The Transcript

Mary Ann and One Eyed Dan

Introducing the 21st annual Southern Music Issue

November 13, 2019

Editors’ Roundtable

SARA A. LEWIS, HOST: Welcome to Points South. I’m your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. Today’s episode is all about the music issue. The OA’s 21st Southern music issue celebrates the rich history and continuing vitality of South Carolina’s music. Available now at OxfordAmericanGoods.org, this edition features a 24-track compilation showcasing some of the best recording artists in the state. Today, Deputy Editor Maxwell George is in conversation with longtime OA contributor David Ramsey, and Max shares his top five moments curating the music issue.

But first, we’re going behind the scenes with the Oxford American editors to hear their favorite songs and stories from the South Carolina music issue.

MAXWELL GEORGE:
Here we are in the OA's office in downtown Little Rock. Uh, My name is Maxwell George and I'm the deputy editor of the Oxford American. I'm with my colleagues...

JAY JENNINGS:
Jay Jennings, senior editor

ELIZA BORNÉ:
Eliza Borné, editor.

HANNAH SAULTERS:
Hannah Saulters, assistant web editor.

GEORGE:
We've been working on, on the South Carolina music issue since February, March? And we're really excited for everyone to see it, and to hear it. We have 24 tracks from South Carolina spanning a recording made in 1937 all the way up to 2019—that tells, not the whole story of South Carolina, but what we hope is a pretty revealing and deep, cross section of the history and contemporary story of South Carolina music. And any familiar OA readers will know that in the past few years we've tended to put, a iconic, usually black and white image of a musician on the cover. This year we've taken a bit of a departure from that format. And instead the cover image is, well it's in bright color first of all. And it's not of someone who might be immediately recognizable to a Southern music fan. But it is a Southern musician, an astronaut named Ronald McNair from Lake City, South Carolina.

And there's this amazing archival image that we got, courtesy of NASA, that shows Ronald McNair in orbit, floating in the space shuttle upside down, playing his saxophone. I feel like this image captures the spirit of this issue in such an immediate way. And for this issue, the writer John Kirby, uh spoke with a collection of Ron McNair's friends and family and people who knew him throughout his life, as both a physicist but also as a musician, and could really shed light on Ron's legacy through the lens of his passion for music and culminating in his, his ambition and his design and idea to bring a saxophone into orbit and to play it in space and which was not necessarily a straightforward undertaking.

When John Kirby pitched this story to us, he shared this archival NASA image of Ron and it was pretty much from that day that we talked about featuring this image on the cover. And now, here we are.

BORNÉ:
It is such an interesting story, but then it's also just incredibly moving to read about this person who came from a very modest background and had a lot of obstacles and then achieved just incredible things due to his brilliance and perseverance.

But it's also such a wonderful example of the joy that music brings us, um, regardless of if you're a professional musician. And I think that it illustrates the way music connects us and how music is, like, such a core part of our humanity. And anyone who loves music can relate to.

GEORGE:
Yeah

BORNÉ:
I wanted to talk about Ranky Tanky, about Gullah music and Gullah history, and how this issue is so infused by that culture. And I think we, we honor that from track one on the compilation, which is Ranky Tanky's song “Freedom.” They're a Gullah inspired band.

Zandria Robinson. She does a lot of really fun analysis of their updates on this clapping, the way that they're integrating kind of children's rhymes and games and poems into their songs. Then she goes to Charleston, where they're from, and she makes this argument that South Carolina is a beginning or a port, and also a future or an exit, into and out of modernity and into and out of the past. This is her third contribution to the music issue. I would characterize Zandria as one of the most interesting and sought after cultural critics writing today. And she's someone who I'm really proud that we have been publishing in the Oxford American for several years now. And, I don't think it's too bold to say, that we have published some of her most well-read and well loved pieces. So I'm always so excited when she shows up in my inbox with a story idea.

Here's how she framed her idea and her pitch to us for this issue.“What does black music say about memory preservation and the African diaspora and this moment of commemoration and apology.” And then, in our conversation and in her research, she decided that Ranky Tanky gave her an answer.

It's got this great energy. I've read a number of pieces about Ranky tanky and I don't think that any, anything I've read has captured their essence in quite the way that Zandria has managed to.

<<“Freedom” by Ranky Tanky>>

GEORGE:
How do, how do we know when we're done besides the fact that we have a deadline?

BORNÉ:
That it's perfect? We know it's done when it's perfect.

GEORGE:
I think it's interesting to think about, um, to entertain that question in the context of the CD. Because with the South Carolina Music Issue, we have 24 songs on the CD, and it's not meant to be a comprehensive portrait of everything that South Carolina music is or could be or has been. But we think that every single one of these songs is its own masterpiece and its own universe unto itself and presents its own small slice of whatever South Carolina music means, or where it comes from, and why.

