It started with a couple of emails that Soulsville Music Academy instructor Justin Merrick thought were spam. Man, was he wrong!
The emails actually conveyed the news that Merrick had been named one of nine finalists for a Grammy Award as Music Educator of the Year. Soulsville's Chief Creative Officer Kirk Whalum – a multiple Grammy Award winner – stepped in to bridge the information gap.
"Much later a letter had come for me in my mailbox at the office," said Merrick, a Maryland native. "Mr. Whalum brought it to my attention during a meeting and that's when it all definitely became real."
The gifted young teacher's work shone through an original nominee pool of more than 30,000 potential nominees, narrowed down to a final group of 200. The winner will be announced during the lead-in ceremonies at next year's Grammy Awards.
The news about Merrick comes during the Stax Museum's 10th Anniversary. Earlier this year, Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. both designated 2013 as the Year of Stax.
Merrick and a troupe from the Soulsville Academy performed at the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, Miss. last Sunday (Aug. 11). During a rehearsal break prior to the performance, Merrick shared more thoughts with The New Tri-State Defender.
"I'm just now realizing how incredible it is that I could receive a Grammy for this great opportunity that I have. As anyone that has seen our kids can testify, we have a terrific set of talented and hard working students here and it is such a gratifying experience working with them," he said.
"Music education is not a field where you expect to get any (public) accolades for your work. ... I was shook when I saw the comments that the students and parents forwarded to NARAS (National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences). I was brought to tears. Not because of the award, but to read that my work was appreciated."
Merrick said he is being gifted by the talent, energy and commitment brought by those around him.
"We work countless hours trying to make a difference. I spend most of my weekends going to church with the kids. A lot of times I can't even sleep when we have a performance scheduled because I'm anticipating seeing what we're going to be doing the next day. We really have something special here," he said.
"I never anticipated coming to Memphis at all when I was at college, nothing against us, it's just that it wasn't on my (career) radar when I was in college. And for all this to happen, I really don't know what to say. I'm really a student of the culture here and that's what we teach, how Memphis is genetically linked to the music industry."
And the opportunities are still here, he said.
"I'm in a consortium now with (renowned Stax composer) David Porter and he's introducing us to amazing people like Earth, Wind and Fire and others of serious experience levels. Plus, Mr. Whalum's presence? Wow!"
Merrick envisions creating a performance linking Stax and the importance of Memphis music to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
"It's all interconnected, and Stax was a shining example of the times for what it meant and what it still means."
Now that's he's truly locked in as a Memphis soul brother, the most important question is this: "has he learned how to cook pinto beans and cornbread?"
"Yes sir!" he laughed.