November 20, 2018

A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.

The songs I heard growing up, sung at family gatherings, and later as I documented music in recordings at Lumbee churches, ring with longing and sometimes nostalgia. They were standard Protestant hymns, Southern gospel tunes, or shape-note classics, straight from the Broadman hymnal or from J. D. Sumner or the Gaither family: “I Feel Like Traveling Home,” “Hard Working Pilgrim,” “I Am His,” dozens more. The talented ones in my family often learned them not by reading the music but playing by ear, molding and adapting the arrangement and harmonies to suit our preference. Not so much the songs themselves, but the way we sing, especially the emphasis on harmony and blend—the need for every person to have a part but no one to stand out—is what demonstrates our togetherness and uniqueness. 

June 11, 2019

A Points South essay from the Summer 2019 issue

As an evangelist, I have showed “Miracles” to many people by lying about what it’s actually about. Generally, I describe it as a sort of joke, a curiosity. I don’t tell folks that when I first heard Frierson sing about being “only human” I was lonely and confused, and I listened to it so much that the music morphed into a personal manifesto about redemption, as if he had boiled down the obsessive and impossible task of purity into a formula. On first listen, how I feel about “Miracles” would seem ridiculous. 

September 03, 2019

A story from the Fall 2019 issue

And that was the day she invented it, this particular glazed expression of hers. She had created it to please her father, but it had served her well in her life. When she wore it, most men thought she was listening to them, and most women knew that the conversation was over. 

January 22, 2014

Matraca Berg has written hits for Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, and Deana Carter. Now, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee is taking her own turn in the spotlight.

July 02, 2014

Gospel belongs to God and the blues is the Devil’s business, and here the blues takes the form of Son Thomas, whose spare bottleneck slide strips the tradition down to its roots. Son’s been sculpting figures and heads and skulls from clay gathered in the nearby hills for just about as long as he’s been playing the blues, which is to say: all his life.

January 07, 2015

Many people have the vague idea that Roy Orbison’s life was marked by tragedy, and that was why he hid his eyes behind dark glasses and sang so many songs about crying, feeling afraid, and dreaming of happier times. This actually gets the cause-and-effect sequence of Orbison’s life all wrong. It turns out that he wrote those terribly sad songs first, then he started dressing in black, and only later did his life fall apart.

May 24, 2016

Because there wasn’t enough income to pay a full-time hand, all animals requiring daily care had to go. Mountain lions would eat the Boer goats if they went unsold. An emu, whom the old foreman Cruz had jailed in a derelict tennis court, I freed to earn a living in pasture. So long as they had water and grass, the cattle more or less took care of themselves until roundup.

That left the llama.

March 22, 2017

Marty Robbins’s 1959 hit “El Paso,” uses passionate guitar work to evoke its story of desire, murder, sorrow.

September 05, 2017

I wake from a dream in which I am back at military training, among the classrooms and the clash of Claymores, the hot wake of wind from the report of rifles. Booted feet echo through the hallways, and forced voices call cadence while the light bends in the shockwave of bombs.

September 04, 2018

A Points South essay from the Fall 2018 issue

My suitcase is full of batik and baby cologne. One bar emulates the American South. The cover band plays Journey.