And you know, another kind of fun, weird joy about these, these music issues is that, like, for this year, for the first time ever, we've got a Talking Heads song on the Oxford American Southern Music Issue series because South Carolina natives, Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell, (who’s the lead singer of Band of Horses) who are friends and grew up together in Columbia, recorded a covers album, together. And the first song on that album is a cover of the Talking Heads’ "This Must Be the Place," which is not a South Carolina song by any stretch of the imagination. But in the hands of these two South Carolina natives and old friends, when you hear them singing a song about home, the only thing you can think of is what home means to them.

<<“This Must Be the Place” by Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell >>

JENNINGS:
But in a sense we're never done because we’ll get so many reactions from people who will say, “You should have had this band on there!” Or, “Why didn’t you cover this aspect?” And we know we can't be comprehensive, but it's always great to enter into dialogue with the readers when they tell us that they've been exposed to an artist who they never heard before or they're angry about somebody we didn't include. Just putting the issue out there is the first step in a dialogue with the, the people who live there. And who, and who react to it.

BORNÉ:
Yeah, the music issue feels like, I don't know, it has a longer life than anything else that we do. We hope that readers want to hang on to every issue of the Oxford American forever. But I recognize that more than anything else the music issue, it’s an ongoing project. This is the 21st edition. Readers collect them. I love hearing from people about how these compilations become the soundtrack to their lives. They listen to them driving carpool, and they, when they’re having a party and they want to put something on and they, they want a mix that they know is going to be good. They put on an Oxford American compilation. That is really heartening and rewarding and kind of humbling to think about, especially because I know I, and maybe other people in the room, came to the Oxford American having that experience with the music issue. Yeah, I agree with Jay. it's an ongoing dialogue with readers. I feel like once it’s in the world, it’s, it’s theirs. It’s not, it’s not ours anymore.

JENNINGS:
Hannah, what’s your favorite song on the CD?

SAULTERS:
Um, Those Lavender Whales, that’s a good discovery. Like, that’s one of my favorite things about the OA Music Issue is getting to uncover these artists and they’re the one that I
thought, “Gee, I’ve, how have I not been listening to them already?” They’re totally in the genre that would be on rotation. I think the best surprise was “Hyper Than Dope.”

GEORGE:
Yeah, in 1989, Charleston hip-hop, produced and recorded a few months before Hurricane Hugo came through town, and self-released by Matt Jones who goes by Genius Productions, who Dave Tompkins writes about in this issue. And that song is wild, featuring Suede who is an unidentified Charleston teenager.

<<“Hyper Than Dope” by Genius Productions ft. Suede>>

JENNINGS:
I would have to say “Cut a Rug” by Danielle Howle. Just, it’s upbeat, even though the first lines are, “Hey, this music sucks!” And it’s a story about, you know, people meeting over dancing to bad music and, and connecting because of that. And her, her comment about some of the songs that she writes as she likes to imagine shy people meeting in her songs. And, one of the ways that they do is bonding over sucky music.

<<“Cut A Rug” by Danielle Howle>>

BORNÉ:
We always enjoy combing through Smithsonian Folkways’ catalog. They have such riches in their archive; it’s an incredible resource to see what recordings they have associated with the state that we’re working on. And in listening to their music and going through their materials, we came across the Poplin Family from Sumter County, South Carolina. They were a square dance band, as I understand it, who were just, just happened to be recorded by a man named Jack Tottle who encountered them by chance when they were performing on a local TV show in the early sixties. “Sit at Home” is just a really beautiful duet, mother-daughter song. Really sweet, kind of nice singalong. It feels like it’s the kind of song that seems like it could be a classic lullaby, but few people have heard it. So, I’m excited to introduce it to more people.

<<“Sit at Home” by the Poplin Family>>

GEORGE:
When does this drop?

BORNÉ:
Our subscribers have probably already received their copies by now. If you want your copy on the 19th, go to your local bookstore, pick up a copy. Or you can visit oxfordamerican.org. I'll also mention that the compilation is available via compact disk. You can also for the third year in a row, we're offering a digital download, so you can listen to it on your device of choice.

<<“You’re Letting Me Down” by Ann Sexton & the Masters of Soul>>

LEWIS:
Head to OxfordAmericanGoods.org to order a copy of the South Carolina Music Issue today or become a subscriber at OxfordAmerican.org/subscribe. After the break, Maxwell George in conversation with writer David Ramsey, who wrote about Shovels & Rope for this issue.

In Conversation
Maxwell George with David Ramsey

LEWIS: David Ramsey has been publishing beloved essays and profiles in the Oxford American for more than fifteen years. He first came to the magazine in the early 2000s as an intern and then editor; today, he’s on the masthead as a Contributing Editor, and in the latest Southern Music Issue of the Oxford American, Ramsey has written a feature essay about the Charleston band Shovels & Rope. In October, he sat down with Maxwell George, his editor at the OA, to discuss his history with the magazine, his interest in experimenting with form, and his latest piece about Shovels & Rope.

