An essay supplement to our North Carolina Music Issue.
It’s easy to become bored with common things—a four-lane highway, or a daily schedule at the nursing home, or a type of bird or music. But maybe these days we make too much of what awes us or infuriates us, and too little of the regular life in the middle. What’s common only became common, after all, because it adapted and learned to fit in. A cliché was once original. Country music was once meaningful. Walking was once easy. A common robin once saved Jesus.
The Oxford American magazine’s celebration of its twentieth annual Southern Music issue, this year featuring North Carolina, will be held Monday, November 26 – Saturday, December 1, 2018. This weeklong celebration, co-presented by Hillsborough, North Carolina-based Yep Roc Records, and designed in partnership with North Carolina-native singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, will be comprised of music events featuring a Statewide Singing Circle and literary readings highlighting stories from the issue.
A dialogue between Sarah Viren and Clinton Crockett Peters
I’ve always been drawn to the misfits because they’re not beautiful, because they’re stinky, because people kind of hate them and dislike them. Essays seem perfect for this subject matter because they are so amorphous, and there’s a long essay tradition of cataloging the weird, going back to Montaigne and cannibals and Sei Shōnagon and “Hateful Things.”
In a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan, Bob Dylan held forth on his views regarding Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a song that I have loathed with an almost inchoate malice since first encountering it as a young child. Dylan didn’t seem like a fan either, and in particular addressed the long-standing conjecture that he himself was the so-called “jester” referred to in McLean’s bloviating marathon.
An excerpt from Silas House’s new novel Southernmost.
The rain had been falling with a pounding meanness, without ceasing for two days, and then the water rose all at once in the middle of the night, a brutal rush so fast Asher thought at first a dam might have broken somewhere upstream.
Mary Gauthier and the art of writing war.
She’s a queer Opry star and recovering heroin addict turned postwar Virgil. A surrogate of sorts for the new war narrative. “I have done this process on myself for twenty-odd years and ten records, so I know where we’re trying to get.” Mary’s cowriting with veterans isn’t about slogan or ritual.
Denis Johnson and revision.
A couple of years later, I told someone about this, that the hitchhiker in “Emergency” is a real guy with the same name, that I’d watched this remarkable video of Johnson reading the story, and she second-guessed the whole thing. What if, she wondered, the interruption, the anecdote, the letter that Johnson reads is just another version of the story? It all fits together that way, that years later the narrator would be a novelist, that the character he’d almost forgotten was real would walk up and say hello. It feels a little like a final revision.
A Kentucky Music Issue web exclusive: J. D. Wilkes’s Jackson Purchase.
The richness of the Jackson Purchase has served so many artists and thinkers over the years, the least of which includes your author. From the kudzu-choked ghost tracks of the L&N railroad to the charcoal-sketch vistas of our silver winters, the Purchase continuously impresses upon us its mysticism, its regional transcendence. I set every song, story, and film I create somewhere within its fables. Here are a few of its surviving, gothic destinations.
A Kentucky Music Issue web-exclusive: a conversation with director Vic Rawlings.
“Lee Sexton is a living master with four tracks on Mountain Music of Kentucky, a beautiful Smithsonian Folkways record from 1960. It remains a favorite record of mine—has been since I first heard it in the mid-nineties. I went to a few places mentioned in the liner notes when I made my first trip to Eastern Kentucky in 2004. My first stop was Roscoe Holcomb’s grave; it turns out he and Lee are cousins. After that, hoping to find Lee, I asked where Linefork was, and I was directed to drive along a two-lane road. I expected to find a small town or a store somewhere along there and planned to ask again about Lee. There was no town center, not even a gas station, and I spent most of the day searching.”
A Kentucky Music Issue web-exclusive liner note.
For some twenty-five years I’ve maintained an obsession with four specific seconds in all the history of rock & roll. Four seconds of a single guitar ripping a hot lick, the opening salvo to a rock & roll song from 1969, a song I don’t particularly love (it’s not my typical go-to music), played by a band I almost never listen to (no disrespect intended). But these scant seconds thrill my ear, lift my spirit, and send me back to my own guitar with renewed enthusiasm, and they capture the singular virtuosity of Steve Ferguson—a great musician from Louisville you’ve likely never heard, which I consider truly unfortunate, because boy is he ever worth the hearing.
A Kentucky Music Issue web-exclusive liner note.
