“Small towns are not an aesthetic.”
— SZA, in a December 2017 tweet
Dusty Springfield arrived in Memphis skeptical.
“Like most people, perhaps, I associated Memphis with one kind of sound, a hard R&B sound,” she said. “That’s not the thing I can do, and I’d rather leave it those who can.”
What was it she could do? “Big ballady things,” is how she put it. At one point the top-selling female vocalist in the world, Dusty’s saccharine pop was starting to lose its charm in the swirl of the late ‘60s. The beehived songstress, born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien in Middlesex, England, went to Tennessee looking for an edge. Her first album with Atlantic Records, Dusty in Memphis, was to be her entrance music at the soul debutante ball.
Certainly of its time, the copy on the back of the Dusty in Memphis LP, written by legendary music journalist and Memphis native Stanley Booth, reads as condescending today: “The Memphis Cats have a great reputation, but they are also associated with such artists as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett—not singers of ‘big ballady things.’’’
He then quotes Dusty: “I had no idea how far out of the R&B bag the Memphis musicians could go. I discovered that their versatility is amazing, and their musical knowledge is extremely wide.”
A commercial flop when it was released, Dusty in Memphis was re-evaluated in the 1990s as an all-time best precisely because of of its production—its gliding horns and and silky basslines cut right through any sentimentality. It would be easy to write off Dusty Springfield’s pivot to soul as contrived, a product of racist record executives hawking a White Aretha. Blue-eyed soul, no matter how groovy, must be listened to in context. Musical gentrification is certainly at play here, but note the marketing: it’s Dusty in Memphis, not Dusty Goes Soul. This album is attempting to capture the aesthetic of a place, as much as a people.
With her singular vocal prowess, Dusty Springfield would have become famous singing in any genre. The best singers are actors, on a stage with seamless set changes.The album’s lead single, “Son of a Preacher Man,” was originally written for Aretha Franklin, whose father and grandfather were preachers (she would record her own version years later). There’s no location mentioned, but it’s undeniably a song of the American South. The first words are “Billie Ray,” for god’s sake. Dusty was wearing Memphis like it was a new mini dress.
A song either needs a strong sense of place or have no setting at all—for this reason, “Small Town” by John “Cougar” Mellencamp is one of the worst songs ever written. But by distilling a physical space into sound, what do we lose? What do we risk?
I spent the second half of my twenties a rolling stone, trying on different lives in Boston, then India, then Oklahoma, then D.C. I moved to each place for a new job and a new folksy quality to add to my repertoire. I hoped to leave Boston plucky, lndia enlightened, Oklahoma humble, D.C. wonky. These attributes would be my rewards for undergoing yet another jarring transition; I’m a writer, I would remind myself, this will all come in handy one day. But instead of the artistic authority I felt entitled to, I left each of these places feeling like I only scraped their surfaces, painfully aware of the limits of an individual’s experience. I could only consume; even my floweriest prose would never capture the complexity of each terrain.
Now I’m turning 30 in New York City, one of the most written-and-sung-about places in the universe. I arrived here the age that Dusty arrived in Memphis, ready for reinvention. From day one, I’ve been wary of contracting the insufferable If-I-can-make-it-here attitude. Having embraced the beauty of so many other places, I’ve long resented the New Yorker superiority complex.
But I started to get it this summer, during a free concert in Prospect Park. There I was, listening to Anoushka Shankar play the sitar, having the musical experience I expected to have in India (but never did) just a mile from my apartment in Brooklyn. I realized that what makes New York the greatest city in the world is that it’s made up of little bits and pieces of all the other greatest cities in the world. New York wouldn’t be New York without Mumbai or Memphis or even a small town in Oklahoma.
I’ve been to Memphis once, a stop on a roadtrip with girlfriends to reacquaint myself with “Real America” before I left for a year in India. We listened to Dusty in Memphis on the way, along with a Stax compilation, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and even that goddamn “Walkin’ in Memphis” schlock. But we didn’t make it to Beale Street. After a tip from the front desk worker at our hostel, we ended up at a punk show at an indie video rental store. Surrounded by leaning stacks of VHS tapes (this was in 2014), we handbanged in the back, our itinerary long forgotten. Memphis rocked.
Perhaps Dusty in Memphis didn’t land in its own time because it doesn’t capture Memphis in 1968—it captures how people who weren’t there imagine how Memphis in 1968 was. What Dusty sought in Memphis—the same thing that Bowie sought in Berlin, McCartney in Nigeria, and Kanye West in Hawaii—can be found anywhere. You just have to take off your headphones for a little while and listen for it.