MAXWELL GEORGE:
I wanna make a note that we're sitting in like a band rehearsal space with instruments around us.

DAVID RAMSEY:
Yeah totally in, uh, in—

GEORGE:
Which feels appropriate.

Tell me your, like, your OA story. You came... it was early two thousands, right? When you got here?

RAMSEY:
I spent a year after college, um, road tripping for fifteen months. Just working odd jobs and driving around seeing the, seeing the country and Canada. The Oxford American had been, like, my favorite magazine in college and had kind of been a... I was, you know, I went to school in the Northeast and I was from the South. But I think probably like a lot of people, you know, I was, like, growing up in Nashville, I was probably one of the less Southern people in the room most of the time. But then when I went to school in the Northeast, all of a sudden, I stuck out as this Southern guy or whatever. So there was something about reading the Oxford American when I was in college that felt very, it felt very connected to, um, kind of the South as I experienced it, I guess. It was just a special thing to me when I was in college. It came in my head at some point that I would like to work there.

I've always been interested, in particular, in the form of magazine writing. And I think that's part of what attracted me to the, to the OA to begin with. Um, 'cause I, I thought they did it well and did it kind of in a unique voice. I mean, you know, back then, people always say like “The New Yorker of the South” or whatever. But actually what I think I liked about the Oxford American was that, was that that wasn't true actually. It had, it had a totally distinct voice and style and, and there were things published there that you really wouldn't see anywhere else. I don't know. I think that what drew me to the magazine really had to do with it just feeling like they had a, a fresh way of approaching the form of magazine writing.

GEORGE:
Well, one thing I definitely want to talk to you about this idea of magazine writing and the kind of boundaries of form and structure and, and, opportunities that we get to play with in this venue, which I think you can't, you can't do in shorter work. And certainly can't do in, in more straightforward journalism, and in books you can't do, because you have to carry a reader through two hundred pages or whatever. But this is what I love about magazine writing, which is also what got me to the Oxford American—and what I see in your pieces and what I enjoy, first as having been a reader of yours, and now getting to edit and work with you is—experiment is too strong a word—but respecting the form and how that can inform a piece of writing, and what you get to do with five thousand to eight thousand words on the page. And working with you, I almost never kind of know what you're going to try out with a new piece. As a former editor, like, your ability to generate ideas is great and I always love to get a pitch from you and to hear about what's on your mind. But then to get the piece, to see where it's taken you, I think is the best way to put it.

And so what I'm thinking of, to be specific, is like in your Lil Wayne piece, it's, uh, twenty-five short sections, some of which are themed with lyrics that you jump off from. In the Little Richard piece, you use a book of prayers that Little Richard gave you and quote from the prayer book to open each section and set the tone for each section. In a piece you wrote for the Kentucky Music Issue about the Old Regular Baptists, you imitate the form of the lined-out hymnody tradition by opening each section with a sort of general chorus that you then respond to in a way in the, in the writing. So I want to hear from you, if you can talk a little bit about your approach to form and how much of it is you bringing it to the piece—sort of knowing what you want when you have an idea—or does it come out in the writing, or?

RAMSEY:
Yeah, uh, that's a good question. So I, I think, it varies a little bit. I mean I, I, love that stuff and, and it feels very important to me. I think that one thing that happens is that, in a way, it's almost a response to the terror of the blank page, to the thing that I think that most people feel when they start out, which is, you know, you know there's a story there, you know that you have something to say. You have these kind of loose ideas that are flitting around. And I'm not an outliner. Uh, I tend to kind of just, I need to just kind of dig in. I need to get the beginning right and just kind of let things happen a little bit, um, intuitively. And I think that sometimes it's almost like experiments in form are almost a response to that for me. It's like, if I, if I sort of just set out to write it all straight, I would get kind of stuck. And sometimes once I have the idea of how the form is going to work, that then that triggers all these new ideas, right? I mean, that's part of, I guess what I like about the form is that, if there's something tonal, for example, in that Old Regular Baptist piece, that I'm trying to achieve, that that can kind of signal to me, “Oh, these are the things that I actually need to write on.”

I think I am drawn to magazine projects where I can both write about a musician or an artist or, or something in the culture that I find interesting and in some way kind of refract that off a little bit of, of things that are going on in my own life. I guess that is maybe like a narcissistic approach to magazine writing, but, but the, in a way you can kind of hopefully, um it can get beyond a kind of "Dear diary" thing and become something where, by making it personal, you know, that's how we experience culture. That's how we experience a musician that we really love. It's always connected in some way to things that are going on in our life. And so if I can kind of center that, then I think in some ways that can make the cultural criticism or the reporting on the, on the music stronger and richer and, and kind of take some surprising turns and so on.

