Reigning Sound singer-guitarist Greg Cartwright is a music nerd of the highest order. Talking to the Scene via phone from North Carolina — his home after leaving the Memphis garage scene he helped build — Cartwright gets more excited talking about the records he collects than the records he makes. He won't divulge what elusive piece of wax tops his current "want list."
"There's one right now that I've been looking for for a while, and I hope to find it very soon," he says. "It's not very well-known, but it's really great, and therefore I can't tell you what it is. The trick is to find something that's undervalued; find something that's super cool, great songs and something you can really get into, but it doesn't cost you an arm and a leg to be a fan."
Certainly fans of Cartwright's now-decades-spanning career — which includes fronting Memphis garage, punk, R&B and rock 'n' roll bands including Oblivians, Compulsive Gamblers, The Parting Gifts and Reigning Sound — can relate. First-pressing LP copies of records by those bands inevitably top the want lists of many voracious vinyl collectors.
On Sunday, Cartwright will play Mercy Lounge with Reigning Sound, the country-rock, Southern-soul-infused heartland rock troupe he's fronted through shifting lineups for the past 13 years. The band's latest LP, Shattered, sounds like — aside from some lush string arrangements on "Never Coming Home" and "Once More," a stunning pair of British Invasion-inspired gems — it could have been recorded at the same time as the band's classic underrated 2001 debut Break Up Break Down. Break Up sounds like a lost nugget from the '50s,'60s or '70s, depending on which track you're spinning. That's not surprising, seeing as how Cartwright's musical output so completely mirrors his musical intake.
"My head is so far in the past, as far as my daily music diet [goes]; I don't really actively listen to anything modern, but I like hearing it in passing," he adds with a gut laugh. "I'm always finding something I hadn't heard [before]."
And that's what Shattered sounds like: a record rife with songs that sound like timeless classics that have somehow inexplicably been missing from your life as long as you've loved music. Otis Redding probably would have killed for the opportunity to croon album closer "I'm Trying (To Be the Man You Need)." The on-bended-knee R&B ballad is that good, that full of yearning heartbreak and hopeful melancholy. Ubiquitous throughout Cartwright's catalog are blame-self songs about cursed love and relationships — relationships that would have been perfect if they weren't so fucked up.
"People always say, 'Right after a breakup you can write really good songs; you've got good song fodder,' " the singer explains. "I find that that's not really true. That's never been true for me, because I'm too close to the experience to understand what just happened. ... Once you think about it for a while, then you see you're not just angry anymore because you're not just blaming, you start to understand what you did. So that kind of reflective kind of song is something that comes easier to me in my life."
Cartwright finds it easier to confess his flaws in love songs than in conversation.
"Part of the whole thing with music, and being a songwriter, is there's a certain catharsis that you get out of music that you're not going to get in everyday conversation," he says. "A song is one way. You put it out there, and what people's response is to it, you may never know; you may only find out what they think about it later. In a conversation you find out what they think about it straightaway, and that puts you in a much more vulnerable position."
But Cartwright finds himself channeling heartbreak as often, if not more often, than he's expressing it, explaining that he finds inspiration in the lovelorn tales of his acquaintances, stories he reads and anywhere else he can add his voice. "I draw from all different reservoirs," he says. "It's not just from personal experience. ... I kind of cobble them all together and make my own little stories out of them."
On Shattered, which Cartwright and his latest lineup cut at Brooklyn's Daptone Studios, the journey from post-heartbreak despair to the light at the end of the tunnel is highlighted by neo-vintage-classic-sounding tunes like the organ-dripping, dark, bluesy meditation "In My Dreams" to the rocked-out Stones-y rave-up "My My."