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The Boston Phoenix Singled Out

Memphis's Loverly Music.

By Jonathan Perry

MAY 4, 1998:  From the window inside his Fisherville, (Tennessee) office, which is cluttered with file cabinets full of the tapes and the sleeves of 45 rpm singles that his little label Loverly has given birth to, Ed Porter can see woods, a pond, and possibility. But then, that's his job. Scanning the margins of conventional sightlines for overlooked details is nothing new to Porter, who, before launching his Memphis-based label in 1993, earned an MFA in painting, worked installing art-gallery exhibits in DC, and operated a mail-order home-brew business during the Persian Gulf War. "I used to send the troops instructions on making your own beer in Operation Desert Storm," he recalls, "and the first thing I'd tell 'em was, 'Keep your helmet on.' "

For the past five years, Porter's been recording and releasing 45 rpm vinyl singles by a community of musicians, malcontents, composers, and characters who thrive on the fringe of the Memphis music scene. Most are recorded at Easley Recording, the Memphis studio that Sonic Youth, Pavement, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have all also worked at. (The studio's owner, Doug Easley, even pops up playing on a number of Loverly singles, as does Porter himself.)

More recently Porter began compiling Loverly's vinyl-only selections on CD: last year he released the two-disc The Singles: 1993-94, following it up this year with The Singles: 1995-96. Each set has the personality of a free-form radio station with an unrestricted playlist and a rock-and-roll madman/savior/sage at the controls: rickety old-time country segues into bratty, riff-stoked garage rock, and then into goofball novelty numbers that make C.W. McCall's "Convoy" sound like "Hey Jude." The cumulative effect suggests what it might have been like to hear Dewey Phillips, the legendary Memphis wildman DJ who was the first to play Elvis Presley, and who flouted the racial boundaries of the 1950s by spinning "race records" alongside those by white performers.

"I never got to hear Phillips," admits the 40-year-old Porter, "but he was a notorious wild man around here who exposed people to all types of music."

As with Phillips's radio shows, there's a thrilling sense of discovery to Loverly music -- a sense of vitality, adventure, and abandon -- that goes to the question of why Porter originally opted for the antique 45 rpm format. "I get bored listening to the same thing, like hearing 13 cuts by the same artist. You can accomplish a lot more with two great songs. But what's the most fun about working with vinyl is that it's the wrong thing. I think it's all part of what goes on in Memphis in general, the idea of bucking a trend. There's just a feeling you get here -- there's a groove, a pace of life to this place. Some people say it's in the water. And some people say it's in the air. But I think it's the water that's in the air -- the humidity. The thing about Memphis is, there are so many great players here and there's so much that doesn't get recorded. People say, 'Oh, you can't do this, it won't sell,' for whatever reason."

Porter's referring to performers like Professor Elixir's Southern Troubadours and Greg Hisky and His Dixie Whiskey Boys, whose medicine-show names and free-ranging musical concoctions only begin to hint at the mix-and-match eclecticism of the Loverly roster. Carhop crooning, surf 'n' turf C&W, soul-deep Stax workouts, trash talkers and glam rockers -- they're all part of the heady brew that bubbles over on both volumes of The Singles. Porter's former band, the Goosebumps, turn up performing a caterwauling food-as-sex-metaphor lament ("I'm the Hungriest Man in the World") and a less memorable bar-band rocker ("Rockin' Little Ed") on the first Loverly. There's also Lorette Velvette, a growling leather-clad vixen (well, at least that's how I imagine her) taking on T. Rex's "20th Century Boy" and the Stooges' "Dirt" with nasty aplomb. And there's Memphis-based writer Robert Gordon (who penned the Loverly liner notes) demonstrating that the pen is still his best instrument with his absurd novelty number "My Father Was Big as a Tree."

Finding all this music is, for Porter, simply a matter of looking in the right, or perhaps wrong, places. "Music people just seem to hang together around here. Greg Hisky does a Hank Williams show in town every year, and he's even had some people from Hank's original band perform with him. More often than not these are people who aren't dead-set on being stars. They're not doing it for the money. They're doing it because they live for it, they love it. I'm just trying to document that."

Write to Loverly Music at Box 382514, Memphis, Tennessee 38183, or call (901) 854-2698.

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