Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer He's Not Strange

By Mark Jordan

JUNE 29, 1998:  Sitting in his Woodshed Recording Studio behind his Raleigh home with his 6-year-old granddaughter Kelcy bouncing on his lap, Keith Sykes is the perfect picture of that seemingly contradictory but increasingly common figure, the rock-and-roll grandfather.

“Yep, that’s me,” Sykes says as he hoists Kelcy down. “All gray hair and guitars.”

Sykes has been making music for more than 30 years, starting in 1965 when he bought his first guitar for $20 in a Beale Street pawn shop. His first big gig was playing the Holiday Inn lounge circuit. He spent the early ’70s in New York, where he released his first two albums. By the mid-’70s he’d moved back home and began a fruitful association with Jimmy Buffett that included Sykes penning hits like “Coast Of Marseilles” and “Volcano” for the leader of the “parrot heads.” He came closest to mainstream national success in 1980 with the I’m Not Strange, I’m Just Like You album. And since then he has been content to play the part of rock’s local elder statesman, playing to still-devoted audiences and serving as mentor to other new artists.

This weekend Sykes will kick off the release of his ninth album, Advanced Medication For The Blues, with a two-night stand at the Hard Rock Cafe. It’s been six years since Sykes’ last record, 1992’s somewhat disappointing It’s About Time, a collection of demos that Sykes had never intended to be released. The new album is a fine return to form, probably one of the best straight-ahead rock records to come out of the area in a long time. Sykes, who along with Stax writer Dan Penn virtually started the unheralded tradition of Memphis singer/songwriters, here delivers an infectious collection of thoughtful but easy going rock-and-roll songs. Tracks like “The Whole Nine Yards” demonstrate Sykes’ way with a winning, sing-along hook, while songs like “One Up One Down” or the hidden final track – a simple acoustic love song Sykes wrote for his longtime wife Jerene’s birthday in 1976 – display the subtle, almost invisible hand of a true craftsman.

Advanced Medication For The Blues has been three years in the making; Sykes cut the basic tracks in July 1995. But if it has taken awhile for him to finish the record, well, he can be forgiven; it’s not like he’s been sitting on his duff all these years. In fact, though you may not always see his name out, Sykes is probably one of the busiest artists in town. He is a regular performer around the region and frequently lends his name to area festivals and benefits. And for the past six years he’s been hosting the monthly Songwriters Showcase on Beale Street. Currently held at the Black Diamond, the showcase is an old-fashioned song swap, with Sykes and special guests such as Rodney Crowell, Alex Harvey, and David Allan Coe sitting around sharing stories and tunes with a usually enraptured audience.

With four music publishing companies, a studio, a record label, and a production company, Keith Sykes has become the elder statesman of Memphis rock.
“It’s been great for everyone involved,” Sykes says. “All the performers love coming to Memphis. I tell you what they do. They check into the room at The Peabody that we get them. And then they head to the Rendezvous and then to Black Diamond. And the folks there treat ’em like kings. I mean, a musician can’t buy a drink there. Outside of those perks we just split the door, but they have a hell of a good time here.”

The next showcase will be Thursday with guests Richard Lee and Denny Flowers.

Sykes has also been busy establishing his own musical empire. The release of Advanced Medication For The Blues is the inaugural project of the Nevaroy Music Pool, an umbrella for Sykes’ various music-business ventures, including his four music-publishing companies, his studio, his Syren Records label, and his production company, Woodshed Productions, dedicated to helping develop new artists.

For someone with his own vital and successful music career, Sykes has always taken an uncommon interest in helping others develop their talents. In 1986, former University of Memphis basketball player and English instructor John Kilzer became the first outside artist to sign with Sykes’ publishing company. Sykes would go on to help Kilzer land his record contract with Geffen and even produced his first record, Memory In The Making. In addition, Sykes was also integral to the early career of Todd Snider. Currently, he is working with several developing artists, including a country singer named Miss Kitty and a Knoxville band, 333 South.

“I get just as much satisfaction helping other artists as if it were me,” Sykes says. “People give up their whole lives to pursue music, and if you can help them out, well, that’s a good thing.”

Working with others also allows Sykes, who could easily make a very good living writing and performing in Nashville, to work his way, in a relaxed Southern mode that is peculiarly Memphis.

“That’s one way to fight the madness [of the record industry] is to start your own label,” he says. “That’s the way it’s always been in Memphis. It’s always been a town of mavericks. … When I was younger I thought you had to go somewhere else to be like those guys you heard on the radio. But when I came back I realized how much great stuff was going on right here, at Stax and American and, of course, Elvis and Sun. … I enjoy doing what I do here. I get very frustrated here, but I keep it here because I feel like if something is going to happen here, it’s going to be something incredible.

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