I think everyone should know about my good buddy Mike Metzger, better known to the rest of the world as Memphis Mike.
Mike grew up in Steubenville and went to Steubenville High School, and his dad was Dr. Clyde Metzger. Although Mike was a few years younger than me, we both were destined to meet each other, as we were probably the only two teenagers in the Ohio Valley to like punk rock, or so it seemed at the time.
We began jamming together, making a wonderful racket in his parent's basement. Mike was always somewhat of a rebel, not really a "problem child," but eccentric, even at age 16. I remember any time hanging out with Mike was going to be an adventure, and he turned me on to a lot of great music, including Public Image Limited, John Lydon, AKA Johnny Rotten's groundbreaking band after the Sex Pistols broke up.
We also both had a great love for the Clash, and I remember jamming on "Brand New Cadillac," from the Clash's epic album "London Calling," Mike playing bass and me playing crappy guitar in his basement. We both believed we were sort of in a secret "club," the ones who were on the cutting edge in some kind of cow town. Those were some good times.
I remember when Mike told me he was into a "new" kind of music, at least, new to us - rockabilly.
I remember thinking, "What the hell?" Like the music by the Stray Cats? Huh? What was the appeal there? What about our love for all things punk?
We kept somewhat in touch as we went our separate ways. I went to college and moved to Portland. I heard through the grapevine Mike moved to Pittsburgh, which is where a guy as adventurous as Mike should have been anyway.
Well, it turns out Mike did really well with rockabilly, and a hell of a lot better than I did with rock and jazz. In fact, Mike became a "real" rockabilly artist, touring the national and international circuit, leading a seminal Pittsburgh rockabilly band, cranking out albums and turning into a world-class guitarist along the way.
Meanwhile, I learned to love and appreciate roots music, which, of course, is what rockabilly is - an amalgamation of vintage country, blues, early rock 'n' roll, jazz and everything in between. It's a purely American art form and very much underrated.
Mike began as a bass player for the Swingin' Cadillacs while learning to play guitar on the side, according to his website. He went on to co-found the Rowdy Bovines, which became a very popular Pittsburgh-based band. In the mid-1990s he founded Memphis Mike and the Legendary Temblers, and that's when his music career really began to take off. To say the Tremblers were a success would be an understatement, as he went on to share stages and headline festivals from Australia to England, not to mention all over the country.
Mike has shared stages with Sleepy LaBeef, Ronnie Dawson, Robert Gordon, Wanda Jackson and many more, as well as sitting in with blues heroes like Albert Collins, Johnny Clyde Copeland and James Peterson. Mike also took over his friend Danny Gatton's guitar spot backing rockabilly queen LesLee "Bird" Anderson at a few festivals in the U.S., as well as becoming a regular with the house band at Jackson, Tenn.'s, Rockabilly Hall of Fame concerts, playing with the likes of Mack Self, Matt Lucas, LesLee "Bird" Anderson, Billy Poore, Rayburn Anthony, Big Al Downing and Billy Adams.
I also know he was friends with some of the artists from Sam Phillip's Sun Records, including Sam himself, who was the first to record Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Howlin' Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as another singer you might have heard of - Elvis Presley.
Mike and I have reconnected lately, thanks to Facebook.com. I'm a big admirer of his talents, and especially his talent for country blues. I feel Mike is a master at this style, which is daunting to learn and play. Ask most guitarists to play country blues and you'll receive a blank look, or they may be able to play one or two songs, and usually not very well or without the intrinsic, authentic "something" that made those records by virtuosos like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, Son House, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Rev. Gary Davis so haunting and bone-deep soulful (unfortunately I put myself in this catagory - for now). The art also is made more difficult because each of these guys had their own highly individualistic and idiosyncratic way that is deeply personal and impossible to replicate.
But Mike can play this stuff with the mojo that's missing from most modern players aping this style - Mike has soul. He doesn't just understand the genre - he IS the genre. The feel of country blues is in his makeup, and he's damn good at it.
He's also adept at adapting to the personal styles of the masters with ease, but he still has his own distinct personality. There are hundreds of videos on Youtube.com of musicians playing country blues, but Mike's are the best I've seen. I like the immediacy he projects, the spontaneity and devil-may-care attitude. There's still a little bit of punk in Mike's playing, and that's the spirit, the spark, that makes his playing so authentic. It's just so "right."
Mike Metzger is a true bluesman.
I've been so inspired by Mike I purchased a few resonator guitars myself, and have been having a great time trying to put my own spin on country blues. He's even been giving me a few pointers, which is much appreciated.
But I most enjoy hanging with Mike and appreciate his musicianship, as well as his friendship. This column will probably embarrass Mike, but I love the guy and feel people from the valley that knew him back in the day should know what a great musician Mike has become. I'll never forget the good times we had as kids trying to make some glorious racket. He helped set my course in music.
(Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)