The Greatest was recorded in Memphis, Tennessee’s Ardent Studios, with members of the Hi Records’ rhythm band, including the brothers Teenie (guitar) and LeRoy (bassist) Hodges, and other Memphis legends like drummer Steve Potts, many of whom are now in their mid ’60s. Most cut their teeth in the late ’60s/early ’70s, recording with legends, like Ann Peebles, Al Green and Booker T & the MGs. Characterized by lean guitars and a relaxed, lazy rhythm that shuffles in front of and behind the beat, only to catch up when you least expect it, the Memphis sound lives on almost exclusively with Hi and Ardent, one of the few studios left where the session musicians still specialize in what they made famous. Having worked together through the beginning and end of the Civil Rights movement and watched their own musical landscape shift from rockabilly to soul, from Carl Perkins to Isaac Hayes, it is an understatement to say that these musicians know each other—and how they make music with each other—very well. All of the songs on The Greatest were recorded on the first take, most were only ever played three times through.
“We would get into the studio and I would play a song. They’d listen to it and then Teenie would say, ‘Now Chan was that 5-5-1-5 or 5-1-1-5?’” Marshall recalls. “I would just sit there silent and kinda start tearing up and sort of try and hide under the piano. And they would look at each other like, ‘Oh yeah—right.’ And then go into the corner and work it out.” Stuart Sikes, who produced The Greatest (and worked on What Would The Community Think), explains that, “Those numbers represent chords—and she had never heard of the chart system. It’s kind of a Nashville thing: if you have numbers, it’s easier to transpose.”
Marshall says that the Memphis collaboration came about when Matador (her label) sat down to try and coax her next record into production. “They just said ‘Chan, what’s your dream album?’ And then the next thing I knew, [Matador President] Chris [Lombardi] was typing into his laptop and setting things up.” The Greatest is the very first time Cat Power sounds like something from the South; it is the first time Chan Marshall sounds like her roots. While the pain and sorrow of her previous albums were raw and hurt, this new album is the reflection of an artist who has hunkered down into those emotions: they are deep, mellowed, irreversible—the lyrical amber of someone who has gotten older but is still at war with herself. Marshall says, “I wanted to make something for my mom and my grandmother.” Then adds, “But it could have been better—it could have been so much better.”
“Chan would say, ‘Oh my songs are so simple!’” says Sikes. “But no one there was like, ‘Well, this is too easy!’ Everybody really got into it. They were there for three days and would come back to see what was going on—everyone who recorded on it—even the horn guys would sneak back in. And after we did it, they all individually told me how much they liked it.” Sikes also tells me that he and Marshall reworked another song just yesterday.