A Dubiously Southernish Playlist

By Ryan Harris

Issue 111, Winter 2020

November 11, 2020

Illustration by Three Ring Studio

The idea of creating a playlist of especially favorite songs is nearly impossible, if not silly. What era? What genre? My favorite songs vary by the week, as I’m sure most any music fanatic will admit, depending on what I’m discovering or rediscovering at that moment. Nevertheless, the process was surprisingly revelatory. Without a specific framework—other than “Southernness”—these selections display a bias toward simple blues progressions, acoustic instrumentation, and themes of sadness, tragedy, and anger. Are those Southern themes, or some cathartic insight into my psyche? Perhaps fitting for 2020—when so many music lovers are craving concerts that they cannot get in our current dystopian COVID-19 pandemic world—most of the contemporary musicians on this playlist are artists that I’ve had the honor of booking for live performances over the last decade, in some cases, multiple times, on the Oxford American Presents Concert Series. It’s arguable that some tunes may not be Southern, but the threads connecting any questionable songs to the South are there. Should John Fullbright, an Oklahoman, be excluded? Yet, Fullbright’s High Road, with its gothic narrative and pastoral setting feel Southern. Talking Heads are definitively not of the South, but Take Me to the River was written by Al Green and Teenie Hodges. Les McCann and Eddie Harris’s “Compared to What” is a tune recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The lineup in that band, other than McCann (a native Kentuckian), have no Southern bona fides, yet McCann’s piano comping references boogie woogie and jump blues. The resulting playlist attempts to feature timeless songs with repeat listenability by sprinkling in work from renowned artists alongside some lesser-known contemporary musicians. Many readers will recognize most of these songs and artists right away. Some of the tunes are performed by their original writers; some are modern interpretations of old classics; others are completely new.

Ryan Harris

Ryan Harris is the executive director of the Oxford American.