This year we’ve compiled our “greatest hits,” including selections of the most beloved music writing from our archive—guest edited by Brittany Howard, the Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and frontwoman of the Alabama Shakes. This jam-packed issue also includes new essays on iconic Southern artists who have changed the trajectory of American music.
Rather than including a CD this year, we’ve asked guest contributors to curate a selection of playlists that limn the bounty of Southern music across genres. These are available to stream on Spotify.
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Notes on the songs from our 19th Southern Music Issue CD featuring Kentucky.
This faculty, to be attuned to one’s surroundings and the ways in which they’re unique, to be rooted in the local, to be of a certain place—no matter if one permanently leaves it, like Richard Hell, or stays forever, like Rachel Grimes—is an elemental theme running through the Oxford American’s 19th Southern Music Issue, devoted to Kentucky. It’s manifest in every one of the songs and stories gathered here: the Commonwealth produces a particularly grounded cast of artists, writers, and musicians.
The Louisville trio Maiden Radio—Cheyenne Marie Mize, Julia Purcell, and Joan Shelley—took the reins on gathering a contemporary octet of Kentucky women, inviting Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs of the Local Honeys, Heather Summers and Anna Krippenstapel of the Other Years, and Sarah Wood to join them. They recorded their version at Louisville’s Locust Grove in August 2017. The text—past the first two verses—is a composite of their own.
In her career as a pianist, arranger, founding member of the indie chamber-rock group Rachel’s, and internationally acclaimed composer, Grimes has graced metropolitan stages around the globe. The long reach of her creativity is, in some important regard, the result of her upbringing in Louisville and her exposure to the collaborative and experimental music scene that has been vibrant there since the eighties. She draws her water in rural Kentucky, though, and has returned to the Commonwealth’s Bluegrass region continuously throughout her life as though guided by a divining rod.
In the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, unionism—or its lack—was a creed people held and defended as fiercely as those of the region’s charismatic religions. And the music Sarah Ogan Gunning and her siblings produced between the 1930s and 1960s was as steeped in unionism and communism as it was in the traditional songs, ballads, and hymns of Appalachia.
An exclusive premiere from Rachel Grimes’s new album, The Way Forth.
During the emotional process of moving her parents into nursing homes some years back, Grimes and her brother became the executors of a scattershot archive of family photos, papers, and ephemera. The elisions and erasures of the past gathered poignantly in Grimes’s mind on the repeated drives along the Kentucky River between her farm and her father’s home. Rural Kentucky is endlessly evocative to Grimes, and the bucolic is a rhizome that threads throughout her work.
The music made by the Booker Orchestra of Camp Nelson, Kentucky, has been almost completely obscured by time. In that distinction, it’s representative of many of the contributions made, to the Commonwealth and to the country alike, by rural black Kentuckians. Jessamine County’s Camp Nelson was a major site for recruitment and training of African-American soldiers in the Civil War, and more than ten thousand United States Colored Troops and their families cycled through during and after the war.
As an indie-besotted college student when Me Hungry was released, I took to the album immediately. Rarely in life have I felt so alone. Music snob friends turned up their noses at the lighthearted funk and ridiculous story; critics were largely indifferent, occasionally hostile. At the time, I ascribed the chilly reception to polite society’s general wariness of humor in music. Maybe!
When Lindsey raps “I’m talking rainbows,” I think he must be talking black joy. I think he must be talking the kind of rainbow you see in the shimmer-swirl of color that floats over the curve of a soap bubble. How alike they are, soap bubbles and black joy: Beautiful. Carefree. Tenuous.
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.
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.