on Harmony Hill
The Mississippi Music Foundation nurtures prospective local artists through instruction, encouragement and mentorship.
story by robert lee long photos
By Casey hilder
Purple walls and carpeted ceilings greet visitors as they step inside the studios of the Mississippi Music Foundation located in a renovated community center building off Mississippi Highway 301.
As a visitor makes his way through a maze of hallways, a large room filled with vintage pianos comes into view.
A framed black-and-white photograph of country diva Patsy Cline sits atop a 1962 upright Baldwin model, its leopard-print piano stool worthy of hillbilly rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis. Instead, a waif-like pianist plinks the ivories.
Autumn Redd is only one of scores of prospective musical prodigies that maestro Peter Whitham has coached and mentored on the hopeful road to stardom.
“A friend of my mother’s told me about this place,” says Redd, a diminutive woman with a chic, short jet-black coif. “We came here and looked around and liked what we saw.” Whitham’s Mississippi Music Foundation, established in 2008, provides a money-match grants program to help musicians from all walks of life fulfill their musical dreams.
Whitham, a spectacled, white-maned elfin-like guru who speaks in a lilting British accent, can usually be found in his inner sanctum, a 1960s-style analog studio.
“The acoustics in here are really clean,” Whitham says with a sparkle in his eye like that of an excited child. “There’s just a little reverb which kind of gives everything a little warmth.” A large orchestra area, encased in Indonesian hardwood, lends a cathedral-style sound. If Nashville is the mother church of country music, then Harmony Hill is a blues chapel of sorts tucked away in the rolling North Mississippi hills. “I love what I do,” Whitham says, recounting the day nine years ago when he spied the handsome brick home and the dilapidated community center, a barn really, which was like the proverbial diamond in the rough. “I said, ‘Wow, I can do something with this,’” Whitham says. He gestures toward the inner sanctum, a smaller recording studio with analog equipment. Above the piano, a cadre of orange lava lamps casts an ethereal glow. Whitham’s Harmony Hill stomping grounds offer a window into the recording studios of yesteryear. “Analog is forever,” Whitham says. “Digital will change. It is changing.” On the wall are old-fashioned LP records of Elvis, the Doors and country songsmith David Allan Coe. “Vinyls are coming back,” Whitham says with the sincerity of a rock and roll sage.
Whitham, of English descent, moved to Mississippi to be at the musical epicenter of American melody: rock and roll, blues, soul and country.
“I came here to perform in 1966 and ended up staying,” Whitham says of his pilgrimage to the U.S. Born in 1956 on the tiny island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea, Whitham’s musical roots are eclectic. “My grandmother was a concert pianist for Pinewood Studios in the silent movie days,” Whitham says. “She used to stick me under the piano. I absorbed everything like a sponge.” Whitham says his childhood was one of discovery. “As I got older and could sit at the piano I learned the fingering of the keys,” Whitham says. “With little music lessons behind me I began playing the piano at age 10, that was in 1966 when we moved to America.” Whitham’s family made Long Island their home and from there he became a concert pianist.
For more than 20 years, Whitham traveled North America and the world on tour for the finest piano manufacturers, both playing and composing. He also taught himself to play many other instruments, but writing and composing as a pianist became his life. In 1985, Peter made his first visit to Memphis while on tour. In 1989, he decided to move to the Memphis area, making it his new home. “I was looking for a new place to live, and Mississippi was the new frontier,” Whitham says. “There are so many musicians who are from Mississippi. As far as the music is concerned, the Music Foundation is attempting to document those musicians before they are gone. We’re not exactly the richest state, but there is a lot of hidden talent here.”
Whitham hosted a Fox television music show in which he interviewed some of the Mid-Southerners who have made it big on the music scene like soul sensation Al Green and rapper Master P. “It’s about the authenticity of music,” Whitham says. “With country and blues it’s about the stories.” His Mississippi Music Foundation also coordinates weekly workshops on songwriting, recording, merchandising and other industry-related topics.
The Music Foundation offers a portion of its website for networking to provide the opportunity to collaborate between artists and entertainment buyers. The “Come Together” section on its website offer tips for the working musicians including touring, CD replication, merchandising, audio and lighting. This feature, as well as discounts for merchandise and services through MSMF partners, will be free to MSMF friends. Resources are available 24/7 to support musicians from all walks of life.
The Music Foundation has provided music for the Community Foundation’s annual Crystal Ball and other charitable gifts in addition to awarding grants to more than 60 musical acts so far since its establishment in 2008. Whitham has some advice for aspiring musicians. It’s the same advice he followed 1988 when he began recording his own music, not the music of other “dead musicians.” “Always stay an individual, no matter what gets asked of you,” Whitham says. “Just stay on your path.”