And when I hear that whistle blowing
No longer will I roam
When the train that’s bound for glory
Is calling me back home
So many years that I have wandered
Lost and alone out in the dark
They say that train can heal what’s broken
And love will fill my empty heart
– Garrison Starr, “The Train that’s Bound for Glory”
I’m not sure exactly where to begin, because I feel like the beginning is almost 20 years ago. That’s when I was first getting involved in the Memphis music scene, and those of us drifting in the singer-songwriter lane all knew Garrison Starr as a stand-out. Sure, the major label deal was something, but that didn’t speak to her talent or ambition or generosity of spirit nearly as well as the many friendships she had in the city. Even after being plucked from Memphis, she’d pop up at shows whenever she was back in town, showing love and support to the people and place that reluctantly let her go.
So from the very beginning of my efforts to host songwriter-focused shows in Memphis, I hoped to lure Garrison back this way. She not only represented my own roots but also the start of Memphis’ modern musical renaissance* that began with artists like her and Lucero and Cory Branan and North Mississippi All-Stars. (*white-kid division)
I couldn’t make it come together for ages, but then out of the blue, my friends and her former bandmates Chip and Wayne mentioned that Garrison was making a visit home and wanted to play a nice quiet gig while she was here. It really couldn’t have been better timing. I’d been wrestling for months about how to make the series work best and I’d finally settled on my plan going forward: I’d re-create the house show experience in public but intimate settings, making the events more accessible and less intimidating, but without losing the connected, respectful vibe our audience and performers loved. Garrison was the perfect artist to take our little house show series into this brand new territory.
I knew there was an eager audience for a homecoming show, but I wasn’t quite expecting the 80+ folks who started gathering outside before the doors even opened. Luckily we had SACHË on-site to keep folks busy screening their own shirts while we got everyone checked in and settled into their seats. I was going to give stragglers a few more minutes, but people were so ready to hear Garrison that the crowd naturally hushed on its own at about 7:26 so we went ahead and got started.
Sure, touring musicians are experts in seeming comfortable anywhere, but it felt from the beginning like Garrison had invited us into her Hernando living room for the evening. She’s her own warm-up act; the minute she starts engaging with the crowd, she’s got ’em. Her joy in being able to play for her people again was palpable as she rolled from sharing family news right into a song from her latest EP. And then there was just no stopping her, not that anyone wanted to try.
The set went roughly in reverse chronological order from that point on – actually wait, hold on, “set” is inaccurate, since instead of breaking the evening into a couple segments, Garrison performed non-stop for nearly two freakin’ hours. I kept having that dread in my stomach that all the gorgeousness was about to stop, but she just kept it going. As she dove deeper into her back catalog, she took requests and dug up old favorites, even if they required a little audience participation to remember.
Garrison briefly bounced back into the present when Brandon Kinder joined her onstage to perform one of the songs from their brand-new EP, proving as always that the community spirit she brings to her work benefits everyone around her. And as further proof, she was soon calling up those guys from her first Memphis band, Chip Chockley and Wayne Leeloy, to throw things allllll the way back. It was an audio Old Home Week as they pulled up the songs and memories from Garrison’s earliest albums. Chris Milam joined the fray for “The Train that’s Bound for Glory,” and then Brandon came back up as well for a one-two closer of “Superhero” and the second Tom Petty tribute (and sing-along) of the night, “Won’t Back Down.”
Those of us who’ve connected with Garrison’s music from the long-ago days fondly associate those songs with angst-ridden new adulthood and hazy Hi-Tone nights, and that would be enough to keep her and her work in our hearts. But the wonderful thing about Garrison is that she’s grown up right beside us, with a perspective that’s even sharper and wiser and funnier (as most older things are), and the music she’s putting out now connects even more deeply than the nostalgia for our younger selves. It’s always fun to look back, but happiness is loving where we are and looking forward to what’s next.
Most shows end when the music stops, but Garrison held the crowd well afterward, taking pictures and giving hugs to friends old and new. It was a beautiful way to close a truly moving night, and a tangible reminder that she will always be welcomed back to Memphis with open arms.
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