The Lil Wayne one. To me like that one came very naturally and that one, for those, for those who haven't read it, it's divided into these twenty-five kind of very small sections, um, some of which use Lil Wayne lyrics. And because it's kind of about this, I don't know, the sort of thematics of the mixtape, that, that kind of made asort of sense, I was a school teacher in the, uh, in the recovery school district in New Orleans. I had this idea that, um, you know, I was teaching and my, my whole world was just dominated by Lil Wayne because of my students. And they, you know, they were just talking about him all the time. He was everywhere. And of course, like—and you know, I had listened to Lil Wayne, I liked Lil Wayne just as like a casual fan or whatever. But not on this level of just being bombarded with it every day. And so when I was bombarded with it every day, I of course I became obsessed and my kids were giving me mixtapes.

And it was a very intense time. It was, um, you know, this was right after the storm and I was a new teacher and it was just a very, um, emotionally overwhelming and taxing year. And so, rather than try to kind of like get the full scope of everything that happened, the way that I really could convey that was to kind of zero in on these moments, um, the flashpoints that stuck in my head and kind of take everything else out. And that there was a way in which that sort of allowed me to tell the story of that year, I think more vividly. And I had this idea in my head that, that I could somehow kind of, evoke some of what was so interesting and strange about Lil Wayne and his music in the process of, or in the, in the form, that the writing would be delivered in.

On the one hand, this is all mechanics, right? But for me, that mechanics can lead to this kind of magic, that in some funny way, the form itself and the, and hopefully some freshness in the form itself, is making you think about the content and think about both this experience I had teaching and what that was like and what that was like for, for the, um, the kind of the story of the kids in that class too, which is in some ways it's more about them than, than me, I think. And, and Lil Wayne. That there's something about, if the form can jar you a little bit, that you will then think about Lil Wayne, or the kids in that class, or my experience teaching the kids in that class, in a kind of new way, if that makes sense.

GEORGE:
Yeah, it's a way to crack the door.

RAMSEY:
Yeah, I think so. And, and kind of, I think of it almost as like, it's like, uh, lighting a room or something, you know, it's like if, if, if there's, if there's subtle distinctions in how the lighting in the room works, then you like experience the room in a slightly different way.

GEORGE:
Yeah, I like that a lot. And no one likes overhead fluorescents.

RAMSEY:
Yeah, exactly, exactly! But also, no, but also, like, I don't want to privilege pyrotechnics over telling a straight story because I...sometimes the appropriate thing to do is, if not fluorescents, is just to light the room, right?

GEORGE:
Sure.

RAMSEY:
And let you kind of see what's there. And, and I, and I, sometimes I do write stuff like that, but I think it's always interesting to try to think about whether those kinds of choices that you're making about how you tell the story and how you're presenting the information can just color and shade the way that you're—and maybe let you in a little more. That's always kinda my hope. I mean if I'm writing about the Old Regular Baptists, for example, who are a group of churches in, in Appalachia that, um, sing, uh, lined-out hymnody singing, which is a very unique tradition that I won't summarize here, but, but that I spent some time going to church with them and learning about, um, this tradition. For a lot of readers, that's going to be a world that they really know nothing about. So if somehow in the language and style of the magazine piece, if it could come across what it was like, the sort of atmospherics of, um, their community and the ideas and their beliefs and their faith. Because all of that, to me like the way that we express that, the way that they express that, is through language. And so if I can use that language to kind of, you know, not, not to mimic that but to, to evoke that a little bit, and kind of set the, set the mood and the tone that feels like it has a little more, that feels like the connection is richer, I guess.

GEORGE:
Another sort of pleasure for me in this work is that to use your metaphor, some people are going to walk into the room and notice how tastefully lit it is and some people are just going to walk into it and sit down.

RAMSEY:
Yes. Yes, yes.

GEORGE:
And you can't control what someone does, but you know that you've set the atmosphere. And I love—you know, you and I have shared all kinds of lengthy emails where we're going back and forth about a comma sometimes.

RAMSEY:
Yes, yeah, yeah.

GEORGE:
And then we kind of laugh at ourselves inevitably. But what I know from you as a writer, and as a reader of yours, is that you care so much and everything is thoughtfully done. And I, and I want to say too, part of the reason why I wanted to ask you about more experimental forms is because you don't do it every time and you can write the straight essay or the straight report, chronicle. And so it's, it's always interesting to me when you choose to or when you get on one of those trails and follow it.

RAMSEY:
Yeah. That's a good point. And, and I mean, it's really uh, it's an interesting question. I mean, one thing that I think does happen to me is, at a certain point, I guess I get committed to the form and the form somehow helps me to intuit what to do. And, I mean, it's true. I think that I, probably to a fault, but I do have this feeling about writing that, you know, it's sort of like sort of like, uh, uh, either it all matters or none of it matters, right? Anyone that enjoys reading magazines or enjoys reading books, literature, that is a reader, has the experience sometimes of you just read something and you're transported or it has a texture that really blows you away. And, perhaps on the front end, it could be that the writing was all done completely intuitively, you know, completely, um, without planning or whatever. But, but it's still the case that those, those little choices, wherever they came from, that series of choices is the kind of architecture behind that magical feeling um or that feeling of being transported as a reader. And so, yeah, I mean, I tend toward the obsessive on that side, for sure. And I think that that's, that's why—you know, you're kind of, you're trying to get the scaffolding right.

