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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Every state in the South has contributed to the grand narrative of American music, but few can match Tennessee’s deep roots in the blues and jazz, gospel, soul and r&b, rockabilly, rock & roll, and country—or its tremendous concentration of historic record labels and music industry visionaries.
An essay from the Seventh Southern Music Issue, 2005.
I walked back from the mall through a hammering twilight cloudburst clutching a wet paper bag. As laughing rednecks veered through puddles and blasted arcs of oily water over me, I thought grimly, “This better be worth it.” At home, I peeled the sodden paper off the plastic wrapper of Johnny Winter And: Live, peeled off my wet clothes, and collapsed naked on the bed to listen to the album.
Notes on the songs from our 18th Southern Music Issue CD: Visions of the Blues.
As we conceived of this issue, we sought a model for our task. (Metaphor, after all, is a hallmark of great blues.) The natural impulse behind this work, music writing—blues music writing, no less—points to the image of the lantern: illuminator, bringing light to darkened places. But a more appropriate one here is the prism: refractor, dispersing pure light to reveal the color spectrum.
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.
This liner note was originally published in Oxford American’s 5th Annual Music Issue in 2001, accompanying the track “Down to the Well” on the sampler.
I’ve written poetry since I was fifteen; songwriting started when I began playing guitar three years later. Both have been good ways to talk to the dead or to say things to the living that would be too difficult or dangerous at close range.
Notes on the songs from our 20th Southern Music Issue Sampler featuring North Carolina.
The profiles, eulogies, and essays herein boast of remarkable achievements of North Carolina’s musicians across eras and genres: from unassailable legends (High Point’s John Coltrane, Tryon’s Nina Simone, Chapel Hill’s James Taylor) to contemporary masters (Snow Hill’s Rapsody, Jacksonville’s Ryan Adams, Raleigh’s 9th Wonder) to the seen-afresh (Dunn’s Link Wray, Kannapolis’s George Clinton, Winston-Salem’s dB’s, Charlotte’s Jodeci)—and, of course, the often-overlooked and in-between (Winston-Salem’s Wesley Johnson, Morganton’s Etta Baker, Chapel Hill’s Liquid Pleasure, Kinston’s Nathaniel Jones, Black Mountain’s period of hosting John Cage).
Notes on the songs from our 21st Southern Music Issue Sampler featuring South Carolina.
It is fitting that this Southern Music Issue (the Oxford American’s twenty-first) devoted to South Carolina should come in 2019, as the nation moves to better recognize the tragic anniversary of the first sale of enslaved Africans on American soil, in August of 1619. About forty percent of the enslaved people brought to America came through Charleston; today most African Americans have roots in the city (some estimates go as high as eighty percent). Or to put a finer point on it, as Joshunda Sanders writes in this issue, “No Black person has a family tree that has not been pruned by slavery.” Acknowledging, parsing, and reckoning with this history is the prominent theme of this South Carolina music issue—as is celebrating the immense wealth of cultural heritage that has sprung from this small, proud place.
“Segu Blue,” the title track from Ngoni Ba’s debut album, is Kouyaté’s interpretation of an ancient and distinctly bluesy Bamana song, “Poyi,” and it offers a clear example of how easily he is able to interweave his inherited tradition with borrowings from American blues.