picture taken off the wall because it’s next to the San Diego chicken, and the owner of the joint is as accommodating as humanly possible. That one goes on for eight minutes.
The fact it’s on Matador makes sense with the number of music references they bring in. John Bonham’s son calling up Electric Lady Studios to arrange some jam time (it doesn’t really go anywhere); Isaac Hayes calling a grocery store to complain about a kid in the parking lot claiming he was on Vampire Weekend’s debut (it looks funnier on paper); Christopher “Fucking” Cross calling up a studio to get them to extend their tour hours, mentioning several times his three Grammy awards (this one’s pretty funny). Phil Collins, Psychedelic Furs, Big Bopper, Primus, Dire Straights, Tim McGraw, Kurt Loder, Morris Day (without The Time), Van Halen, Soul Asylum, and many more receive name drops and/or impersonations. In fact, if you don’t have a working knowledge of music history, a good half of this album will miss you.
Filling out the other half is some average character work. A fat, short, black man named Bleachy tries to join the army and raise the price of the Big Buford; a young adult calls in to work to apologize for taking acid before coming in the day before; and a guy calls several tattoo parlors to get quotes. Sadly, the marks handle the calls well and rarely get flustered or seriously involved. Most of them come off as very nice, patient people. There doesn’t seem to be much point in it, and it goes on for two straight hours. Some skits, music, or anything to break up the monotony would’ve gone a long way. Ned & Manson balanced this perfectly on their only album Everybody’s Free To Smoke Marijuana. As is, Just Farr A Laugh Vol. 1&2 is merely The Jerky Boys refreshed for the small cross-section of the MySpace generation that remembers Mary Tyler Moore and the MASH television series.
I appreciate the love so much that I’m willing to overlook the absurd, not-to-be-taken-seriously blunt force trauma of the opening sentence:
“A few years ago, two drug-addled miscreants and regular Vice contributors made a bunch of fucked-up prank phone calls and have finally gotten their shit together and compiled them all into one huge honking double CD and elaborate accompanying booklet for you to get really stoned and bewildered by”
That’s what happens when the truth runs through the Vicetron 3000!!!
Here, let’s try it:
“Each morning, my aunt opens the daily newspaper straight to the comics section, where her fervent appetite for Rex Morgan M.D. can be satisfied.”
“Each morning, it takes my paint-huffing aunt three hours to read Rex Morgan M.D. This is because she’s usually focused on hitting an eight-foot bong, servicing a Comcast technician with via hand job, or eating canned dog food.”
Speaking of American Apparel, Earles and Jensen Present…Just Farr A Laugh Vol 1 & 2 (The Greatest Prank Phone Calls Ever!) is the first ever audio product (unless you include the sound of people laughing out loud at Dear Diary) to be carried by the clothing titan.
Don’t believe me? Take a look.
Album is currently in L.A. stores, with a nationwide takeover forthcoming!
Earles and Jensen Present…Just Farr A Laugh Vol. 1 & 2 (The Greatest Prank Phone Calls Ever!) ONE-STOP PAGE FOR EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER WANTED TO KNOW…..COMING SOON!!!