The first music event to be held in the new Crosstown Arts Theater is a concert celebrating the release of Memphis-based musician John Kilzer’s new album, Scars.
Though known foremost for his high-profile career as a recording artist and songwriter, John Kilzer’s life in Memphis involves some deep and interesting ties to the community. He was a star player for the Memphis State Tigers basketball team and later taught at the university. He battled his way back from addiction, earned a Master of Divinity degree from Memphis Theological Seminary, and now leads a recovery ministry at St. John’s United Methodist Church. These various Memphis touchpoints are what he credits for his musical soul.
Check out Scars on Spotify, and learn more about John Kilzer via bio written by Bob Merlis, published here with permission by Archer Records:
“You can’t be from Memphis and not know John Kilzer,” says producer Matt Ross- Spang. “I’ve always been a fan of his writing and his singing.” Ross-Spang is, of course, the Grammy winning producer/engineer who has worked on projects with Margo Price, Drive-By Truckers, John Prine, Jason Isbell as well as the Elvis Presley catalog. He produced John Kilzer’s latest work, Scars, an album for Archer Records that is a reflection of the noted singer/songwriter’s life and times in Memphis, the zeitgeist of the city and its history that are the focus of his musical soul. He contends, “we all get scared but there’s some healing in being wounded.”
There are really many John Kilzers: the musical entity perhaps being the most well known. There’s also John Kilzer the star college athlete who played forward for the Memphis State Tigers. There’s John Kilzer the academician who taught English literature at the aforementioned University. There’s John Kilzer the Doctor of Divinity who is affiliated with St. John’s United Methodist Church. There is also John Kilzer the recovering addict whose personal experience, combined with his pursuit of a PhD in religious studies at Middlesex University in England, is the living embodiment of practicing what one (literally) preaches. The unifying factor for all of these John Kilzers is a great passion for music. “It’s what enables me to do what I do, it’s my sanctuary,” he states unequivocally.
Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s Kilzer was on the brink of stardom. Signed to prestigious Geffen Records when it was white hot with the likes of Guns ‘n’ Roses, Sonic Youth and Peter Gabriel, he released two albums, Memory In the Making and Busman’s Holiday. While he was not as commercially successful as those aforementioned label mates, the experience did establish him as a songwriter to be reckoned with. Of note is the fact that his songs have been recorded by Roseanne Cash, Trace Atkins and Maria Muldaur, among others. He’s continued to pursue his own recording career with indie releases including his previous effort for Archer, 2014’s Hide Away.
More recently, catalyzed by the prospect of working with Ross-Spang, Kilzer got busy, confiding, “Matt asked me if I had some songs. I told him I did. I didn’t tell him that I hadn’t written them down yet.” He started writing feverishly, sometimes for 20 straight hours, picking out tunes on whatever fell to hand: an old guitar, a ukulele, the piano, a mandolin. “I wrote the songs very quickly, in about two and a half weeks, and in a romantic sort of way. If there’s any organic metaphor to them, it was because they were all cut out of the same block,” he allows.
Soon thereafter, Kilzer and Ross-Spang, together with the ‘A-team’ of Memphis studio cats including Steve Selvidge (guitar) Rick Steff (keyboards) Dave Smith (bass) and drummers Steve Potts and George Sluppick, gathered at Music+Arts studio with engineer Kevin Houston running the board. Producer Ross-Spang came out from the control room and joined the assembled players on acoustic guitar. There’s a method to this apparent madness according to Ross-Spang. “When I’m producing, I like to be in the room with the artist. Better communication is a part of it. It’s different from being behind the glass and spouting orders. You’re in the trenches with them.”
In advance of those sessions there was very little rehearsal. “We just got there and played it,” says Kilzer. “There was a creative energy in doing that which I hope lives in the music.”
Adds Ross-Spang, “It’s like the old days with the Stax guys, and Sam Phillips and Sun Records… I think it’s important to get the band’s first impression as a unit, as opposed to individually. It’s where we all go together that’s important to the song.”
The resulting Scars tune stack is 11 songs so heartfelt and personal that it’s difficult not to be immediately affected by their honesty and directness. Kilzer attributes that to the singular place where he lives and works. “It’s a badge of honor. I hope I have been able to live up to it. Memphis is where the big bang happened. You try to at least not mess it up before you pass it on.” As he likes to put it, “All Memphis music is soul music,” and Kilzer’s soul is front and center on Scars.