History of Memphis Country Blues Festival Illuminated in Curb Fellows Podcast, “Beyond Beale”

Elijah Matlock ’21 and Emma Jane Hopper ’22 (photo courtesy of Abigail Morici and Contemporary Media)

With the support of the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes, Emma Jane Hopper ’22 and Elijah Matlock ’21 have been making quite a splash with Beyond Beale. The student-run podcast focuses on illuminating the underrepresented narratives of the Memphis music scene. In their first season, Matlock and Hopper took a deep dive into the integrated Memphis Country Blues Festival held at Overton Park Shell in the late 1960s; they also produced a mini-episode about the festival that garnered an honorable mention in NPR’s 2021 Student Podcast Challenge: College Edition. 
“The podcast is an oral history project,” Hopper says. “We’re preserving the stories of Memphis music history in an accessible audio format and upholding the mission of the Curb Institute by doing this archival work.”
Dr. J. Tyler Fritts, who teaches ethnomusicology courses in the Rhodes music department, serves as faculty advisor for Beyond Beale. Memphis is known for Beale Street and Elvis Presley, but Fritts says the podcast focuses on “under-told, under-known, or underappreciated” music stories in Memphis. “It’s put together so that the subjects can really tell their own stories.” 
Radio broadcaster Henry Nelson from West Memphis, AR, was 15 when he attended the Memphis Country Blues Festival. In Beyond Beale, he talks about feeling at home at the festival and that it was a safe place, despite the racial tensions in the country at the time. “There were so many African Americans there who considered themselves cool and hippies.”
Held annually, the first Memphis Country Blues Festival took place in 1966 in Overton Park’s open-air amphitheater—now the Levitt Shell—one week after a Ku Klux Klan rally had been held in the parking lot. The event showcased African American country blues musicians whose talents had been ignored, along with white folk musicians who served as background performers.
Others interviewed for Beyond Beale include documentarian Augusta Palmer, whose father was a founder of the Memphis Country Blues Festival; Chris Wimmer, a core organizer of the festival; blues musician Daddy “Mack” Orr; and Memphis artist and musician Jimmy Crosthwait. Crosthwait also served as emcee for the Memphis Country Blues Festival in 1968.
“Being able to experience Memphis through narratives from people whose stories haven’t been told as loudly as Elvis’ has been absolutely invaluable,” says Matlock, who writes for Beyond Beale and serves as the audio engineer. “Even as a physics major, I’ve been exposed to so much of Memphis culture.”
Matlock, who is from Dallas, TX, became a Curb Fellow after taking the Music and Community in Memphis course in the urban studies department his junior year. Hopper, a history major from Austin, TX, also took the course her first semester and became a Curb Fellow. 
Hopper pitched the Beyond Beale podcast to Dr. John Bass, assistant professor of music and director of the Curb Institute, in the summer of 2020. Matlock and Hopper started working on the podcast as co-producers in the fall. Curb Fellows Cam Napier ’21 (urban studies), Betsy John ’21 (neuroscience), and Shaliz Barzani ’21 (English) also helped by writing theme music and designing cover art for the podcast.
Beyond Beale is such a great podcast, and it is a perfect example of the value of team-based experiential learning that the Curb Institute fosters,” says Bass. “This model allowed an innovative idea to grow into a sophisticated project that incorporated viewpoints from multiple students, faculty, and community partners.”
The Curb Institute was highlighted in Billboard’s recognition of Rhodes as a 2020 Top Music Business School, noting the institute’s hands-on curriculum, the relationship between Rhodes and Memphis musicians and recording studios, and the liberal arts foundation given to all students interested in music.
“The faculty support that’s available to me at Rhodes has been integral to creating this project and to helping me progress as a music historian,” says Hopper.
Hopper pursued a directed inquiry (independent study with a faculty member) this year, focusing on music history. She was guided by Dr. Charles Hughes at Rhodes, whose book, Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, was named one of the Best Music Books of 2015 by Rolling Stone. Hopper also will be working alongside Hughes over the summer in Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies and doing ethnographic work in preparation for her History Honors thesis.
Matlock has been applying to graduate programs to study audio engineering and music production and recently was accepted into Middle Tennessee State University’s MFA in recording arts and technologies. “I cannot see a world where I would’ve done something like this anywhere besides Rhodes,” he says. “I’m not just getting a liberal arts education; I’m getting a liberal arts education in such an incredible place.”
Both Matlock and Hopper are working on Season 2 of Beyond Beale.
“Hopefully, we’ll include more Latinx and Asian voices and stories moving forward,” adds Fritts. “Our goal is to be as equitable as possible.”
Beyond Beale is currently streaming on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Stitcher, and at beyond-beale.simplecast.com.

By Madeleine Wright ’21