The phrase “songwriter’s songwriter” is usually just code for a songwriter who has remained obscure in spite of producing quality work. That definition falls well short of describing Memphis singer/songwriter Keith Sykes. A songwriter whose songs other highly regarded writer/musicians have been eager to record and with whom other songwriters have wanted to associate and collaborate: That would come much closer to describing Sykes. This is not to say that Sykes’ 40-plus years of work can’t stand on its own; it certainly can, and the list of admirers, associates, collaborators and those who have recorded his songs is lengthy and impressive. Just to name a few: Kris Kristofferson, Alex Chilton, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Rosanne Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Steve Goodman and John Prine. Folks, that is as weighty as you can get when it comes to songwriters.
Several of these associations and collaborations are longtime. Jimmy Buffet recorded Sykes’ “The Coast of Marseilles” and “The Last Line” on the monster hit record album “Son of a Son of a Sailor” released in 1978. Sykes and Buffett went on to co-write the title track for Buffett’s “Volcano” album, released the following year. “Keith Sykes writes songs that not only make you think, they make you sing along as well” Buffett has said.
The great songsmith John Prine has collaborated with Sykes several times, including on “Love, Love, Love,” “You Got Gold” and “Long Monday.” I was able to talk to Sykes on the phone recently somewhere between Tennessee and Texas on his way to Larry Joe Taylor’s Texas Music Festival. He told me that a new collaboration called “No Ordinary Blue” is slated to be on Prine’s next record. Prine has said he and Sykes have “written some really good songs together, and it’s all I can do to keep up with him.” This is a relationship that goes well beyond songwriting and the music business. They are longtime friends and spend time together offstage and outside the studio. Prine and Sykes have gone trout fishing on the White River here in Arkansas.
It’s not just established songwriting legends who have benefited from Sykes’ time and attention. He can be credited for discovering and signing Todd Snider to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Records in 1993. There is also a group of Memphis-based songwriters that he’s made great efforts to promote, including Pine Bluff native son Mark Edgar Stuart. Stuart got to recently repay the favor, introducing Sykes when he was honored with a Brass Note on Beale Street.
Local radio personality (on “Under the Influence” on KABF-FM, 88.3), poet and harmonica player R.J. Looney has booked Sykes as the grand finale to his month of curating sessions at South on Main at 10 p.m. Friday, April 29.
Looney chose Sykes, he said, because “Keith’s music has been a part of the soundtrack of my life for 35 years. He is one of my favorite songwriters and I will always identify his voice as Memphis when I hear it. [He’s] just a really great guy that has always stayed true to the craft and career of being a songwriter. You have to admire that.” This show will no doubt turn into a party. Given Sykes’ association with fun, tropic-themed music, I would not be one bit surprised if South on Main’s accomplished bartender, David Burnette, came up with a special cocktail to mark the occasion, perhaps even something with flames.
This performance will come exactly one week after the release of Sykes’ new EP, “Songs From A Little Beach Town.” There’s already been a great deal of buzz about the release. The satellite radio station Radio Margaritaville started playing songs from the EP in February, and Sykes told me he has been overwhelmed with how many folks have sent him pictures of their dashboards when his name came up on their display. He laughed as he said, “It makes me feel good, but I sure hope they kept at least one eye on the road.” The new EP will be available at the show.