October 29, 2015

“They all seemed together by ear,” according to Nancy Blake. “It was the first time I’d ever seen hillbilly string musicians hit that Charles Mingus headspace. I knew there was music coming into the world that had never been in it before.”

January 30, 2015

It’s nighttime in the country. A woman slips out of bed and looks in the mirror. She hears Bonnie Montgomery’s new album on the radio. An old prisoner swears he ain’t gonna work on Parchman’s farm no more.

March 22, 2017

Before the “outlaws” were a movement, I knew Kristofferson was trouble but honorable in his insurrection.

September 04, 2013
It’s unnecessary to explain, to anyone who knew Will Campbell, why he was one of the most remarkable and valuable Southerners of his generation. Mention his name and his parishioners will just grin and shake their heads. But for those who never had the privilege of meeting him, it’s important to place him in a proper context, free of stereotypes and received ideas.
October 05, 2016

This weekend is the annual tomato festival at the Bells Bend Neighborhood Farm, and the farmers lay out an all-you-can-eat buffet of the many varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown there: Cherokee greens, Cherokee purples, zebras, Japanese black trifeles, Ozark pinks, Pruden’s purples, and best of all, sungolds, which are small and firm tomatoes that taste warm and almost salty, like they were plucked from the vine on a hot afternoon just moments before they made it to this table. And amid all this sweet bounty: a square dance.

February 19, 2015

An interview with Amanda Shires.

I was trying to be on my own in Lubbock, playing my own songs, but I guess people didn’t see me like that. It was my fault, because I had to pay my rent, so I was still taking sideperson work, which kept me from being known as just that. I had written some songs with Thrift Store, but it was never an idea that I could do it on my own, solo, until Billy Joe told me to. He even said, “There’s no loyalty in side work. This week, fiddle is cool, but next week, it might be a dobro, and then where will you be?”

September 03, 2019

Could Lucy Negro Redux beckon a new era for ballet?—an Omnivore essay from the Fall 2019 issue.

I believe artwork is more interesting—and will invite new audiences—when a wide swath of people are allowed to tell a variety of stories. There’s just one issue here: most ballet audiences don’t come to the theater to think about representation. Ballet is a form of escapist entertainment that celebrates the athletic prowess of the human body, and the fact is, the bodies on stage are usually white.

September 05, 2017

We both loved Gary Stewart, and we both loved Grace.

My wife Grace’s father was a big man. He wasn’t much more than six feet tall, but I think folks thought of him as taller because he carried himself large. He tried being a hippie once, he said, but couldn’t abide the non-violence (too many people needed to get their asses kicked). At the first job he ever had, on a ranch, he got a business card with his official title: COWBOY. He kept that card. He wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He had the best hunting dogs in Levy County. For a while he ran a sawmill. For a while he was a watermelon farmer, then a beekeeper, then he raised buffalo on the family farm. That’s just a small sampling. His name was John. He went by Chuck. 

December 27, 2013

A conversation with Jean Shepard, Jan Howard, Jeanne Pruett, and Jeannie Seely from Winter 2013, the Tennessee Music Issue. 

One of my most cherished memories is with Minnie, just after her first breast surgery. She’d had surgery on Monday and she called me on Friday.  She said, “What are you doing on Monday?” I said, “I don’t know, what are we doing?” She said, “Well, the doctor says I can’t drive but I can eat, so why don’t you pick me up and we’ll go to lunch at the club?” So I get to her house at 11 A.M., and for some reason that day she wanted to show me certain things about her house. She walked me through, telling me stories about everything. It was the greatest three hours that I’ve ever spent with someone who wasn’t family, but it was not with Minnie Pearl, it was with Sarah Ophelia Cannon.

December 27, 2013

Country music in the 1970s of my adolescence was music for the hopelessly uncool. It was Saturday afternoon television with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, outlandish in their rhinestones, extolling the virtues of their sponsor, Breeze detergent. It was “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard’s 1969 hit denouncing drugs, war protesters, and long hair. Country was Hee Haw, and what the football coach who taught Driver’s Ed—he of the short haircut, white polyester shirts, and fierce Texas twang—made us listen to when we drove with him, because it soothed his nerves. 

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on the other hand, was a country-rock group from Southern California, “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys,” as country patriarch Roy Acuff called them. But in August 1971 they made their way to Nashville, a little tentatively, to record the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a collaboration with an unlikely gathering of old-time country stars that instantly achieved classic status and has never gone out of print.

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