John Klyce Minervini
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Myla Smith is performing on an outdoor stage at Rhodes College. Smith is a singer-songwriter whose country-infused pop music has been featured in Billboard magazine. Today she’s playing songs from her new album, Hiding Places. Wearing black leather scrunch boots and a red lumberjack shirt, Smith struts to the front of the stage where she launches into the chorus of her hit single, “Can’t Say No.”
“I can feel it moving me,” she sings, her voice heavy with longing, “like a wheel, with urgency. Something real is breaking free, and I can’t say no.”
The concert is being held in the shadow of Rhodes’s Buckman Hall, a gorgeous Gothic structure whose arched windows and stone gables peer out over the treetops in Memphis’’ Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood. Concertgoers have spread blankets on the lawn, and a crowd of dancers wait attentively near the stage.
But look closely, and you’ll notice something unusual. These tiny dancers are mostly toddlers and school kids, ranging in age from 2 to 12.
“It’s fun because it’s music and you get to dance,” says Evie, age 3, as she waggles her arms. “I’m a shark,” adds 2-year-old Charlie.
Music for families
The show is a part of Memphis Rock-n-Romp, a summer concert series that aims to help parents of young children stay connected with the local music scene. It started in 2006, when a group of friends began hosting family-friendly concerts in their back yards. Eight years later, they’ve outgrown even the biggest back yards and moved to public venues. Stacey Greenberg is the organization’s founder.
“When your kids are young,” says Greenberg, “all of a sudden you don’t get to go out any more. You don’t get to drink; you don’t get to be social. With Rock-n- Romp, we wanted to provide a way for parents to do all those things and bring their kids along.”
The first Rock-n-Romp was started in Washington, D.C., by Debbie Lee who missed the club scene after her first child was born. Lee’s idea caught on, and it wasn’t long before Rock-n-Romps started popping up all over the country, in Baltimore, Austin, Portland, and Memphis.
“In the beginning,” continues Greenberg, “we would ask ourselves, who would I wanna see this weekend? Who’s hot? And those were the bands we would get for our shows.”
For a suggested $5 donation, concertgoers can expect not just music, but food and drink donated by local vendors. Today, the house specialty is a pulled pork sandwich from Central BBQ slathered with pimento cheese from Tom’s Tiny Kitchen.
Wait, what? Barbecue and pimento cheese?
“I’ll admit, I was skeptical at first,” confesses Rock-n-Romp board member Marvin Stockwell, “but man, you gotta try this thing. It is freaking ridiculous.”
I try one of the sandwiches, and Stockwell is right. You’d never expect pulled pork to pair well with pimento cheese. But something about the smoky, savory flavor of the barbecue, combined with the tangy creaminess of the cheese — it’s just right. The sandwich is gone before I have a chance to take notes.
And of course, what would an outdoor concert be without beer? Today’s suds are courtesy of Bluff City Brewers, Memphis’ oldest and largest association of home brewers. They’ve brought along cream ale and a classic American pilsner, but my favorite is definitely the Poblano, a witbier made with roasted poblano peppers.
“We’ve been coming on and off for five years,” says mom Dana Fowlkes. “We love it because you get to socialize and your kids get to run around.”
Broadening their base
Each year, in addition to its concert series, Memphis Rock-n-Romp hosts a weeklong summer camp for kids from first to seventh grade. Here, aspiring rock stars form bands, write songs, and learn to perform onstage together. Tuition is $200, and the week culminates in a showcase performance at Young Avenue Deli.
And this year, Memphis Rock-n-Romp has partnered with Whole Foods to create Rock-n-Chomp, a series of mini-concerts followed by a healthy snack. The concerts, which are free, take place at Whole Foods on the third Tuesday of every month. Caleb Sweazy is a singer-songwriter who performed at a recent Rock-n-Chomp.
“It’s kind of an adjustment if you’re used to playing in bars,” laughs Sweazy. “But the kids really seem to get into it. They’re all bouncing up and down. I was kind of surprised, actually.”
There are two more Rock-n-Romp concerts remaining on this year’s calendar. The first is September 27th, at Agricenter International. In addition to the usual offerings, the event will feature a corn maze and a pillow trampoline. The second is set for November 1st, at Overton Park.
“It’s a great value for families,” says Stockwell. “For a suggested $5 donation, they get three bands, free food and beer, and lots else besides. But it only works because of the generosity of our partners. The venues donate the space, the vendors give us food and drink, and we even get the occasional sponsorship.”
Do you ever forget the words?
Back on the stage at Rhodes, Myla Smith has reached the last verse of “Can’t Say No.”
“I’ve been living life half-asleep,” she sings, with a bittersweet lilt, “counting secrets like I’m counting sheep. But something’s waking up way down deep.”
On a break between sets, Smith walks to the lip of the stage and takes a moment to chat with her fans — in this case, two six-year-olds, Caroline and Lucy. They want to know what it’s like to be in a band, and does she ever forget the words to her songs? Smith laughs and does her best to answer their questions. Later, she tells me that the Rock-n-Romp show was at least as exciting for her as it was for Caroline and Lucy.
“It’s my first time doing a show like this,” says Smith, “but it was sort of a light-bulb moment, you know? These girls, they see another girl up on stage with a guitar, and it shows them that they can do it, too.”