I'm pretty interested in, in this question maybe precisely because I don't know the answer. And maybe part of it for me is that, what I like about the form of magazine writing is that it’s sort of both short and expansive. I will tell you that, uh, this piece that's about to come out—the Shovels & Rope story—the very first thing I, 'cause I was a little confused about what I was going to do.

GEORGE:
Sure.

RAMSEY:
I knew that, um, so.

GEORGE:
Can I set it up a little bit?

RAMSEY:
Yeah, yeah. Set it up, set it up.

GEORGE:
It's been a, it's been a year in the life of Dave Ramsey. He's turned forty.

RAMSEY:
Yeah.

GEORGE:
You've had your first child, and now most recently, you, your wife, and child have left the South and moved here to Jersey City.

RAMSEY:
Yes.

GEORGE:
Among other things.

RAMSEY:
Yes.

GEORGE:
So these are the animating forces underneath what is ostensibly an essay about the Charleston husband and wife band, Shovels & Rope.

RAMSEY:
Yes. Yes. That is all true. It has been a, it's been a crazy time in my life. Anyone that has a kid knows the first two years, like, rock you, and my daughter's a little over two years old now. And yes, I turned forty, so that gets you thinking. And you said and other stuff. And, and there has been a lot of other stuff. My, my parents are having, um, pretty serious health problems. So it's just been an emotionally tumultuous time. And so I think that in writing this story, I wanted to kind of, I guess, lean into that.

One is that one thing that I really appreciate about Shovels and Rope is that, I think that their, their music has this kind of... they have this way where the songs that I like the best of theirs almost seem oriented around, sort of, how to build a life, which sounds corny, but it's not. Um, I think that they do this in this way that like lots of good poetry, it's sort of sneakily, hard-edged despite being, you know, in certain ways, wistful or nostalgic or whatever. And, like, the way that I would frame it is I think the theme of Shovels & Rope is something like, “death is coming so grab a hold of life.” Which sounds again, like if I just say that, it sounds corny, but that's like what the, that's what good music does, right? Like they have this way of—they mix this kind ofOld Testament prophet doom with New-Age-adjacent self-help.

Which is like a, actually like a really beautiful formula, you know? Like I do not say self-help negatively. I'm a self that needs plenty of help so—Grace, my wife, and I were talking about this. There's this way in which you can kind of over-privilege the present tense sometimes in your life. And, and, and I think you think about this as a parent, because you can see right in front of you this immensely meaningful, incredibly, just inexhaustibly, interesting stuff that's happening with your kid, right? But then of course, like, you know, for her, for my daughter, twenty years from now, that's all gonna be this kind of like... you know, how much meaning does it have to you, what, what your experience was like as a two year old or whatever? So I was like trying to figure out how to like, how to do this story, right? Because I think my, my original idea was it was going to be like, more of a heavily reported thing where I would like hang out with Michael and Cary Ann and kind of go on the road with them and blah, blah, blah. But that didn't really work out logistically at all.

So I was trying to decide sort of how to approach this. And I think Grace and I, probably like a lot of young parents, we worry about this, right? Like, we talk about this, this is both like aspirational, but also a source of anxiety. My wife is a painter and we have big plans and big ideas about how I'm going to keep writing, she's going to keep painting, we're gonna make it all work out. It's gonna be great. And so I think in some ways, like when I started the story, it's kind of like, Michael and Cary Ann—Shovels & Rope—are this band. They have two kids, they have two young kids, you know. They're on the road. They're making it as musicians, they're making their art and they have this family. They feel like they're living the dream, you know, and Grace and I are kind of like, we're very collaborative in the stuff we do, so, you know, I'm telling her about what I'm going to write and Cary Ann and Michael and I, in my interviews with them ended up actually talking quite a bit about parenthood and just like having, being parents of young kids. And of course, they're going through the same crap that everyone else is going through. And whenever you have these conversations, you like, quickly realize there's no advice, there's no answer. Everyone's situation is radically unique and really beautiful and sort of impossible. And of course, like, that's how it is for us, how it is for them, how it is for everyone.

