Gathered around the cash register, a trio of scruffy young people listened as Memphian John Lowe demonstrated a weird-looking musical instrument.
“That thing is wild,” said Matt Adams, multi-instrumentalist from Los Angeles-based The Blank Tapes. The band was swinging through Memphis to play a gig at Midtown’s P&H Cafe, and had been tipped off to Lowe’s shop, Xanadu, by a tour guide.
“We toured Sun Studio in the day before our gig,” said Adams. “I was talking with the guide about strange musical instruments and he said I had to come see a guy named John Lowe at a place called Xanadu.”
Lowe and his wife Beverly run Xanadu Music & Books, a small shop near Cooper Young that is nothing like Charles Foster Kane’s monument to himself that shares the name. Memphis’ Xanadu is a much cooler place, with all kinds of valuable treasure packed in its secret chambers and hidden nooks.
John loves music and Beverly loves books, so their shop sells both. Occupying a former Midtown residence, the small rooms are filled with thousands of used books, racks of guitar strings, rows of Orange amplifiers and stringed instruments hanging from every wall and ceiling.
Among these guitars and banjos and mandolins, certain instruments stand out. Seemingly assembled from an exploded antique store, these instruments are made of broom handles and bottle caps, cigar boxes and random chunks of wood. Undeniably weird to behold, they also radiate craftsmanship and playability. They look expensive and rare, and cry out to be plugged in, turned up loud and ripped into.
The weird devices are Lowebows. Lowe builds them, sells them to players and collectors world-wide, and performs his completely unique music with them, touring North America as the mighty one-man-band Johnny Lowebow.
“All apsects, the band the store, the instruments, our sound company- all is one thing,” says Lowe. “It’s all Johnny Lowebow.”
Cigar Box Guitars were once common, in the late 1800s and through the Great Depression, when funds were scarce but musical outlets necessary. Today, Lowebows don’t replace guitars as a cheaper alternative; they fill another niche altogether.
“It replaces the bass player,” Lowe jokes, whacking greasy, bluesy notes from a two-necked model. Using a slide, he pulls notes from two separate sets of strings and pickups, one strung with treble-spitting guitar strings and wiring, the other a bass guitar string and electronic guts.
Lowe began building his Lowebows as his interest in electric guitars began to dissolve, he says. “As a guitar player, the jazz-fusion thing just about did me in,” says Lowe. “It was interesting to play, I guess, but not for listening.”
The sound possible with Lowebows and loud amplifiers gave him a new way to make his brand of punky blues.
“When I play the drums, bass and guitar at the same time, it changes how I can go about the music.”
To date, the Lowes have sold the instruments to people in more than 60 countries, doing business by word of mouth and via social media. He builds instruments in a few loosely defined models, like the Purgatory Hill Harp, and can also create instruments to players’ specific needs. He uses found materials, like the cigar boxes that become the bodies of many of his instruments, and wood from a local provider.
Very much the mad scientist inventor type, Lowe credits his wife with making Xanadu the established, unique business that it is.
“Bev created Xanadu, really,” he says. “Bev is the book shop, the accountant, the spirit. She keeps us from being homeless.”
Xanadu Music & Books can be found at 2200 Central Ave., just east of Cooper. A visit to the shop is a visit to the unknown, complete with random encounters with foreign travelers and spontaneous musical demonstrations.
For a beginner’s dose of all things Lowebow, check out Johnny’s newest LP, out now on Lowebow Records and available through Goner Records.