Jim Ford’s lone album is a twenty-eight minute, mystical celebration of the kid that got away—a hazy, bourbon-and-cocaine-fueled-funk-&-soul-honky-tonk cousin to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.
A Kentucky Music Issue web-exclusive liner note.
Raised in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, Whitley grew up admiring country greats Lefty Frizzell and George Jones, whose vocal styles he imitated as a young musician. Whitley’s uncanny talent for mimicry is something of a legend around Nashville—he could, upon request, conjure with eerie precision the voices of Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, and numerous others. He was, apparently, a man inhabited by an indwelling of spirits.
Bill Bentley’s introuction to Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen, a crowd-sourced collection of photos and stories.
Thousands of submissions were uploaded over the next year. From professional-quality shots taken on film stock to digital mobile phone snaps, the entire spectrum of rock photography filled Smithsonian servers. . . . The results, spanning seven decades, aim for neither encyclopedic authority nor comprehensive finality, but rather an index of supreme influence. Artistic importance isn’t the same as popularity, as this guided tour of rock & roll proves at every turn of the page.
A flood is no cooperative beast. It doesn’t distribute itself uniformly. Its edges stretch and shrink, and Houston lay underneath a giant, erratic web of floods, not a single sea but multitudes of individual ones, sprouting like fungus in the city’s every depression.
Marketing strategies (which, after all, is all that categories are) may rise and fall, but to the democratic listener they are beside the point. The music calls attention to itself, and then takes you somewhere else. It isn’t really any different than going to Memphis was for me in the first place. One thing inevitably leads to another, and before you know it, you are caught up in the ecstatic dance, the ecstatic trance of the music.
A new song and a short essay by Nashville guitarist William Tyler.
Confronted with the hideous, we must commit to rebuilding, resetting, listening, doing good, fighting injustice, and trying to keep an eye on maintaining beauty. It’s on all of us. My music is instrumental but it’s political. It’s protest music in its own way.
Foreword to a collection of personal narratives by the junior class at New Orleans’s George Washington Carver High School.
I’ve read the essays in this book at least ten times each, not because I have to, but because I don’t think there is another book like it in the world. The really terrifying thing is that I need this book even more now than I needed it as an eleventh grader. If every American book published in 2018 were written to the eleventh grade at Carver High School in New Orleans, the world would be less violent. If every American book published in 2018 were written by eleventh graders at Carver, the world would be more loving. Though these young folks are rarely written to in American literature, they know who they are. And they know who the folks are who refuse to see all of their complexity. “We are rare and powerful,” the younger writers tell us in the introduction.
Listen to Rev. Sekou’s powerful album Times Like These, paired with an essay by the activist artist.
Mama taught me to read when I was four years old. It was my job to read the mail for Miss Roberta, who could not read but carried a wisdom that I am yet to adequately conceive of. She dipped snuff, walked with a cane, and was indeed royalty, and she loved me. Zent, Arkansas, was a kingdom of dignity. Folks like Miss Roberta tore off the best pieces of themselves and sowed it into a quilt that shields me to this day. If it was not for that covering, I would have long been consumed by rage.
A web feature showcasing excerpts from Village Prodigies, Rodney Jones’ new collection, to which the author refers as a “political satire, a harmony of narcissists, a fable, a reverb cartoon, a eulogy for a place that has vananished, and a children’s book for adults only.” Village Prodigies is published today by Mariner Books.
Floyd Council’s heart gave out on May 9, 1976: bad cholesterol and, in the end, kidney failure. He was sixty-four. He’s buried outside my hometown of Sanford, North Carolina. If you take Lower Moncure Road east beyond the 421 overpass, you’ll see a few identical grey trailers, a low brick ranch-style house, and a tobacco field, and then the road curves left and the trees close in again. A church used to stand here, and in the long grass between the shoulder and the pines some gravestones are peeking up through the green. Not much remains of the cemetery, and nothing of the chapel, White Oak AME Zion, abandoned for years and finally torn down in 2014. Broke and a widower, Council was buried here without a marker. And now that the grass has grown long and trees have sprouted up, the blues guitarist’s grave is lost.