Anyway, that ended up becoming a sort of, a way to talk about the band that I think was pretty interesting, is that I could, the story definitely gets into their music—and that in many ways is what the story is about—but it's also just very interesting to kind of see how they function as this family band unit. I had all of this kind of floating in my head, right, that there was something, there was, you know, I knew that, the indescribable wallop of the first two years of having a kid, that was like banging around in my head, undeniably. And it just had to come out. And then here you have this band that's on the road that is very much a family band. And meanwhile, you know, I think Grace and I are in the midst of figuring out how to be our own kind of family band. We're not “a band,” but you know, sort of pursue our creative interests and so on and pursue the adventures that we want to have while being parents. And like that we're, you know, we're a work in progress and figuring that out. And so I was thinking about all this when, we had already done one interview by phone and then, Grace and I, and our, and our daughter as well, at the time we were living in DeLand, Florida. And we drove the two hours or so to Saint, Saint Pete, uh, 'cause Shovels and Rope was gonna play a show. And we were going to hang out with them, and kind of do an interview, kinda hang out, and also see them play. And, uh, I was sitting in the coffee shop thinking about what to ask and kind of writing down notes, and hanging out with Grace and Marigold, our daughter. So I was trying to think about what, you know, what should we talk about? And I was like, kinda, you know, I kept circling around to this kind of family stuff. And then I just, I, I on that notepad I just wrote down, Like a shovel and a rope: notes on family and a family band, which ended up being the title and subtitle of the piece. This was before I'd written anything. And so I knew, I just was like, okay, this is what I'm gonna do: I'm gonna write forty little things that are going to allow me to cover all this ground that I want to cover. Because, basically, like, the range of stuff that I talk about in the piece, it's a little outrageous. I mean, I think in a funny way. If you just told an editor, okay, I'm gonna write about the, all the things that I cover in this story, you might say like, ‘you know, that's getting, that's getting a little hairy, buddy,’ you know? And not only that, but I mean, the real answer would be like, I'm gonna write about all this stuff. Also, I'm just going to like see what happens in my day to day life and just immediately write it down as soon as it happens. And that's going to be the story that you'd kind of be like, buddy, why don't you, you know, like—

GEORGE:
Take a week off.

RAMSEY:
Yeah. I kind of got into the outrageousness of the idea and just the fact that I had this constraint that I was like, I'm gonna write forty of these. And that's a little embarrassing because it's like, Oh yeah, I'm forty years old, blah, blah, blah. But like, I just like, needed a number. I like needed like a target to hit. It was not even really that relevant, the age thing, but it just was like a good, like, okay, that's, that's a big number. And then I, and then that just kind of that, um, for this particular—

GEORGE:
It's an album, not a mixtape.

RAMSEY:
Yeah. Right, right, exactly. Or like a,well, no, but you know what it is actually?

GEORGE:
A double album.

RAMSEY:
Yeah. And it's precise—well, let me explain that a little further. Another thing is when I had this, when I wrote this down and had this kind of epiphany, I was like, you know what? Sometimes writers that I like they write these books where they lean so far into their own thing that it's like sort of a disaster, but it's kind of a, there's something beautiful about the disaster. It's like an elegant train wreck or something. And it always has to do with someone sort of having these inclinations and ideas and tics and just kind of really leaning in and for me frankly, like you know I know that I can be a somewhat sentimental writer and can kind of go for a rhapsodic mode. And I try to keep that in check. And with this story I was like, I am not going to keep that in check.

GEORGE:
Yeah, yeah.

RAMSEY:
I'm just gonna, like, let it loose. And so, I mean, I actually think the double album analogy is pretty good because like what is a double album? A double album is when a band, when, like, no one says, dude, you're kind of overdoing it a little bit.

GEORGE:
Yeah.

RAMSEY:
And they just let it out. And like, yeah, sometimes that's gonna be too much and a disaster, but sometimes maybe that can like almost unlock something different. And so, I think that for this story I had this feeling of you know, I'm writing about this intensely personal stuff about my family. A lot of stuff I do, like will have this kind of split where it's half personal essay and half kind of like cultural criticism or reporting about a band or whatever. And that, that is in a lot of ways what this story is I have a reported story about Shovels & Rope, and then I also have all this stuff about my own family. And the only way to do it was just to be, to like, you know, to, to the part of your head that's like, okay, too sentimental, turn down the volume, to just like shut that off. And yeah, I think, I feel, uh, I don't know. I think, I think it came out okay.

GEORGE:
Yeah. It's a, it's a gorgeous piece. Um, we've, we've had some tears shed in the editorial room.

RAMSEY:
Oh!

GEORGE:
After first reads and—

RAMSEY:
Oh that's, that's sweet to hear.

GEORGE:
And I think this goes back to an earlier comment you made that I wanted to refute. Um,

RAMSEY:
Oh, okay.

GEORGE:
Or at least let you down from, which was this notion that writing from a personal place can be a little narcissistic—which is inherently true—but you overcome it in just the ways you've described here, by taking on sentimentality, at least in this story specifically. It's more than just making yourself a character on the page. I think there's a humility and that you are aware of when you're being ridiculous or when you're being sentimental or when you're being critical.

RAMSEY:
Right.

GEORGE:
It's like a hang. It's a good hang reading your work, I think.

RAMSEY:
Hmm, that's a nice thing to say.

