At the right place on the right night, you can walk into a nightclub in Nashville, start recruiting at one end of the bar, and by the time you’ve reached the other end you’ll have a band that sounds like they’ve been backing you for years. I know because I’ve done it.
Every state in the South has contributed to the grand narrative of American music, but few can match Tennessee’s deep roots in the blues and jazz, gospel, soul and r&b, rockabilly, rock & roll, and country—or its tremendous concentration of historic record labels and music industry visionaries.
I eat no more than four oranges a year. They're either too tart or too bland. Definitely too watery. But in the winter of 1981-1982, in the months of December and January, I ate nearly a dozen oranges a day.
The way I listened to music began to twist on me, becoming less theatrical, more interior... A time came when I needed to be spoken to more than I needed to speak. And that was when I found Iris DeMent.
In a certain sense, we live today in a golden era of music: never before has more of it been known and accessible to so many. And yet, it is one of the ironies of our time that nothing has ever seemed less authentic.
2013 is the official “Year of Music” in Louisiana. To kick off this celebration, Louisiana Tourism and the Oxford American have joined together to bring you the Louisiana Soundtrack Experience: five events across the state that will showcase Louisiana's great musical heritage.
1. “Just Gone,” recorded by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, in Richmond, Indiana, on April 5, 1923 (Gennett Records). This is the first recording on which Armstrong appeared. Having worked in Joe “King” Oliver’s shadow since 1919, when he replaced the older musician in Kid Ory’s New Orleans-based band, Armstrong joined Oliver’s Chicago band in 1922, playing second cornet behind Oliver for much of 1923 and appearing with Oliver on recordings for four different record labels.
Music has always been the glue, the shared heritage, the defining gesture and common language of this exotic Bible-thumping/Afro-Caribbean/Euro-redneck/Cajun-Creole mix known as Louisiana, the place where all music comes from.
Amédé Ardoin was born in the spring of 1898, the grandson of slaves. His family worked as sharecroppers at the Rougeau farm in L’Anse des Rougeau, near Basile, Louisiana. Ardoin tried his best to avoid field labor whenever possible, preferring to tote his Monarch accordion to house parties, where he’d team up with like-minded fiddlers and play early iterations of the frenzied dance songs that would eventually constitute the Cajun canon.
James Jackson Toth is a hard man to keep up with. In fact, it might be damn near impossible. As one of the fledgling acolytes of the New Weird America movement that gave birth to the likes of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, the chameleon-like songwriter has made a career out of confounding both critics and fans alike with his genre-bending forays into avant-folk, country, and—on occasion—good old fashioned rock & roll.
One of the least forgettable artists to appear on an Oxford American CD of late was Karen Dalton of Enid, Oklahoma, who died in 1993, but not after etching her way into the consciousness of whoever heard her. Bob Dylan was one of the touched, and, in his 2004 autobiography, he wrote these now famous lines about his memories of Café Wha?, the Greenwich Village stomping ground for avant-garde and folkie talent: “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton.... Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed.... I sang with her a couple of times.”
Cool and cocksure, Bass Drum of Death listened to the old cryptic story and started connecting the dots (or wires, as it were). Just picking up that receiver made them cooler than most rock bands out there. I first saw Bass Drum of Death about three or four years ago at a dark, dank, and nasty lounge attached to what may very well have been a hooker-and-crackhead hotel in Jackson, Mississippi.
The first in a series of online-only Mississippi Music CDs, because if you're like us, one CD can't even begin to encompass the fantastic, soul-stirring riches of the Magnolia State. Here are thirty additional tracks by super-talented musicians, most of whom are underrated. Listen and rejoice!
Most photographs I've seen of Jimmy Donley look like he's being stretched from the inside. He seems to have more teeth in his mouth than one should ever, crammed into a wide and rugged jaw, framed under eyes that somehow want to either pop out of their sockets or become swallowed in his head. He looks uncomfortable, is what I'm saying, to be captured in his body on film, or even more so, to be anywhere at all, though there is also something in that capture that suggests a tide rolled unrelenting, as if of the way he lived his life there could have never been a choice.
