As one-third of Goner Records' flagship punk troublemakers Oblivians and the longtime songsmith-bandleader of Reigning Sound — and its darker alter-ego Compulsive Gamblers — Greg Cartwright is a student and practitioner who’s become a pillar of contemporary Memphis music. The prolific Cartwright and his revolving-door crew of co-conspirators have put their stamp on traditional rock ’n’ roll, soul and R&B stylings, consistently delivering the goods and doing right by their forebears. Raucous Reigning Sound gems like 2002's Time Bomb High School and 2004's Too Much Guitar stand strong, even next to more-refined works like 2014's Daptone Studios-recorded Shattered.
Cartwright relocated to Asheville, N.C., in the mid-2000s, but continued to reconvene intermittently with Bluff City-based bass player Jeremy Scott, keyboardist Alex Greene and rotating drummers Greg Roberson and Graham Winchester for shows and tours. When a family emergency called Cartwright back to Memphis last summer and a new set of tunes spilled out, the singer-guitarist knew exactly who to contact to help flesh out the material and immortalize it on tape.
The result — A Little More Time With Reigning Sound, issued in May by North Carolina indie stalwart Merge Records — consists of 11 originals plus a cover of Adam Faith's “I Don't Need That Kind of Lovin.’ ” It’s one of the finest true-blue rock records to see the light of day in 2021, and Cartwright & Co. are sure to get a hero’s welcome when they co-headline Goner’s hometown throwdown Gonerfest, scheduled for Sept. 23-26.
In-person tickets for the fest have sold out, though streaming tix are still available. However, you’ll have a chance to see and hear the group in the flesh at Mercy Lounge on Sunday, July 25, with local purveyors of gritty power-pop Country Westerns opening — you can snag advance tickets for $20. The Scene caught up with low-notesman Scott over Zoom ahead of the Nashville gig.
What's the story behind the new record?
Last March, just before COVID, we played four shows in the Midwest. It was the first time we'd played together in a while. We had fun, and drew well. In June, Greg had to come back to Memphis because of a family situation. During his time in town, we did a streaming show at B-Side. Once he got home to Asheville, he had to quarantine for two weeks. He couldn't see his [immediate] family, but he had a guitar, so he started writing this album. In mid-July he called us individually to see if we'd be into making a record.
We all were. He immediately booked time at Scott Bomar's studio Electraphonic. They have eight-track analog tape, which is how Greg likes to work. We had the studio for the whole month of August — two weeks of rehearsing, two weeks of recording and mixing. It was done by Labor Day.
Do the current sets feature any songs Greg wrote with other Reigning Sound lineups?
They hadn't until our gig in June at Harbor Town [Amphitheater, in Memphis]. There's a song on the new record with strings on it, “I'll Be Your Man.” And Greg decided he'd like to have the string section play on more than one song, so we learned “Never Coming Home,” off Shattered. Because we had [The Ettes'] Coco Hames for that Harbor Town show — she sang on another new one, the duet “Just Say When” — we also did a song by [2010 Cartwright-Hames collab] Parting Gifts. We also play a fair amount of Oblivians and Compulsive Gamblers songs like “Stop & Think It Over,” which we've played more times than the Gamblers ever did. ... We have played several Oblivians and Gamblers songs over the years, but at this point it's not as many due to the depth and breadth of Reigning Sound material there is.
Have you ever worked with anyone else with that much of a creative streak?
Not with the caliber of material Greg has got. He's able to consistently tap into a style and aesthetic and write quality songs within it. That's unique. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to play with somebody who has that.
What do your bandmates each bring to the table as musicians and personalities?
Alex is the professor. He has a Ph.D., and always brings something on keyboards that you wouldn't expect. Roberson is a driving force in terms of understanding the material and bringing a stomp to it. He's trading off on drums with Graham Winchester, who is also intuitive at pushing the songs forward and making them even better. Together we bring a good amount of experience to the material Greg gives us. I think of the new record as a little more reserved, like an older brother to Time Bomb High School.
How has Nashville responded to Reigning Sound in the past?
We played Springwater in '01. What I remember most was Greg playing this Roger Miller song on the jukebox, written by Dennis Linde who wrote “Burning Love” for Elvis. The track was called “Where Have All the Average People Gone.” Greg later wrote a song called “Medication Blues #1” for Home for Orphans that had a similar sense of resignation to it. I believe he got inspired to write it that very night.
What were some things that kept you sane through 2020?
I'm not sure how sane I stayed. [laughs] I wrote quite a few songs at the beginning of the pandemic. For the whole month of August, the Reigning Sound record was our lives. It was a lot of work, but I'm glad we did it and had the time to do it. My other band Toy Trucks recently recorded some new things. I also started working on a solo record that's coming out on my friend J.D. Reager's label Back to the Light, out of Chicago. We're cutting the lacquers for that soon.
Tell me more about the solo record. It's under your own name?
Yeah, which I fought with. I'm sure I'll still give the band some half-assed name like Jeremy and the Charging Tyrannosaurus of Despair [laughs]. I titled the album Bear Grease after a tossed-off lyric from one of the songs. The cover is a mason jar with a label on it, like Stephen Stills' Illegal Stills. It's me on guitar, bass and vocals and this guy Graham Burks on percussion, Mellotron on one song, E-Bowed guitar on another — cool touches I'd never have thought of. It starts out sounding like a solo record, then takes a few left turns and gets nuttier. Every song is different. That wasn't an overt goal, but it's how it turned out. I like that.
What would you say Goner Records represents to Memphis?
Between all the different Memphis bands they've put out, and the things going on in other countries they've opened peoples' awareness to through Gonerfest, it looms large. The things one gets exposed to from Australia and New Zealand alone are mind-blowing. Gonerfest is an amazing festival. And the bi-weekly Goner TV streams they started during the pandemic added another layer to it. I don't want to call their influence incalculable — but it's close.