Mem Shannon - Bio

 

Mem Shannon

 

There’s the entire New Orleans musical tradition, and then there’s Mem Shannon. Clean, simple but transcending genres, he channels the spirits that inspired Fats Domino, Prof. Longhair, the Funky Meters and The Neville Brothers.

I’m From Phunkville is the fifth album by a funky bluesman whose day job was his night gig. For 15 years starting at age 22 he drove cab in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. “I learned to read people pretty quickly,” says Mem. “When you’re in a cab, that’s something you just happen to learn along the way. You learn how to size people up in their different degrees of sobriety, and it all applies to everything I’ve done since then. I’m still watching and learning from people.”

At Tipitina’s 8th floor studios in the center of the most musically alive city in America, Mem captured the spirit of New Orleans funk with its pungent soul, hot salt water rhythms and deep revelations of the heart. Such influences are the cornerstone of
I’m From Phunkville, Mem’s first completely self-produced CD. Only Mem could produce a slice of life that features his barber, longtime friend, and one of the original Membership band players, A. C. Gayden, Jr. on guitar on the same record with percussionist Billy Martin from Medeski Martin & Wood, supported by Mem’s own band The Membership.

Mem Shannon takes extreme liberties with the concept of groove. Can a groove be beautiful? Can it let a melody breathe and support a rich baritone voice singing lyrics snatched from life to cover a song like hot chocolate on sorbet? Can his barbed wire and Vaseline guitar runs lift the listener? Mem does just that on
I’m From Phunkville.

“I’ve learned to listen for clarity,” says the New Orleans veteran singer/songwriter about his role as his own producer. “You can have a big cluster of instruments, but if they’re blocking the main focal point, the voice of the particular soloing instrument, you’ve got to correct the levels – I learned that from working with Grammy Award-winning producer Dennis Walker.”

On the album, Mem declares
“A Perfect World” just can’t be, “cause in a perfect world, there would be no you, there’d be no me.” The song “Phunkville” advises the listener, “You better be prepared to move to the groove ‘cause we love to see your body move.” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” is the only non-original of the 13 songs. Mem’s been listening to that song his whole life, but it wasn’t until he saw the lyrics in print that he decided to record his version of the rock classic. “Loneliness, that’s what it’s about,” he says. “I can relate to that. I’ve been lonely, and I just wanted to put my stamp on the song jokingly telling my friends I fixed the song for the Beatles.”

Mem doesn‘t escape reality in his music. He incorporates it into his songs and lifts them in a lilt that’s funky but light.

“I’m still telling stories,” says an artist whose first album in 1995 A Cab Driver’s Blues featured snippets of conversation with actual passengers in his cab. Its Everyman theme touched a cord with new fans around the world, landing him features from “CBS Sunday Morning” to “This Morning” on Europe’s Granada TV. Downbeat Magazine caught an early performance at SXSW, stating that, “although the musical emphasis was on young alternative rock acts, it was a veteran New Orleans taxi driver who ultimately drove away with the rave reviews….Shannon’s autobiographical blues approach…effortlessly cut through the pretensions and hype with a sound that was as novel as it was sincere.”

The Washington Post credited Mem Shannon’s 2nd Blues Album (1997) with “confirming the suspicion that Shannon is the blues field’s finest social commentator since the days of Willie Dixon and Percy Mayfield.” USA Today credited Spend Some Time with Me (1999) with “expanding the definition of blues by carving funk grooves, jazzy flourishes and even country…into 11 originals stamped by his usual sassy lead guitar and crack rhythm section.”

But it was
“S.U.V.” off Memphis in the Morning (2002) that caused the most excitement. This “funny little song” as Mem calls it about S.O.B.s who drive S.U.V.s earned the distinction of being Living Blues Magazine’s Critics’ Poll Song of the Year. It earned a W. C. Handy nomination for Best Song of The Year and was included in National Public Radio’s compilation Car Talk – Born Not to Run.

In the decade since Mem Shannon broke onto the scene, he’s expanded the definition of blues. He’s toured the world, performing at prestigious festivals such as King Biscuit Blues Festival and the Montreal Jazz Festival. He’s shared the Kennedy Center stage with Gregg Allman, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor and John Hiatt in a Muddy Waters tribute.

He was also been asked to perform at the prestigious New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for 12 years straight. At the height of his talents, this Crescent City original is still educating the rest of the world on what New Orleans musicians already know. Good music cannot be constrained by form. It’s a function of heart and funk, grit and groin, truth and humor, pathos and beauty.

-Donald E. Wilcock



"[the former cabbie] should be considered among the foremost blues poets of
his generation"
- Living Blues

"S.U.V." earned Living Blues Magazine’s Critics’ Poll Song of the Year, a W. C. Handy nomination for Best Song of The Year and was included in National Public Radio’s compilation
Car
Talk – Born Not to Run
."