You know, I think, uh, to take it out of myself. I mean I think about this, I have a friend who, who is, who was an artist, a visual artist who had sort of stopped, um, doing her art. And her explanation was basically that she... it felt very selfish to her. And I really tried to disabuse her of that notion and suggest that, being an open person and creating art that is from that, that that can be actually a very generous act and a very giving thing. And that's certainly how I experience the art that I like best. It always feels like a gift. Ultimately, what is creativity? You’re, you're sitting down yourself and you're trying to make something out of nothing. And, I think—

GEORGE:
Or something out of everything.

RAMSEY:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I think that like, what are, what are you drawing on? Well, really you're drawing on the self, even if the self is utterly hidden and invisible in the piece, the piece is ultimately some kind of expression of the self. I mean, I'm, I'm, I am like genuinely touched by what you said about my own work because I do think I'm, I'm, you know, it's funny, like, uh— There is the kind of, neighborliness or like an an an ease of, yeah, I don't know, kinda like putting your feet up a little bit. And I think that that to me, that feels very tied to this idea of writing, even if you're totally writing about yourself or making art, even if you're totally making art about yourself, as being this kind of act of generosity and a kind of gift, you know? And again, I, it's much easier for me to talk about on the receiving end, I mean, people get nervous about oversharing and so on, but of course, like, if you're, if you're hanging out with someone, if you're having beers with someone, and they open up about themselves and they really give you some of, of their interiority, they kind of make that visible to you, that that always just to me always feels like a gift.

GEORGE:
I've, was rereading a few of the stories we worked on together, before this, this convo. And uh, I think you were too, and I wonder if you noticed what I noticed, which is that, you're singing and dancing a lot.

RAMSEY
Hmm. Well, I hadn't noticed that. That’s cool.

GEORGE:
In your stories. That to me is the, like you're putting your full self there, and it's come through. I've seen this on the page. It's like, Here he is dancing alone to no music or Here he is singing along in the car.

RAMSEY:
Well that's a very, that's a very kind, thing to say and a very kind way to put it.

GEORGE:
Not all of your work is about music, but a lot of it is, and a lot of what you've written for the OA is. Um, but when I read you and I think about your writing, there's this distinction between the idea of a music writer and the idea how I picture you as like a writer who listens to music...

RAMSEY:
I mean, I hope that comes off both in, in how I write about music, but even even like, you know, I think about this with the, with the Little Richard piece, or the one I did on Gary Stewart or the CeDell Davis one. Even like the research that I did for those stories, that somehow it can be, that I can like evoke the obsessiveness of a certain kind of fan because it's just how I felt, you know—

GEORGE:
Yeah, you're obsessed.

RAMSEY:
—that's like how I, yeah, I like get, I just go all in. You know, I really think that the older I get, the more religion and spirituality pop up in my writing. I think that for me, that kind of celebration and the connection that people can have through celebration, the particular way in which the physicality of dancing or the kind of unrestrained joy of singing can bring people together, it feels like a religious impulse. I think if you sort of step back, it's, it's an astonishing thing about human beings that we get together and sing songs together. I find that to be just like a startling, beautiful fact about what human beings do and what it means to be alive. And so,yeah, that kind of feeling of, of celebration and the way that, that can transcend, not transcend, that can, that can exist alongside of difficult things and, and the difficult parts of being alive. I hope that my writing sort of, uh, veers in both of those directions, kind of like, That we all have our kind of pains and aches and difficulties no matter how big or small. And also that we all can perhaps find connection in celebration and singing and dancing.

LEWIS [Narration]: That was writer and OA Contributing Editor David Ramsey in conversation with the OA’s Deputy Editor Maxwell George. You can read Ramsey’s feature “Like a Shovel and a Rope—Notes on family and a family band” in the South Carolina Music Issue of the Oxford American.

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GEORGE: Maxwell George here. I'm the deputy editor of the Oxford American. For the last five years I've been the music editor of the Southern music issue series.

LEWIS:
Can you tell us something about each of those projects, starting with this year's music issue, South Carolina?

GEORGE:
Sure. Of course, I could pick a million, but I wanted to kind of revisit five, five different aspects. Um, one from each of these, these music issues that I've worked on. South Carolina will be my last music issue and the last issue that I'll have worked on as an editor of the Oxford American and I was able to contribute a piece to this issue and to write in tribute to, a mentor of mine, William Whitworth, who’s an editor from Little Rock. And to write about his great friendship with Dizzy Gillespie, one of the inventors of modern jazz, bebop trumpet player, whom Bill knew for three decades, from the early sixties when they met in St. Louis, until 1993 when Dizzy Gillespie passed away.

It's a portrait of this, this super famous titan of American music, but it's told through the intimate eyes of one of his friends. And it was a humbling piece to write to, to get to know Dizzy Gillespie in this sort of more personal way as this great humanitarian and, hilarious, magnanimous friend. Dizzy really showed Bill and showed the world this version of a way to be. And to examine someone that famous to examine someone of that stature in a more personal way was a really special for me.

