“It just put me on this trajectory of having left behind a pound of flesh in Memphis for the last 20 years,” says Nashville singer and songwriter Mike Younger, speaking about his new album Burning the Bigtop Down. He’s not exaggerating: The making of Burning the Bigtop Down is the kind of music-business tale that might dissuade less hardy performers from ever picking up a guitar. It may have discouraged Younger, but it didn’t deter him — he’s released several albums in the intervening years. The story of this record’s protracted genesis includes elements of the eternal Nashville-versus-Memphis dichotomy, but it’s also a reminder that artists can triumph over adversity.
Younger releases Burning the Bigtop Down on Aug. 27, two decades after he began cutting the record at Memphis’ Sounds Unreel Studios with a cast of musicians that included drummer Levon Helm, pianist Jim Dickinson and keyboardist Dewey Lindon “Spooner” Oldham. Only a few days into the sessions, Younger’s label folded, and the tapes sat in Memphis until 2017, when he finally retrieved them. He finished the record in Nashville in 2018 and 2019, working with guitarist Bob Britt, singer Regina McCrary and trombonist Roy Agee, among other Music City players. The finished album sounds seamless, as if no industry machinations had interrupted the process. The reality, however, is somewhat different.
Indeed, the release of Burning the Bigtop Down is a triumph for Younger, who rose above homelessness and adversity in his 20s to record a well-received debut album with producer Rodney Crowell, 1999’s Somethin’ in the Air. He was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1972, and gained experience working as a street musician in New York and New Orleans before he cut Somethin’ in the Air. Younger moved to Nashville in 2006, and he currently lives on a farm near the city. Talking to him, I get the sense he’s taken a circuitous route to contentment.
In New Orleans 25 years ago, Younger met poet and former MC5 manager John Sinclair, who broadcast a show on the city’s famed radio station WWOZ. Sinclair gave Younger the chance to play his songs on the air, which led to Younger signing a Nashville publishing deal and, eventually, recording with Crowell, who was impressed by Younger’s demos.
“He was, I think, intrigued by the production, because I was so out of the box for Nashville demos,” Younger says. Somethin’ got good reviews, and Younger set out to cut a follow-up in Memphis with Bluff City legend Dickinson producing.
“I was amazed at how much of his collection was work that influenced me,” Younger says of Dickinson, who died in 2009. Dickinson’s production and performance credits include work with The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Big Star. “I had no idea who he was until [I had] the prospect of working with him, and then I started seeing [records he’d produced for] Toots and the Maytals and The Replacements. That Pleased to Meet Me record was one I got when I was very young.”
With Helm (who died in 2012), Dickinson and Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood laying down a Memphis-meets-New Orleans groove, the sessions for Burning the Bigtop Down began auspiciously in early 2001. However, the harsh realities of the record business quickly ended the first stage of the project.
“I was with a record label in Los Angeles, and they were spread out over a bunch of projects,” Younger recalls. “Some financial stuff they were counting on fell through. The disaster of it was that [the project] just stopped right there, and it remained in limbo.”
The initial recordings were basic live-on-the-floor affairs. After Younger regained possession of the tapes, he and the Nashville musicians fleshed out the original recordings, with a couple of the songs rewritten. The result is a soul-blues-folk album that contains echoes of The Band and Stax Records. “Desdemona” riffs on the mythology of Mississippi blues. Meanwhile, “Laying Low” finds Younger looking back at his youth, before the demands of his career took hold. The fit between the styles of the Memphis and Nashville musicians never sounds forced, and Burning is a testament to the strength of a regional sound that, paradoxically, transcends geography.
As Younger tells me, the deaths of Helm and Dickinson hit him hard. He had stayed in touch with both men after the 2001 sessions, and their influence hangs over Burning. For all that, it’s not a record that expresses any kind of existential pain. Rather, it functions as an update of timeless music, with an air of casual mastery that comes out of difficult times.
Younger says he’s excited about touring behind the record, though he also acknowledges some of the uncertainty surrounding hitting the road in a post-COVID landscape. He sounds energized, and the new material he’s been working on will, he hopes, reflect the reality of a man who has settled down on the farm, into the kind of life that leads to happiness.
As he says about that pound of flesh he left behind in Memphis long ago: “This record — me reclaiming it, finishing it up and putting it out — allows me the luxury of healing up that wound.”