More than a couple of years ago, during one of my college spring breaks, my friend Sarah and I drove from Ohio to spend the week in her home in Texas. The route we took went straight through some cities I'd never been to before: Little Rock, Nashville, and Memphis. The first time we passed through Memphis, dark and shining, I saw a sign that stuck in my mind for no immediately obvious reason: Wolf River. It was only after Memphis was behind us that I remembered why I knew the Wolf River. It was the river in which, ten years ago today, musician Jeff Buckley drowned.
Jeff Buckley was one of those artists that inspire a highly sentimental following. Not only was he a craftsman of beautiful, lyrical songs, sung in his distinctive soprano, he died unexpectedly, tragically young. I'm sure if I did the search, I'd find dozens of tribute websites. But even if he has a fervent following, he is still not necessarily well-known in the mainstream.
He only completed one formal album: Grace, a veritable masterpiece of modern folk-rock. His live and unfinished work, however, pulled in blues, soul, and R&B influences. He synthesized what was good and unique about almost all the traditionally American forms of music, and spun it for contemporary audiences. His covers ranged from songs by Screamin' Jay Hawkins to songs by Bad Brains to the heartbreakingly well-done version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." He was praised by artists as varied as PJ Harvey, Chris Cornell, and Bob Dylan.
Chances are, had he lived, Jeff would have made much more for himself than a respectable indie name. As it is, he's, sadly, a rather small entry in music history, often almost overshadowed by his untimely death - a bizarre accident during an impromptu, late-night swim in Wolf River on May 29, 1997.
Memphis holds a lot of American musical history, from the beginnings of Elvis to the continuing blues tradition. There really isn't a city better entrusted with the legacy of Jeff Buckley. As I passed through it that night, looking back at its soft lights from the bridge over the rolling Mississippi, I tied the two forever in my mind. Now, instead of a forgotten footnote, he's part of something that begun before him, and that goes on strong after him.