Is it daunting to match up to Elvis? Newcomers to the Memphis music scene no doubt appreciate what “the King” did for Memphis and the world, but he casts a large, mythic shadow. However, with all due respect to legends, the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College is working to ensure that, rather than being beholden to the past, students are able to use Memphis’ rich musical heritage to move their music — as well as the city’s — forward.
The Rhodes College branch of the institute was founded in 2006 by Mike Curb, a record executive from Nashville who has set up programs at universities around the country (Belmont, widely recognized as a big music industry school, is home to the Curb School of Music Business). The Curb Institute at Rhodes, however, isn’t an ordinary music program, according to director John Bass. “We’re at our core about the liberal arts,” says Bass, “and the institute here is at its strongest when I don’t have just music majors.” Throughout his tenure, the students have come from a variety of academic pursuits, including, history, philosophy, English, and urban studies. “People bring different perspectives from different classes. When I talk about my recruiting pitch, I just say that if music in Memphis means something to you, then you’ll want to spend time on it.”
The students who join the institute come in with a wide range of goals: some to work in the music industry, others to go into the nonprofit sector. The curriculum prepares students for all possibilities. Bass cites one student who moved on to the publishing program at Columbia University, while others earned positions at William Morris Endeavor in Nashville, the biggest talent booking agency in the country. “In the Curb Institute you can get some really in-depth real world experience,” says Bass, “and some real things to put on your CV so that when you go up for these positions, you have actual experience, and good references.”
The Curb Institute operates outside Rhodes’ official music department, but Bass says that is by design. “Rather than trying to make something look like a music business degree, students get their liberal arts degree and place it next to things on their CV that show they can do the work.”
There are 35 students enrolled in the Curb Institute. Within the program are various autonomous teams that tackle day-to-day functions designed to provide valuable work skills. “It’s almost like it’s a small nonprofit here on campus,” says Bass. An audio production team edits sound, while the video production team creates documentaries and promo videos for the institute. Students also tackle PR and marketing duties. The research and writing team delves into journalism with newsletters and feature-length articles. Finally, the community engagement team thinks about ways to connect with Memphis through music. Some students lead a preschool music class at Hope House and partner with the Levitt Shell and other organizations.
With so much good music having come out of Memphis, it’s tempting to look backward when creating new music. Bass wants to get away from that tendency and create a more progressive process. “When I moved to Memphis, the idea of recognizing the weight of the history of tradition of this place, but not petrifying it, has been really important to me,” he says. He points to Elvis as the most prominent example. “Just take Elvis, and some of his contemporaries. They were all young people. They weren’t playing old-fashioned music, but were right in the forefront. Many of them are older now, and revered musicians, but back then they were just young adults who were trying to be cool and move the needle.” Bass believes that students need to take lessons from that movement and that Memphis needs to give young musicians the license and creative freedom to do that today.
With that in mind, the Curb Institute set to work creating unique programs to serve that philosophy. Last semester, Bass approached engineer and producer Kevin Houston to co-teach a music engineering class at the institute. It’s the second class the Curb Institute has sponsored, and anyone who wants to join the program is able to take the class. Once the Institute created a recording room on campus, interest in audio engineering grew and Bass looked at how he could bring elements from around town together. Rhodes currently hosts multiple music technology classes in the music department, but they are more composition-based. “We wanted to focus more around the science and theories behind audio engineering and capturing live sound,” says Bass. “It wasn’t meant to be just a strict audio engineering class where you learn the programs and techniques, but to really think what it means to teach an engineering class in Memphis. How could we make it different than if students were taking a class in a different city.”
Houston and Bass met to hash out the details and decided that touring studios and musical landmarks around Memphis was crucial. For the instructors, context was important. What was the historical and social context of recording and releasing sound? What were the ramifications of cultural appropriation and the issues of musicians not being paid for their work? Those themes would be tackled while learning the skills necessary to make and record music. To that end, the co-instructors looked at various studios where they could take the students. Ward Archer was one of the first to make his space, Archer Records, available. “His studio became our second home base,” says Bass. “Beyond that, we went to Royal Studios, and we met with Jeff Powell at Sam Phillips Recording. We did an amazing tour of the studio, and he said he wanted to show us how to cut the vinyl.”
As it turned out, Powell had just received a contract to cut the vinyl for Al Green’s newest recording in a decade. The students were the first people to ever hear that music on vinyl. “It sounded amazing,” says Bass. “It was just like he was right there in front of us. That’s a good metaphor for this idea of the past affecting young people today. Just hearing that helps them understand the importance of music in this place more than any lecture I could ever give them.”
The studio tours may have been the most important component of the class. “I think it’s important for students to realize what a huge part Memphis studios played in the history of recorded American music,” says Houston, “and that many of these historic studios are still very relevant in today’s musical landscape.”
Raneem Imam, a student enrolled in the Curb Institute who has experience working at Royal Studios, pays homage to the studios’ importance to Memphis. “Memphis breeds such soulful artists, and I think everyone can feel the soul when they listen to our music,” says Imam. “Touring these studios just reassured me that, although Memphis may not be New York or L.A., the music studios here are just as good, if not better, and the engineers and producers who own and work in them are truly something special.”
Contact with iconic Memphis musicians continued at Ardent Studios. Big Star (profiled in Memphis magazine’s January issue) drummer Jody Stephens came in to discuss his career, how he got started, and why there’s such weight to recording in Memphis. “The cool thing about coming to Memphis to record, there is this tremendous history,” Stephens told the class before a recording session. “There’s a lot of magic that has happened in this room. It’s all about the way you feel and how you express that. Surroundings help.” The students went on to record their own version of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”
The process was run completely by the class, with students working the boards, doing the microphones, and providing instrumentation, vocals, and harmonies. As a final assignment, each student had to utilize skills from the studio to create their own mix of the track. “Memphis music is all about combining musical genres to create new, fresh sounds,” says Houston. “We respect and pay tribute to the artists of Memphis’ musical history while trying to inspire students to combine classic sounds with current genres and techniques to create something new and original.”
Another student, Jad Qaddourah, appreciated the hands-on aspect of the studio tours. “Working hands on with professionals like Jody Stephens and Kevin Houston was a tremendous help, as it gave us the skills that you can’t get in a classroom,” says Qaddourah. “A lot of the goals and problems in music engineering require unique solutions and the only way to understand what techniques and methods need to be utilized you have to actually get your hands on the gear.”
To round out the semester, Bass and the students all listened to each version of the mixes. Being able to connect with industry professionals on a personal level, he says, really informed the process. “Jody just started talking about some things, and eventually I had to remind everyone that they were talking to the drummer from Big Star, who’s been part of the studio for years and to give some context to the weight of who they were talking with.”
Many of the students continue to work with the Curb Institute and with the larger Memphis music community. For Imam, seeing icons of the Memphis music scene is a boost for an emerging career in music. “It was so amazing to see people like Jody Stephens, Boo Mitchell, and Scott Bomar actually pursuing what I wanted to pursue in life,” says Imam. “For me, it brought hope and opportunity back into the picture. Being a self-starter is part of being a Memphian, and being surrounded by these prime examples inspires and encourages me as a Memphis musician to keep going until I make it happen.”
Having students connect music with Memphis is a critical component of the institute, and Bass hopes that the work done there paves the way for how students change the Memphis music scene going forward. “If you spend time at the institute at Rhodes, I want you to leave here understanding why Memphis is important. Then hopefully that gives students and musicians the context to answer the questions of how you take Memphis forward. It’s always struck me that there continue to be great musicians in this town. It’s still this really vibrant city. And I definitely think having young, really creative people fall in love with the city will make the scene stronger.”