Greg Cartwright had long been a pillar of the Memphis, Tenn., music scene and an éminence grise in the still-thriving garage-rock revival. Jack White and Dan Auerbach name him as an influence and inspiration; the late Jay Reatard counted him as a friend and mentor. But back in 2004, Cartwright didn’t have a lot tying him down to the town he’d lived in for most of his life.
The original lineup of his band, Reigning Sound — which he’d formed after The Oblivians, the iconic garage-punk outfit he co-founded, had screeched to a halt — was splitting up. He’d sold his record store to former Oblivians bandmate and Goner Records founder Eric Friedl. Cartwright’s wife was offered a job in Asheville not long after she had their daughter, the third of Cartwright’s three children. His wife’s parents live nearby, and, Cartwright says, “She really wanted that experience of being around her parents with their grandchild.” He’d heard that Asheville was a good place to raise a family, and he’d heard good things about the town’s music scene.
“Everything just seemed to kind of line up,” he says. “And I was into it.”
But during his decade in Asheville, Cartwright’s flown largely under the radar, at least locally. He’s cut two full-length records with Reigning Sound: 2009’s Love and Curses and July’s Shattered, released on vaunted North Carolina label Merge Records. He’s reunited The Oblivians and made a record with The Parting Gifts, his collaboration with Coco Hames and Jem Cohen of The Ettes. He’s toured with embodiments of all of the above, playing seemingly everywhere but Western North Carolina.
Occasionally, Cartwright spins garage and soul obscurities at The Admiral; he’s recently been holding court on Wednesday nights at The Double Crown, spinning vintage country tunes. But Reigning Sound sightings have been few and far between. The band’s New Year’s Eve show at The Mothlight was its first local gig in three years. Cartwright insists that scarcity isn’t a slight on Asheville; even in Memphis, Reigning Sound didn’t play very frequently.
For Reigning Sound, the issue is logistical. It’s long featured a rotating cast of supporting players, but Cartwright is the only member of the group’s current incarnation who lives in the South; the other four form the core of Brooklyn soul revival act The Jay Vons. Writing songs, which Cartwright does at home, remains easy, he says. But the distance makes some of the procedural parts of band life, especially performing and recording, considerably difficult.
“Making time for practicing is really hard. If we all lived in the same town, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s practice Thursday,’” he says. “It takes a lot of navigating everyone’s schedule, trying to make time, trying to figure out whose turf we’re going to meet on.”
The upswing, Cartwright says, is that Reigning Sound operates at maximum efficiency. For Shattered, he wrote the songs at home and sent demos to his bandmates, rather than jamming through rough sketches until a song emerged. By the time he got to Brooklyn to record the tracks on the 1-inch eight-track tape machine in the Daptone Records studio, the songs were fully and finely honed. “There are obvious limitations to working like that,” he says, “but those limitations can be really good and help you snap into focus and crack into what it is you really want to make.”
And in a way, Cartwright’s decade in North Carolina has snapped his songwriting into focus. “I think the move to Asheville has been great in so many ways,” he says. “But it’s also made me really reflective about Memphis music, and the kind of music I grew up listening to and the records I like to look for. Memphis made such a huge imprint on me that it’s something I always try to reflect in the albums.”
He adds, “Probably being that I’m not in Memphis anymore makes me more reflective.”
Shattered plays like a sampler of Memphis’ rich musical history, touching on the power-pop of Big Star, the greasy funk of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the golden-age country of Sun Records and the funky uptown soul of Stax. As a result, the record jumps fluidly and casually between moods and styles, finding new spins on old forms. Opening power-R&B burner “North Cackalacky Girl” is immediately followed by the rainy, string-laden ballad “Never Coming Home.” Organ-driven soul cuts “Starting New” and “In My Dreams” are offset by wriggly rave-ups “You Did Wrong” and “Baby, It’s Too Late.”
What ties Shattered is Cartwright’s indelible songwriting gifts and his ability to make his songs come alive with his expressive voice. Indeed, the album features a particularly strong vocal performance from Cartwright. It’s a byproduct, he says, of an unexpected local influence: Unlike in Memphis, you can’t smoke in Asheville bars, which helps keep his voice healthy.
“I remember when they first started doing the smoking bans in different states, and I thought, ‘North Carolina is tobacco country. That’ll never fly here,’” he laughs. “But then it happened.”
WHO: Reigning Sound with Spider Bags and Telly Savalas Live
WHERE: The Mothlight, themothlight.com
WHEN: Saturday, July 26, at 9:30 p.m. $15