Chuck Stewart’s photography provided by Fireball Entertainment Group, courtesy of Chuck Stewart Photographs of John Coltrane, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
A conversation with Marcus Kenney.
I love to tell the story of my elderly Cajun grandmother in Louisiana. Once I found her in the garden spray-painting a camellia bush in bright silver enamel. I warned her that she would kill the bush, to which she replied, “Yes, but it will be beautiful!”
During Sweet Auburn’s heyday, a brotherhood of gifted guitar-playing soul singers, though largely unknown by a wide audience today, formed a loose collective. They wrote songs together, recorded them, encouraged one another, and competed fiercely, each believing in a coming personal glory that never came.
Bessie Jones nurtured a prodigious repertoire of songs—hundreds of them, for work, play, worship, instruction—as both a rite and as a vocation. Her vision was one of radical egalitarianism, inspired by the enduring collective, expressive folk traditions—occupational, recreational, spiritual—of the black rural South and her ardent faith in a kind of ecstatic liberation theology, which found activist application in the civil rights movement.
MC Shy D brought hip-hop to Atlanta. Or anyway, he brought Atlanta to hip-hop—in the mid-eighties, he was the first rapper from the city to break out of it, to tour the country and make a name for himself. He became an object of adulation to the whole region.
The Rock*A*Teens came along in the early nineties, after a string of tragedies rocked the Cabbagetown community. As Atlanta-based journalist Doug Deloach told me: “To tell the story of the Rock*A*Teens is to also tell the story of Cabbagetown and all the bands that came before them.”
Johnny Mercer drew from the same black musical traditions as Elvis would a generation later and made, if not quite a billion dollars, certainly an inexhaustible fortune, and left behind a half-dozen of America’s most indelible melodies besides.
The 1960s were coming to a close when rising country rock musician Gram Parsons posed next to Nudie Cohn, the celebrated Western-wear designer more than three times his senior, for a photoshoot. Neither of them would have predicted that Parsons’s “Nudie suit”—embroidered with rhinestone-studded marijuana leaves, sequin-dotted poppies, and sugar cubes laced with LSD—also foretold of his death.
Twelve years ago, the historical reissue label Dust-to-Digital released a six-disc masterpiece of early spiritual recordings called Goodbye, Babylon. Lance Ledbetter, who runs the Atlanta record company with his wife, April, is working on another project that will match Goodbye, Babylon in size and scope. That is, if they can finish it.