“God has sent me angels,” he said as we sat down for a caffeine fueled two-and-a-half-hour verbal torrent sometimes careening into stream of consciousness as the threads of the story threatened to snap. After we connected over Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan, Memphis Willcox shot through a litany of angels and lengthy lists of the demons who fought them: multiple surgeries, broken body parts, a struggle to play his instrument.
He started life in Memphis and counts its music as a lifelong influence. His mother was a politically liberal teacher and his father a conservative attorney. His mother is Jewish and his father Catholic. He calls it a “mixed family.” His grandmother was a gifted violinist who was offered a spot in the New York School of Performing Arts, but her parents felt the walk was too dangerous. She was later accepted by Julliard but didn’t have the money to attend.
Willcox moved to Knoxville to attend UT, where he studied finance. On a fateful afternoon when he chose to write a song rather than going to an important class, his direction shifted. He’d accepted a guitar in lieu of money owed for a transaction executed in the Fort, where he lived from 1997 to 2003. The friend drew diagrams of the chords, and Willcox began to practice and hang out with the musicians there.
He’s always written poetry and has a copy of Dylan’s “Lyrics” that his mother gave him. When it happened that a friend began playing slide guitar while Willcox free-styled lyrics, he became serious about learning to play and sing. By 2001 he began seeking out singer/songwriter open mics and backing friends on rhythm guitar. He remembers late nights at Smoky’s, Preservation Pub, Patrick Sullivan’s, and the first location of MacLeods.
He began jamming late at night with friends like Jon Worley (Cornbread) who he remembers living in an upstairs apartment near the Greyhound station. He met his future wife Sarah, about whom he says, “She’s my line,” at Union Jack’s. He worked as a waiter and she worked in child care.
In 2006, the couple moved to Nashville for Willcox to pursue his music. While in Knoxville, he had worked at Guitar Center where he copied blues scales from a book at the store and took them home to practice. He worked on both his guitar playing and his songwriting while in Nashville. “I learned a lot about songwriting and suffering,” he says of his time there. He played the Douglas Corner Cafe, The Commodore, and the Bluebird. He also had hernia surgery and, just when it looked like things might be coming together, he was in a very bad car wreck.
He remembers a session with an ASCAP producer who made fun of how dumb people are from Memphis. He replied, “Good ole Nashville, always putting Memphis down. The truth is, we built this damn town. Have you heard of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison? Y’all were making “How Much is this Doggy in the Window.” He promptly played him his song, “Head My Ass Back Home,” which, of course, made his Memphis connection clear. He remembers being told, “If you can’t play it at 7 a.m. in a soccer mom’s car, we won’t buy it.”
Their stay in Nashville ended when, after commuting back and forth to help her ailing mother in Oliver Springs, Sarah’s mother died, leaving her the home her grandparents built. In 2010, they moved to Oliver Springs and Willcox, who hadn’t gotten a single cut in Nashville, thought it was all over. He didn’t play guitar for three years.
He worked at Oak Ridge Country Club before developing serious back trouble. His young niece, Elizabeth Reed, died from a rare cancer, and he became depressed. He began drinking heavily and was out of control. At his bottom, he saw his guitar and picked it up and started playing, “Take My Blues Away,” which came to him as a fully formed song.
Resolved to try again, he found bassist Josh Ayers through a Craigslist ad. Josh introduced him to Odell Brummett, who has a studio and operates Muddy Mountain Records. Willcox recorded his CD “Freedom” in that studio in 2015. His new goal wasn’t to become a star, but rather, “getting music to the people.” He was joined on the album by Knoxville’s Evie Andrus, and Brandon Faust played drums.
His first radio play came via Doug Lauderdale, who played the title cut on WDVX. “Doug was a great person. It really meant a lot to me.” Without a band, he played solo acoustic shows. “No More Pain” got some airplay and, encouraged, he turned his attention to satellite radio where he connected with Genya “Goldie” Ravan and Little Steven’s Underground Garage, who played “Let the Poor Boy Play.” The airplay led to some social media buzz.
Knowing he had to strike to keep the momentum going, Willcox worked hard on songs and had friends curate them as he went. He set up a November 2016 recording session with Josh Ayers (bass), and Carlos Aranguren, a Virginia drummer who was moving to Tennessee. He met Kelle Jolly and through her he met Will Boyd who played saxophone on the recording. Caleb Hall played trumpet, rounding out the Memphis sound he was after on the record. More angels, and it looked like 2017 would be the year.
In 2017, Willcox contacted Josh Hobbs, an extraordinary guitarist he’d met through Jon Worley, and sent him a rough CD of the cuts to see if he would consider adding the lead guitar. He sent him the CD the day before back surgery and didn’t hear from him for three months until one midnight he got the call: “Dude, just listened and loved it.”
Neal Gillespie added keyboards, and the recording finally came together in late 2019. “Where Are All the Outlaws,” draws its title from the outlaw artists who have been lost. (This year marks the 45th anniversary of the “Outlaws” album by Waylon Jennings.) A video for the title cut was shot at a vacant prison with director Jason O’Brien, with help from Doug Bryan, two more angels according to Willcox, and an appearance by actor Dan Desalvo. The video has been viewed nearly 3,000 times. Plans call for releasing the songs one at a time with an accompanying video.
He’s also written a song inspired by the passing of Kobe Bryant. While acknowledging his mixed legacy, he said he admired that Kobe tried to make things better, particularly with his family. Odell Brummett mixed it and he’s hooked up with Memphis producer Walter Person who will add a beat track.
“Where Are All the Outlaws” will make its official debut on Little Steven’s Garage this Friday night (2/21) at 11 PM, and both that song and his new Kobe Bryant song will begin streaming on music services everywhere next week. Be sure to listen in Friday night. You can connect with Willcox on Facebook, his website and on Twitter.