“No one can tell you why Memphis is as magical as it really is,” said artist and washboard player Jimmy Crosthwait when I interviewed him for The Blues Society, my documentary film-in-progress about the Memphis Country Blues Festivals of the late 1960s. He wasn’t talking only about the magic of a beautiful sunset, a joint, and the sound of the blues, all of which were in profound profusion at the festivals. He was remembering something more elemental, what one of the organizers, the irrepressible Randall Lyon, called the eroico furore, or poetic fury: “It was beautiful to be involved with people who had this heroic enthusiasm for what they were doing.” The Memphis Country Blues Festivals, held yearly from 1966 to 1969, changed the way Memphians—and Americans—think about the blues, and they couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
But I am reading The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, handed to me by her friend Lee Smith. The cover is white—wintry, and the story is set on Cape Cod, which I only have visited in winter. My images of a bleak landscape and silvery light already overlay the text. More sea than land, more sky than sea.
5 A.M. I wake up at home in Hampshire County and start driving in the still, quiet morning. I’m heading toward Fayette County in my faded red pickup with a loud, broken exhaust pipe. To the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, it’s a four-hour drive, a pile of cassette tapes in my passenger seat, and a lot of coffee and cigarettes. My first day is scouting, finding the points on the map, seeking out the light.
The story Bassekou Kouyaté wants to tell is simply this: it was cotton that brought the blues from Mali to America, and it was the ngoni—the West African lute that is a predecessor to the banjo—that brought the songs. Kouyaté would like to make a film about this story—one told, for a change, from an African perspective.
Soon after arriving from Canada to live in the South, I became the first Latina food editor and columnist of a newspaper in North Carolina. It was 1996. My husband and I were settling into the small town of Cary, and we were the only Latinos in our neighborhood. I had been at the paper a week when one of my editors received a letter from a disgruntled subscriber, upset that her beloved paper had chosen “a Mexican” to write the cooking section. It hurt. Not only because my family is not Mexican (we’re Guatemalan), but also because the term Mexican isn’t an insult, and she clearly meant it as one. I took the slight as a challenge and set out to prove her wrong.
Nothing I met in Egypt, Kentucky, was like I imagined, except the cliché of rolling hills and craggy mountains. Except the poke, and other ground cover, green. No guns were visible except the Confederate flags that flew, that hung limp, wrapped in a wan clutch, not fluttering, clinging to their poles.
My mother was an instinctive cook. Words and directions did not hold much for her. She was a keen observer. She learned to cook from watching her aunts; her grandmother, Maw; her own mother. She loved recipes. Clipped them from the newspaper, kept them crammed in cookbooks and stuffed in bowls around the kitchen. She read them like fiction, intrigued by the possibilities they suggested, but hardly foolish enough to take them as literal instructions for real life.
It’s a brisk February afternoon in Lexington, Kentucky, and Louis Zoeller Bickett II and I are sitting in his office, which is lined with 500 binders. A few shelves of author-signed books, all of them tagged and indexed, stand in the room behind me. Our coffee mugs are not tagged, but the small Windsor chair I’m sitting in is.
Brenton Jordan, the stick-man and sometimes lead songster of the McIntosh County Shouters, respects the form’s history and understands his responsibility to its integrity, yet, as master performers of vernacular art do, he is willing to advance the tradition through personal expression.
Deacon Lunchbox shared crass, nonsensical, and insightful truths, and believed artistic expression wasn’t just for the highbrow. He once told Creative Loafing that working-class Southern expression is unexpected: “I’ve lived in rural areas most of my life, and the idea that working-class people aren’t creative or imaginative is ridiculous.”
Augusta, I discovered, has shades of what cultural critic Greil Marcus calls the Old, Weird America. Sure, the city is ringed with mansions and country-club culture, but when you’re downtown, you can’t go a block without running into a character who looks as though he might be a hustler, a folk artist, a street preacher, or all three.
As we’ve watched Confederate flags come down across the country, as cities have begun to have new and healthy debates about the place of their Confederate monuments, I’ve spent time thinking about my ancestor Bennett Taylor. I’ve been meditating on the difference between why it feels useful to remember him, and what it means to memorialize the Confederacy publically.
The text from my little brother came around six in the morning: we would meet for lunch at the Rib Room and then spend the rest of the day “filling our lungs with memories.” It was Tuesday, April 21, 2015, and a citywide smoking ban in bars was going into effect at midnight.
Memories, particularly with loved ones, are a curious phenomenon. The good ones often do not fully announce themselves as anything close to “good” when they are happening. It’s only after the event, when a new perspective is gained, that they become an accepted—or funny, or weird, or sweet—episode in family history.
