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Too Close to the Sun

By Bill Bayne

I’m from Memphis, Tennessee.

I would imagine that 99% of you that know me are aware of this fact. And as someone who loves creativity and music, I can honestly say it’s one of the best places in the world to hail from: Elvis, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Cash, I could go on and on. . . Booker T. and the MGs, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, see, I really can. . .Carl Perkins, Jim Dickinson, William Eggleston.. No one likes a name-dropper, so I’ll stop bragging. Those are names of Memphis artists that most of you are well acquainted with, but last week in Austin, I had a transcendental musical experience with a group from my hometown that you might not be as familiar with, Big Star.

Books have been written and documentaries have been filmed that try to shed light on why this band never had a million seller. A friend of mine with an older brother first told tale of the Big Star legend to me as a teenager. “They were this awesome band from Memphis, they never sold many records but they should’ve been huge.” Or so goes the romantic yarn I heard as a kid. But that’s not the point of my story today.

Our agency produced a concert during SXSW 2012 that had me up close and personal with some of my musical heroes. Many guest musicians performed Big Star’s 3rd album, Sister/Lovers in sequenced order. I was lucky enough to attend some of the rehearsals for the show and was able to help conduct some interviews with some of the participating artists. It also gave me a great opportunity to capture all of the hard work that so many of my colleagues put in to making Big Star’s Third one of the musical highlights of SXSW 2012.

Getting to hang out with Jody Stephens made a great experience even greater. Jody is the drummer for Big Star, and a fellow Memphian, so you can quickly surmise I think a great deal of him. But not only is Jody one of the top 5 nicest people I have ever met, as my wife made note during the show, “Jody is really handsome.” As the last surviving original member of the band, Jody continues to be incredibly gracious and thankful for all of the attention his band continues to enjoy. Even if it is 40 years too late. In an industry filled with petty jealousies and egos running amok, Jody is everything that is awesome about being a musician: he’s talented, hard-working and possesses one of sweetest hearts in rock (did I mention he’s from Memphis?)

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Bill chatting with Jody Stephens (Big Star)

Big Star never had a #1 record (although that was the aptly named title of their debut album) but in my eyes, they definitely made “it” as bands like R.E.M., the Replacements and Wilco all cite Big Star as a huge influence on their own careers.

I was able to speak to Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Pat Sansone of Wilco about Big Star and separately they shared thoughts that resonated with me. Peter and Pat aren’t from Memphis, but they are Southerners. And I learned from talking with those two that that was part of what made Big Star so appealing for them. Yes, the Beatles were amazing. But they were also from Liverpool, another world away from places like Jackson, MS; or Athens, GA. Pat said that when he heard Big Star, and he learned they were from Memphis, he figured, “hey, I can do that too.” I find it pretty interesting so many Southern boys were influenced to write and play music by listening to another Southern band that created this intelligent cocktail of British Invasion pop and Memphis SouIMG_7852Bill interviewing Pat Sansone (Wilco)

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Bill and Landon Peterson interviewing Peter Buck (R.E.M.)

(Part of what made Big Star’s 3rd so memorable was due to the incredible talents of Chris Stamey of the db’s who served as musical director for the concert. I didn’t mention him in my post, but alas, he’s not from Memphis.)

Being able to meet so many incredible musicians who were so reverent towards one of the slightly underground bands from my hometown was a moving experience for me. I sometimes resist meeting band members from acts I like for fear that they will act like asshole rock stars and completely sour me on their music. Happily I can report that I didn’t get burned. Rather I am still glowing from being so close to the sun.

Check out “Kizza Me” live at Big Star’s Third on March 15, 2012.

All photos by Bob Bayne

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