“I will fix this, if they let me,” says Will Harris of White Oak Pastures as he machetes through a briar-tangled bamboo thicket and scampers over a mossy boulder, plunging toward a ruined concrete-bordered public pool glossed with emerald slime and swarmed by dragonflies. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this bottom-of-the-bluff park at the heart of Bluffton, a farming town on Georgia’s southwestern fringe, was a symbol of civic commonwealth for white settlers who staked claims after Andrew Jackson killed off and kicked out the Creek Indians in 1814.
The first Japanese Americans began leaving for internment camps in the spring of 1942, effectively banished from their homes by the United States government. Norman Sagara, six years old at the time, can still recall how it played out for him: the FBI visiting his farmhouse in southern California; his older siblings translating for his parents, simple chicken ranchers; his family packing up their belongings and, then, late that summer, boarding a train. “We didn’t know where we were going,” recalls Sagara, now seventy-eight. “They wouldn’t tell us. And three days later we ended up in McGehee, Arkansas.”
With eight kids to feed, and making everything from scratch, Mamie McCrary didn’t have time to negotiate supper. So to anything her picky eaters might refuse—pinto beans, black-eyed peas, lima beans—she added a spoonful or two of sugar. Almost fifty years later, whenever her four daughters sit down to eat, sugar bowls come out, adding some sweetness to lives that have seen more than enough hard times.
The sisters—Ann, Regina, Alfreda, and Deborah—continue an even sweeter McCrary tradition, blending their voices in the sanctified harmony that’s their birthright as daughters of Rev. Sam McCrary, one of the key members of Nashville gospel greats the Fairfield Four.
On the afternoon of April 9, 1987, a man stood outside the United States penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. He had been convicted of one count of willful failure to file an income tax return and sentenced to a year in prison. His orders from the court were to surrender himself to the institution before April 10. While an accomplice rolled videotape, the man outside the prison, who was both a literalist and something of a showman, held up the day’s newspaper and announced: “I surrender to the institution!”
Country music in the 1970s of my adolescence was music for the hopelessly uncool. It was Saturday afternoon television with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, outlandish in their rhinestones, extolling the virtues of their sponsor, Breeze detergent. It was “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard’s 1969 hit denouncing drugs, war protesters, and long hair. Country was Hee Haw, and what the football coach who taught Driver’s Ed—he of the short haircut, white polyester shirts, and fierce Texas twang—made us listen to when we drove with him, because it soothed his nerves.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on the other hand, was a country-rock group from Southern California, “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys,” as country patriarch Roy Acuff called them. But in August 1971 they made their way to Nashville, a little tentatively, to record the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a collaboration with an unlikely gathering of old-time country stars that instantly achieved classic status and has never gone out of print.
A conversation with Jean Shepard, Jan Howard, Jeanne Pruett, and Jeannie Seely from Winter 2013, the Tennessee Music Issue.
“One of my most cherished memories is with Minnie, just after her first breast surgery. She’d had surgery on Monday and she called me on Friday. She said, “What are you doing on Monday?” I said, “I don’t know, what are we doing?” She said, “Well, the doctor says I can’t drive but I can eat, so why don’t you pick me up and we’ll go to lunch at the club?” So I get to her house at 11 A.M., and for some reason that day she wanted to show me certain things about her house. She walked me through, telling me stories about everything. It was the greatest three hours that I’ve ever spent with someone who wasn’t family, but it was not with Minnie Pearl, it was with Sarah Ophelia Cannon.”
A story from Winter 2013, the Tennessee Music Issue.
She is a music student, slender, youthful, with the concentrated face of an alto in the chorus or a back-row violinist, frowning at her strings. Tonight, wearing black (de rigueur for her profession), she sits in a chair to the left of and slightly behind the pianist. She is invisible.
When I was a kid in 1970s Memphis, limousines were a rare sight, though two would occasionally appear in traffic. From the backseat of our family station wagon, we’d scream for Mother to pull up closer. We’d know whose it was by the license plate. Elvis Presley’s was not customized. Isaac Hayes’s read MOSES, referring to his nickname, Black Moses. He was leading people to the Promised Land.