In the middle of downtown Jackson stands a triangle of statues carved in rough-hewn stone, their backs to each other, facing out toward the city: William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty. But Faulkner doesn’t belong, and in his place should be Margaret Walker. Wright, Welty, Walker: those are our Jacksonians, the old guard, the outsiders of gender and race and class whose stony shoulders we stand upon.
The experimental quality is the thread that stitches all the disparate pieces of the weekend-long event together. The festival combines musical performances with panels and talks, art installations, film screenings, and interactive workshops, pieced together like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster—the creature made of many parts. Big Ears, Knoxville’s monster, might be one of the most quietly earth-shattering, subtly luminous festivals the world over.
The voices of Norma Navarrete and Ana Laura Rojas personified the sadness of Jennifer Curtis’s violin as she arpeggiated the loss of human movement through her chord progressions. Impervious to any border, the music rose above the murmurings of conversations, the crush of the waves, the silence of the steel.
New Orleans has a mercurial sensibility that allows it to simultaneously resemble only itself and any number of other places. The flow of the streets and speech, the cuisine and the history—it’s all distinctly of New Orleans, yet testament to the fact that this city was built on trade and traders (and the traded). What better place for EN MAS’, an exhibition stretched between here and there.
Armando Alvarez’s photographs have been published several times in the Oxford American, and we love following his work on Instagram, where he posts portraits of overflowing trash cans, hazy Houston landscapes, strangely beautiful still lifes of junk food, and much more. Most recently, we printed his image of an old truck surrounded by fog in our Texas music issue.
On Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights.
C. F. Richardson was self-avowedly “militant.” He used the word and lived it. On his draft card he identifies his race as Ethiopian. For a while he was employed as a printer, then as a night-watchman at a white newspaper. Through a connection he got himself hired as an editor at the black-Baptist Western Star, moving from there to the Houston Observer, where he started to write and make his name.
On Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights
In 1891, C. N. Love noticed how much money other state’s newspapers were making on his labor and connections. He started the Navasota Echo, one of the first black papers in Texas, “the cheapest and best colored paper published west of the Mississippi,” he boasted, calling it a publication “devoted to the interests of the people in general and the negro in particular.”
In Bill Joyce’s hands, The Man in the Moon is the story of a solitary man, bereaved of his parents in infancy and raised on the moon by a brigade of moonbots and other friendly lunar creatures. He listens to the wishes of children that have been carried up to his home by lost balloons and, unable to cure children’s inevitable fear of the dark, devises a way to make the moon shine at night.
At nineteen, I imagined living alone as a luxurious dream waiting in the distance after college—all the dishes would be mine, all the space mine. Instead, I feel alone and infested. I return one night and yank on the pull-string light in the kitchen and cockroaches scatter under the fridge.
An exerpt from The Screening Room: Family Pictures.
“Did you know how your grandfather M.A.’s heart attack really happened?” Lennie says to me, smiling slyly and sipping her bourbon. “What do you mean?” “Exertion, bien sur. The best kind. And not with your grandmother.” Lennie lights a new cigarette and wriggles her stocking covered toes, poised to let fly another story. Cousins nudge forward in their reclining chairs. Someone moans from the pool, the next generation, and Lennie exhales a cool cloud of blue smoke.
When I first opened the cassette there were no titles on the insert or cassette itself, just stick figures drawn in assorted contortions and obscene poses. I put the cassette in my tape deck and pressed play. A low slow voice growled, “Oh My God!” to a caveman-like stomp of drums and bass that almost blew up my speakers. A high-pitched, hard wavering guitar weaved a line of notes as I strained to hear what else the voice was saying; something like, “What do you know about reality? I AM REALITY! What do you know about death? I AM DEATH!” This song, the first track from the album Hairway To Steven, went on for twelve minutes. I was nineteen years old, and that was the first Butthole Surfers I ever bought.
A band performed that night, for the first time in public—a band whose mercurial rise and untimely fall was to become the talk of Clay County for years to come, and who, in their own way, possessed the rare and true spirit of the Texas musical tradition. They were called the Sons of the Sons of the Sons of the Pioneers.
By the time he got to England, family in tow, he found he missed Southern cooking: "And then, for the first time, it felt okay to explore. In London, cleaning up Southern food from the way it’s viewed here is inherently unique and innovative."
