895 Fest: Raised On Gospel, Schooled In Roots, Liz Brasher Refashions Memphis Music
Songwriter, guitarist and band leader Liz Brasher - who performs Saturday at 9 pm as part of 895 Fest - was WMOT’s first nominee to NPR’s national Slingshot talent discovery pipeline. When Brasher was selected in 2018’s inaugural class, it brought her debut EP Outcast to global attention and led to tour dates with Blondie, The Psychedelic Furs and The Mavericks.
That eclecticism offers some guidance in listening to her first-ever album Painted Image, a deeply personal take on the past and present of her current home base, Memphis, TN.
Brasher grew up in North Carolina, singing gospel at church. Popular music excited her from a distance, but it was forbidden.
“My mom is one of nine siblings from the Dominican Republic and I’m first generation US,” she says. “So I grew up singing in a Southern Baptist, all Spanish-speaking church and I wasn’t allowed to listen to music other than gospel."
When she felt the perhaps inevitable adolescent rebellion, she turned to rock and roll, stealing off to nearby Charlotte to see concerts in the city. Another set of revelations came when she left home and settled in Chicago. She started performing and writing, and a drummer friend took her to school about a wider range of music than she’d ever contemplated.
“‘What do you know about the Staple Singers and Stephen Foster and Bach?’ He made me go way back to the start of Western music and I got stuck on the delta blues for a very long time,” Brasher remembers. “And I’ve been going through every decade since then. It made me appreciate the south because growing up there I didn’t appreciate it."
Many of those influences and epiphanies manifest themselves in Brasher’s debut album, along with colors from her current home town, she says: “Painted Image is very much a Memphis record and that means phenomenal horn sections (and) string arrangements. You’ve got this groove coming through that you hear immediately as soon as you hear music from Stax or American Recordings."
Brasher’s reinvigoration of the blues makes her a sonic fit for her label, Fat Possum Records, a Mississippi indie that carries the torch of the delta sound. On the road, Brasher plays with a power trio, stripping away frills in favor of a raw, juke joint approach.
While Brasher’s upcoming performance at 895 Fest will be with the trio, her recent appearance at the big Memphis In May Beale Street festival featured a big band of veteran Memphis musicians, including drummer Steve Potts, guitarist Steve Selvidge (The Hold Steady) and vocalist Susan Marshall, contributing to the extravagant sound of their home city.
“When I think about Memphis, I think about the fact that they’ve always backed phenomenal artists nationally and brought that Memphis sound to them,” Brasher said. “But I want Memphis to see them for what they are in our city."