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Few things still elude Greg Cartwright—Reigning Sound singer/songwriter/guitarist, Southern gentleman and scholar of all music righteous and obscure. He's part of the heart and soul of three of the best American rock & roll bands of the last three decades: the ramshackle Compulsive Gamblers, the legendarily primitive Oblivians and now Reigning Sound, who are the purest kick since the Flamin' Groovies' Teenage Head. (Extend that list by adding the album he wrote with girl-group icon Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, or the Parting Gifts with Ettes singer CoCo Hames, or his heartbreaking Tip Tops who took the spirit of the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" to a Memphis honky-tonk.)
You could chuck a beer bottle at pretty much any band cutting vinyl in this 21st-century garage revival and hit someone who loves the music Cartwright makes, and after a few spins through Reigning Sound songs such as "Straight Shooter" and "If You Can't Give Me Everything," that fresh bump on their head would be miraculously healed, too. When the Hives were at their hugest, they handpicked Reigning Sound to tour with them; now that Scion has become a bizarrely credible rock & roll label, it signed Reigning Sound to do an eight-song, not-quite-an-album EP. Alex's Bar had two nights open for its 12th anniversary and wisely picked Reigning Sound to headline them both.
Now relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, from his hometown of Memphis, Greg Cartwright has almost all he needs to be happy. Except—of course—one certain record, which he loved so much and so long that he ruined it, "Jimmy Lee's 'I Ain't Worried About Tomorrow'—I found it at a flea market when I was a kid, and I wore my copy out!" he says now. "There's one on eBay now that's stone mint—but if I get it, it'll be in poor condition when I'm done with it!"
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After nearly two decades recording, what matters most to him—when he writes or when he just listens—is the song itself, whether it's because of the way it was written or the way someone sang or just the sheer humanity of the thing. "Ain't Worried"—which is a great song—is just one of the songs that's rattling around in his head, destroying the part of his brain that's supposed to tell him to do a fresh load of laundry, he laughs.
When he goes out to flea markets or after-hours hotel rooms in search of 45s, he just wants that special kind of song that someone can love for a lifetime. And if you know anything about his discography (and if you don't, start with Time Bomb High School) you'll know that's just what he aims to put on his own albums. Reigning Sound are a gloriously versatile band, as natural a vehicle for Stax-style soul stompers as '60s fuzz freak-outs or slo-mo Rolling Stones-y ballads, but they're recognizable in an instant no matter what—because of that Cartwright howl, those Cartwright hooks, that big-beat Cartwright heart. So believe me—even if he doesn't find Jimmy Lee, he already has a song you've been looking for.
This article appeared in print as "Let It Reign: Reigning Sound seek to rule over the songs in your heart."