"Sherman burned his path through the South with bullets and torches. Fifty years later, the acerbic Mencken burned a wider path through its ego, through the fragile self-respect that the South had rebuilt during the painful passages of Reconstruction. Mencken, the legendary cultural arsonist, set his fires with words only, but with language so barbed and contemptuous, so marinated in disdain that it may have left deeper scars than Sherman’s regiments."
"At one point, Freeman Kitchens had collected every sound recording, television clip, and radio broadcast ever produced by the Carters, and stored them in his unassuming outpost in Drake, organized according to ever-changing criteria known only to him. He founded the Carter Family Fan Clubaround 1950 and served as its president for more than thirty years."
Imagine the Ark in all its glory: an ancient ship, built of pine, fir, and cedar, rising out of the hills of Northern Kentucky. It will be taller than the Giza pyramids, longer than an American football field by a good one hundred feet, and shaped like a cargo ship, with a cambered roof and a small stern projection like a rudder. On board, there will be animals: zebras and monkeys, alligators and ostriches. The robotic beasts will appear incredibly life-like, with roving eyes and real fur and iridescent scales of molded foam rubber.
If you’re good enough to back somebody up or play in the recording studio, then Nashville is the town for you. That’s not enough, though. Everybody plays and sings great; that’s a given. But you get jobs because you’re a good hang, relaxed and easy to deal with.
The evening Jimmy died my father was late picking me up from a Webelos meeting. I sat under a Japanese maple and practiced the square knot, the last knot I needed to master before receiving my Arrow of Light badge. Then I could enter Boy Scouts at ten, instead of eleven. Useful for survival, the square knot works as a binding knot. Good for clamping a wound but not the best for carrying things or securing them.
Roland Janes, 1933-2013
If you ever visited the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis, you would know Roland Janes. He was there managing the studio, engineering sessions, greeting the world, every day more or less for the last thirty years, working with everyone from Charlie Rich to Memphis rappers Three 6 Mafia and Al Kapone to Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, and anyone who might wander in off the street looking to cut a “personal” record.
An excerpt from McClanahan's forthcoming novel, Hill William (Tyrant Books): "And I asked myself a question I’ve been asking ever since, but haven’t been able to answer. I asked myself whether the mountains are just graves full of dead skeletons or whether they are pregnant bellies popping full of life. And sometimes, I think to myself that the mountains look like graves, and then at other times I say, no, they’re not graves, but pregnant bellies, full of babies waiting to be born."
Outside, it is humid even by Florida standards, made all the worse by machines pumping fog into the heavy air. Red emergency lights revolve in silence; floodlights splatter ruddy light on walls and puddle it on the ground. Speakers snarl or hum with elegiac music that is vaguely Gregorian. Sconces belch fire; the flames go up like a mimicry of startled park goers, in sudden gaps.
Kevin Curtis lowers his sunglasses and scans the crowd. He’s just finished performing “Folsom Prison Blues” at the Lamar Lounge in Oxford, Mississippi. The audience applauds, but the mood is strange—genuine enthusiasm, curiosity, an undercurrent of discomfort. During one of the choruses, he swayed with a very supportive, very drunk woman from the front row. For the solo, he strummed a tiny guitar pin stuck on his dress coat lapel. I lift my beer toward him from the second row. He notices, raises an eyebrow, nods. “This is the first show since my”—he pauses, presses the sunglasses back up to his eyes—“incarceration.”
When I got the news I pulled off I-65 North and nosed into the Spalding University Library. En route from Nashville to Cleveland, it felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Chet Flippo—the storied Rolling Stone editor who’d gone toe-to-toe with Mick Jagger, smoked cigars with Uma Thurman, helped land Willie Nelson dressed as Uncle Sam on the cover of the magazine, igniting my pre-teen imagination—had died.
In performance, Edgar looks like the child of his stories. He cocks his head and raises his eyes slowly, like a boy caught delivering a Valentine. His hands he keeps close, sometimes turning his wrists outwards at the hips, sometimes tying his long, pale fingers together and pressing them to his huddled body.
The writer makes four points about the singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt: “He was a person who had lost the use of his legs, the enjoyment of his own body, and the first line of the first song from his first record is, “I dreamed I was a’ dancin’,” and he was so good, you don’t notice.”