Music on the Move

Local musicians serenade trolley riders

By Andy Meek

When the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission first tried out its idea recently to put local musicians aboard the Downtown trolley to entertain passengers, singer Nancy Apple led a kind of trial run.

New Orleans transplants Candace and Robert Mache perform live music on the Main Street Trolley Line. The Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission provided the musicians for Memphis Trolley Unplugged.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Not only did she lead passengers in sing-a-longs – including call-and-response renditions of at least one of her own Elvis-themed tunes – Apple spent some of her time in storyteller mode. She talked about Elvis Presley’s fondness for fried peanut and butter sandwiches then pointed out the availability of that item at the Arcade Restaurant.

“And all these people are like, really? And they’re taking pictures of the Arcade,” said Johnnie Walker, executive director of the Music Commission. “Then she breaks into this song. And my God, I should have had a camcorder. Nancy is such an ambassador and such a humanitarian and has got so much personality.

“She did these evening runs where there was a lot of tourists who’d hop on the trolley. And she had them singing, she had them dancing, and then I knew. Then I knew. I said, OK, this is going to work.”

The “Memphis Trolley: Unplugged” initiative started a few weeks ago, and it involves putting Memphis musicians amid riders on the Main Street and Riverfront Loop trolley lines to create a fresh experience for passengers. They’re mostly lunchtime performances, with musicians additionally riding Friday and Saturday evenings, too. And the musical talent spans multiple genres, from singer-songwriter to reggae and lots in between.

Musicians travel the trolley weekdays from noon to 1:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

“The trolley welcomes more than 1 million riders each year, and a large portion of those riders are from out of town,” said Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission. “So this is a perfect opportunity to showcase our city’s creative vibe to visitors.”

The trolley is representative of something Walker said the Music Commission is trying to do often – look for innovative, even out-of-the-box ways to get more exposure and appreciation for the city’s homegrown musical talent.

That’s in addition to the myriad networking and business kinds of events the commission supports. The commission, for example, held a Memphis Music Monday networking event July 16 at the Hard Rock Café on Beale Street. It’s part of a biweekly series of free events that include music community networking and business exchange, guest speakers and music business presentations.

“Getting on the trolley at one point, I’m like, this would be a good place to get musicians on board here playing,” Walker said. “We thought about it. We took time and crafted a plan and called musicians to see if there was actual interest. And there was.

“And we took it to (the Memphis Area Transit Authority), and it was like, you go with your armor on, and they can only do two things – say yes, or no. And they were extremely receptive. Matter of fact, they said it’s something they’d thought of, they just didn’t know who to call – what musicians to call.”

A few days ago, a reggae band played songs like “I can’t stand the rain” – old Memphis classics with a reggae flavor.

“I’m telling you – people that get on that trolley, they may be grumpy, they may be mad at their boss, mad at their girlfriend, whatever they feel when they get on that trolley, they get off laughing,” Walker said. “They get off smiling.”