If you could've taken five hundred black Mississippians in 1937, showed them two dance halls, and told them they could either go see Robert Johnson perform in one or Walter Barnes perform in the other, Johnson would've ended up alone. Shit, Johnson would hightail it over to check Walter Barnes, too. Barnes was hot.
I first met David Gates—former editor at Newsweek, Pulitzer Prize finalist for fiction, contributor to OA’s music issue—in the mid-aughts, when I was a graduate student studying writing at The New School MFA program in New York City. We shared an enthusiasm for country and old-time music, though it became clear quickly enough that Gates was a layman scholar of these traditions, whereas I was just fumbling around. He turned me onto the New Lost City Ramblers, Joseph Spence, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, George Jones and Gene Pitney. I admired and envied the seemingly superhuman scope of his musical knowledge, and also the fact that he didn’t just listen: He played.
From Marc Smirnoff's editorial in The OA's Mississippi Music Issue, 2011: "Another reason The Oxford American approaches the state of Mississippi with trepidation is that we were birthed there and the pressure of meeting the standards of the can't-be-fooled hometown crowd is fearsome."
From The OA's Mississippi Music Issue: "Food and family, it is said, were the only sanctioned topics of conversation in the Polite South of myth and memory; anything else—politics, race, religion, most aspects of sex—was a sure cure for sanity, if not a shortcut to utter social ruin."
From The OA's Mississippi Music Issue, 2011: "The Billboard charts are filthy with people who've helped themselves to tiny pieces of the Syl Johnson songbook. Public Enemy. Ice Cube. De La Soul. Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch. Both The Beastie and The Geto Boys. Michael Jackson. And every conceivable branch of The Wu-Tang Clan."
From The OA's Mississippi Music Issue, 2011: "The Hilltops, still in their early twenties, are riding the crest of Oxford’s Golden Age. The town has become a creative Mecca of sorts—“The Vatican City of Southern Letters,” according to Pat Conroy. The literary Big Dogs are in plain sight: Hannah, Brown, Grisham, Morris. The music scene is thriving. Fat Possum Records is recording hill-country bluesmen R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough; bands like Mud Boy & The Neutrons and The Grifters come through Oxford to perform. The Memphis photographer William Eggleston can sometimes be seen lurking around The Square, which is still the locus of business in Oxford."
From The OA's Mississippi Music Issue, 2011: "This brings me to some remarks that must be made about the exterior of Tyler Keith's head: it is the hardest, most indestructible one ever. Someone at NASA, or NASCAR, needs to analyze it."
From The OA's 11th Annual Music Issue: "Here's a band from Mississippi, basically in my own backyard, whose jangly guitars sonically related to everything I loved about early R.E.M. and, at times, The Connells. How did a band this good—who could hold their own against early Stipe and Mills—fly so far under my radar?"
The Swinging Rays become The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, advertised as a band "in whose veins flow the blood of many races." The Sweethearts have one bus in which they sleep, and another in which they learn. Eighteen bunks for eighteen virgins, most of whom have never left Mississippi.
My first contact with the Mississippi Grammys came during a trip to Tunica. An area casino had recently hosted the event—an annual spring occurrence since the spring I moved to Mississippi (2007). Didn't I know? Hadn't I heard? I hadn't.
When it comes to scouring the history of Southern music, expect to find neglected, obscure, or even unknown greatness around every nook and cranny. Editor Marc Smirnoff provides a guide to the tunes on the 2008 CDs.
CDS WE LOVE...in which we cozy up to and share music that has struck our eardrums: Chris Isaak, Stax, Jim Mize, Bela Fleck Angela Easterling, The Monks, Carlene Carter, Scott H. Biram, Jimmy Pitts, Tinariwen, and Rodriguez.