North Carolina. So last year we did my home state of North Carolina, which was of course a special project and it was an issue that I'd been looking forward to all my years at the OA. And, one moment that remains with me when I think back about this project was, the essay that great North Carolina singer songwriter Tift Merritt wrote about her hero, Elizabeth Cotten, whose song "Holy Ghost, Unchain My Name” was included on the compilation and Tift wrote this about Elizabeth Cotten: "North Carolina. Piedmont musicians are bound by this humid, cicada-filled flat red clay slab we share. Tradition is a rock smoothed by decades of water. Our own small contributions to push form forward don't mean so much without the rest of the rock. And who would want to be without it?”

Kentucky. The 2017 music issue focused on Kentucky. And a piece that I fondly recall from that issue was written by Will Stephenson. It's an essay about the Everly Brothers. And it's an essay about brothers and brotherhood and creativity. And, Will has a brother himself, and he explores the Everly Brothers through the lens of an untitled collage made by the modern artist Ray Johnson. And Will writes this in the piece, which I think captures something about how we grab onto musicians. "Phil was a flawless singer with an admirable stage presence, but it's Don I'm interested in. Don was the bleaker writer, the baritone voice, the left-leaning amphetamine addict with the darker hair and worse attitude."

Visions of the Blues. In 2016 we departed from the state-themed series. And I'm really proud of this issue we made that we didn't want to call the Blues Issue because that didn't feel right. It's an issue that gathers a collection of songs and stories that all come at the great American tradition of the blues in some way. But it's not really a blues issue, and these aren't all really blues songs, so we decided to call it Visions of the Blues. And I'm looking now back at sort of the first handful of tracks from that compilation. And, I love the way we were able come at the blues from all these different angles. Track one was an Allen Toussaint, Rhiannon Giddens collaboration, performing a Duke Ellington tune "Rocks in my Bed."

Track two was Koko Taylor, screamer, Chicago blues, "Yes, It's Good for You."

Track three was the great Gil Scott-Heron and his, his idiosyncratic take on what we could call the blues. On the last album he made before he died, the song "New York Is Killing Me."

Track four was a recording made by folklorist William Ferris, of a rural Mississippi blues man named Scott Dunbar who sang a version of "Memphis Mail." And Bill would go on to win two Grammies for this compilation. It is a more traditional take on what we would think of of the blues. Acoustic, rural Mississippi recording.

Track five was "Stuck in the South" by Adia Victoria, artist from South Carolina that has been based in Nashville for a long time and is sort of single-handedly evolving the blues form.

Track six was Segu Blue a poyi, which is a West African form, by Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba. And that was an interesting way to see the blues returned to Africa.

And then track seven was Charley Patton's classic "Down the Dirt Road Blues." So I love the way we were able to come at it from all those different angles, these Visions of the Blues.

Georgia. Our 2015 Music Issue and the first Music Issue that I was music editor for was the Georgia Music Issue. this one will forever remain special to me. It has its own weird structure within the magazine, the way it's built.

It's not the normal Oxford American, shorter stories in the front, features in the middle. Um, it is a collection of stories organized around five different themes, and there's an Easter egg in this issue that to this day, I don't know if it came across for readers, the last story in the issue is the writer Wyatt Williams profiling Lance and April Ledbetter, purveyors of the box set and their record company Dust to Digital. And in the piece, Wyatt describes the project of putting together a box set. And to me this is just a analog of this greater music issue project as a whole and the Georgia Music Issue is itself organized as a box set, although we never say that. But if you read it all the way through and you read this piece at the end, I think it's understood what we were going for and Wyatt writes. "These creations are imaginary experiences shaped as much by the original recordings as they are by the connections and idiosyncratic knowledge of the curator. Essentially that's the method of collage, the dominant art form of the 20th century. The trouble is that music history tends to prefer oversimplified stories, rubrics like genre or dates or race."

All right.

LEWIS [Narration]: This year’s music issue, celebrating South Carolina hits newsstands on November 19. You can also order Oxford American music issues with their accompanying music compilations at OxfordAmericanGoods.org

This episode was produced by me, Sara A. Lewis, and Maxwell George with Eliza Borné and Ryan Harris. Thanks to the OA’s editors, David Ramsey, KaToya Ellis Fleming, and Zelda Engeler-Young. Post-production and score by Spacebomb. Thank you Andy and Somers Collins, UAMS, and Fayetteville Roots Festival, for making this show possible.

CODA
GEORGE:
What I've loved about doing this work and what I'll miss the most about the Oxford American is the opportunity to elevate individual voices and individual perspectives. And I hope that the people who I've worked with here, at the Oxford American, the other editors and all the writers over the years, would feel like they were heard by me and they were able to pursue whatever that passion point is that they were scratching at to the fullest.

LEWIS:
You want to end on that note?

GEORGE:
Sounds good.

LEWIS:
Thanks, Max. We love you and we will miss you dearly.

GEORGE:
Thank you, Sara. It's been a pleasure.