At just 10 years old, budding audiophile Cindy Cogbill made her older sister wait for hours as she pored over the albums at Cat’s Music, trying to choose just one to take home. Now as the Programming & Marketing Director for the Levitt Shell, Cindy says that she essentially gets to turn the historic venue into the city’s record store for 100+ nights a year. Meet this week’s tuned-in FACE of Memphis, Cindy Cogbill!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
It was amazing. I was born in Memphis. I grew up in Lakeland and Arlington area. Family of five – I was the surprise child. My older sister was 10 years older, my brother was five years older. It was a super loving environment. Anything was possible. We grew up on 30 acres, played really hard, grew lots of things. Mom was an artist, Dad’s a general contractor with a great eye for design. Music and art were always part of our lives.
Were you a musician growing up?
I was a little bit of everything growing up. I played piano my whole life, a little bit of banjo, some terrible guitar. Did ballet and dance and cheerleading and soccer and theater and everything else that kids do.
How did you get involved in the Memphis music community?
Well, it’s really cool. In 2005, I made a really wonderful connection with a gentleman named Louis Meyers, who was one of the three or four founders of South by Southwest. He was moving to Memphis to bring the Folk Alliance International Conference here from DC. We met and hit it off and became a company of two. We put on an international event and ran a membership organization that had deep roots across the world. I got in it, and I couldn’t stop swimming.
How did your work with Folk Alliance prepare you for your role here?
When the Shell was getting started, Louis and I were asked to be part of the Advisory Council. We became friends with Barry Lichterman and Liz Levitt Hirsch, and I was also offering bands. We were having great curation and artistic direction conversations, and so they offered me a position. I turned it down because I loved working internationally and nationally, and I was out of bandwidth as a person. But then several years later they offered me a position again. Instead of doing 9,000 things as I was doing in my former role, I would only be doing artistic direction, which is just a dream job.
What goes into the decision-making process of a Levitt Shell season?
That changes every year. That’s the great part, because you don’t want one year to look like the next year, but we want it to always look like Memphis, which means it’s not always going to be Americana, it’s not always going to be R&B, it’s not always going to be global music. We look at so many analytics and demographics to see how our city is transitioning. We also look at the communities that don’t have access to the Shell or access to other parts of Memphis outside of their own community, and we try to make sure there are offerings for everybody.
How does the mission of the Shell advance Memphis’s musical and civic traditions?
We’re constantly making sure that we’re being good partners, and one of the ways that we’re facilitating Memphis is we’re listening. We’re not telling Memphis who they need to be. Part of being in a community is engaging people in an authentic and altruistic way and hearing what their needs are so that we organically grow together.
How do touring artists respond to playing at the Levitt Shell?
They all say that our space is magical. The North Mississippi Allstars always call this their home stage. There’s really something special about being 30 inches above the ground. You’re with the crowd, there are no barriers. You step out, and you’re automatically engaged with them. In 1954, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll played his first paid concert here. The first integrated blues festival was here. That’s a lot of responsibility. It’s not just a paycheck. You’re not going to under-deliver on a performance where so much history has been made.
Is there a show coming up that you’re personally really excited about?
We just announced that Ben Folds is playing here on October 4. I’m a huge Ben Folds fan, so I’m super, super stoked. He does a lot of work for arts advocacy and is truly leading the way to make sure that spaces like this are continued.
But for the free series, we have a group coming in named Orquesta Akokán. They’re a Havana band — they’re amazing. I tried to have them last year, and it got rained out. I literally cried on stage.
What artists are still on your dream booking list?
There are so many. I’d love to see Beck play this space acoustic, taking it way back. I would love to see Mavis Staples again. She comes here often, but it’s never not exciting to see her take our space.
What is your ideal show picnic?
One where I get to sit down and nothing happens! Back in the day before I worked for the Shell, [my husband] Kyle and I would come here. I’m a foodie, I love to cook, so we would spend so much effort on our food. But I would have to say watermelon salad – watermelon, feta, mint, lime, a little sea salt. Have a ton of great cheese and cool watermelon, and we share it with everybody because no one’s turning down watermelon.
What is your go-to way to relax?
I have a new child, so that has changed. It used to be I worked out a lot. I have an exceptionally creative husband; he’s a muralist and he’s also the creative director for Choose901. So I find my time to relax with the two of them. I love spending my time brainstorming with Kyle what our next project is, whether it’s to assist in a mural he’s doing or we’re going to go work on a music festival or a music conference or let our daughter Naomi show us up by the fact that she learned a new word or knows where her stomach is. It’s the creativity in our household — that’s where I relax.
How did you meet Kyle?
We knew each other as children. We both grew up in Memphis and then decades later we became friends in Zambia. We were both volunteering in medical clinics and just became really good friends. We were just talking and living life and being companions. Later on, he was living in Oklahoma City and I was in Memphis. We had just both volunteered for the summer. We stayed friends. We were pen pals. Then Kyle moved back to Memphis unannounced, and I didn’t really have a choice after that.
What is your best advice?
Learn to hear people. We always can say that we’re listening, but if you don’t listen authentically, then you don’t get to know people.
What are three everyday things you can’t live without?
Coffee, coffee and, most likely, coffee
Thanks for chatting, Cindy, and thank you, Elizabeth Looney, for the beautiful photos.
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