“You can’t be from Memphis and not know John Kilzer,” says producer Matt Ross- Spang. “I’ve always been a fan of his writing and his singing.” Ross-Spang is, of course, the Grammy winning producer/engineer who has worked on projects with Margo Price, Drive-By Truckers, John Prine, Jason Isbell as well as the Elvis Presley catalog. He produced John Kilzer’s latest work, Scars, an album for Archer Records that is a reflection of the noted singer/songwriter’s life and times in Memphis, the zeitgeist of the city and its history that are the focus of his musical soul. He contends, “we all get scared but there’s some healing in being wounded.”
Catalyzed by the prospect of working with Ross-Spang, Kilzer got busy, confiding, “Matt asked me if I had some songs. I told him I did. I didn’t tell him that I hadn’t written them down yet.” He started writing feverishly, sometimes for 20 straight hours, picking out tunes on whatever fell to hand: an old guitar, a ukulele, the piano, a mandolin. “I wrote the songs very quickly, in about two and a half weeks, and in a romantic sort of way. If there’s any organic metaphor to them, it was because they were all cut out of the same block,” he allows.
Soon thereafter, Kilzer and Ross-Spang, together with the ‘A-team’ of Memphis studio cats including Steve Selvidge (guitar) Rick Steff (keyboards) Dave Smith (bass) and drummers Steve Potts and George Sluppick, gathered at Music+Arts studio with engineer Kevin Houston running the board. Producer Ross-Spang came out from the control room and joined the assembled players on acoustic guitar. There’s a method to this apparent madness according to Ross-Spang. “When I’m producing, I like to be in the room with the artist. Better communication is a part of it. It’s different from being behind the glass and spouting orders. You’re in the trenches with them.”
In advance of those sessions there was very little rehearsal. “We just got there and played it,” says Kilzer. “There was a creative energy in doing that which I hope lives in the music.”
Adds Ross-Spang, “It’s like the old days with the Stax guys, and Sam Phillips and Sun Records… I think it’s important to get the band’s first impression as a unit, as opposed to individually. It’s where we all go together that’s important to the song.”
The resulting Scars tune stack is 11 songs so heartfelt and personal that it’s difficult not to be immediately affected by their honesty and directness. Kilzer attributes that to the singular place where he lives and works. “It’s a badge of honor. I hope I have been able to live up to it. Memphis is where the big bang happened. You try to at least not mess it up before you pass it on.” As he likes to put it, “All Memphis music is soul music,” and Kilzer’s soul is front and center on Scars.