A feature from our 18th Southern Music Issue: Visions of the Blues.
The place I was raised in and where occurred the events that most shaped and damaged me as a human being was called Silver Hills. It’s a “knob,” as they deem the low hills in that part of the country. This one had used to be Cane or Caney Knob, so named because when the whites arrived it was covered in tall river cane. The cane is gone but the knob remains, and the people rechristened it Silver Hills, claiming as always that this had been the Indian name.
In “A Town Under Trial,” from our Spring 2017 issue, reporter Nick Tabor relates how an unsolved 1994 double murder continues to haunt a small town in southwest Kentucky. To capture Oak Grove and its trailer parks and “commercial strips of liquor stores, topless bars, and cash-advance shops” familiar to military towns across the country, we enlisted Nashville-based photographer Tamara Reynolds, who was already familiar with the area. Her images convey the tenuous, transitory nature of habitation and commerce in Oak Grove and the unavoidable influence of the military-industrial complex on life there.
In the early 1990s, New Life Fitness & Massage kept its lights on twenty hours a day, closing at five every morning and reopening at nine. Everyone in Oak Grove knew it was a brothel. Fort Campbell, one of the nation’s largest Army posts, sits on top of the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and New Life stood right outside its northern gates next to Interstate 24. Many of its clients were Screaming Eagles: paratroopers from the famous 101st Airborne Division. Most of the others were truckers off the highway and locals of all stripes; some say judges and other dignitaries would come up from Nashville, an hour down the highway, to be ushered in and out covertly.
In my youth, I’d often join my grandmother for dinner at the iconic white-tablecloth steak house she owned in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans. She dominated the dining room from table 83, a four-top with the best sight lines of the entire restaurant. On the wall behind her permanent seat, over her left shoulder, hung a grand painting: a Mardi Gras tableau of a half dozen white-robed men carrying torches, leading a parade down a spectator-thronged French Quarter street.
Think of these women, coming out of the South and up to Milwaukee, arriving finally in tiny, all-white Grafton by either streetcar or automobile and feeling their way in a studio for the first time. As they fought the forces of shell-shocked alienation, disorientation, and possibly stage fright, the musical conversations between these two gifted artists created other worlds for them to fleetingly inhabit. Their duet yielded a recorded history of blueswomen’s subversive interstitial lives forged outside of both the jail cell and the sphere of domestic abuse, conditions which hovered close to each of them.
A feature from Issue 61, “Best of the South” 2008.
Thick strokes of early-evening crimson smeared across the rolling mountains of Rabun County as I drove up Highway 23 from Atlanta toward Clayton. The whole world looked like it was burning up right behind the horizon line. It was the nine-degree, molar-rattling middle of January in North Georgia, and I was on my way to visit the Chattooga River, fifty-seven miles of fierce backcountry water and etched stone where the film of my father’s first novel, Deliverance, was shot in the summer of 1971.
I was halfway through college in South Florida when somebody burned me a copy of Luck of the Draw, Bonnie Raitt's album released in 1991, by then a decade old. Trying not to disturb my roommates, I lay in bed listening through headphones, taken with how appealing this artist made adulthood sound like she was sure on her feet, felt comfortable in her skin, and actually found it freeing, even fun, to act her age.
Daddy’s truck was one of those places—like a grandmother’s house, a real and actual soul food restaurant, or a barbershop owned by an older black man who guards the radio by silent threat of the revolver in his drawer next to the good clippers—where one could reliably expect to hear either (and only) 1070 WDIA or 1340 WLOK. It was the other side of sound, the other side of Southern blackness, a steady if muffled undercurrent that persisted and quietly buoyed new generations.
I live five miles from where the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy unfolded, along the New River Gorge in Fayette County. Hawk’s Nest is an extreme in a class of extremes—the disaster where truly nothing seemed to survive, even in memory—and I have made a home in its catacombs. The historical record is disgracefully neglectful of the event, and only a handful of the workers’ names were ever made known. What’s more, any understanding of Hawk’s Nest involves the discomfort of the acute race divide in West Virginia, seldom acknowledged or discussed. Indeed, race is still downplayed in official accounts. Disaster binds our people, maybe. But what if you’re one of those deemed unworthy of memory?