Oxford American, issue 91: Georgia Music Issue (winter 2015)

When I bought this magazine (I think it was at Elliot Bay in Seattle), my thinking went like this: lit mags; Oxford American for sure; ooh, this one has a cd; ooh, Southern music; sold. (The cover indicates that this is a “Southern music” issue. I was slow to find the Georgia-specific bit, but not disappointed.) I don’t know if it was before or after I bought it that I found the Drive-by Truckers track on the cd, but either way. I already owned this track, naturally!, but it was a good sign.

ox-am-winter-15It took me many months to get around to opening this slick cover, but I always knew I was in for a treat. The first content is a write-up of the 25-track cd: a few paragraphs for each, introducing (or reviewing) artist & song, and its place in Georgia music history. I put on the cd (see major digression below) and was blown away, over and over. Just to show how things circle back: track 3 is Larry Jon Wilson’s “Ohoopee River Bottomland,” recorded in the making of Heartworn Highways. When Husband and I saw the movie, this was one of the tracks we came away remembering. And now, thanks to Oxford American, we own that one, too.

Digression: I got into a little debate recently with Husband and Mom about the word ‘album.’ As my memory has it, they both maintained that ‘album’ refers rightly to a vinyl record, and that we misuse it for compact discs (or whatever) in the same way that we say we ‘dial’ and ‘hang up’ telephones that no longer do such things. I argued that ‘album’ refers to a collection of works, put into an order and released as a single piece, and that it correctly refers to vinyl, cds, cassette tapes, or what-have-you. (For what it’s worth, Merriam-Webster and the Google base page agree with me.) At any rate, this discussion had me thinking about how an ‘album’ (in whatever form) used to be reliably received in the way it was released: you played a record straight through, the songs in their intended order, and the same with a cassette tape. With a cd, you could skip, go straight to the hit single you wanted. And now, in the era of iTunes (which is, at least, what Husband and I use), we dump the cd into the program and put it into a mass shuffle. These days I rarely listen to an album as a single unit with all its tracks in order. I reliably skip the ‘secret songs’ (remember those?) because all that silence makes no sense out of context; so I hit ‘forward.’ What place does a concept album even have in this medium? Of course, I realize there are folks out there who listen to music in all sorts of ways: some remain loyal to vinyl, some to cassette tapes, some to Pandora or even (I guess?) FM radio. But for me, when I opened this magazine and put this album on – in order – it was a revelation, an important reminder to take an album as it comes to me before hitting ‘shuffle all.’ (Digression complete.)

The point is that this musical collection and accompanying text was an extra-special treat and an education for me. Happily, as I post this, you can still buy this issue of the mag – and its included cd – here. DO IT. And enjoy the work of James Brown, the Truckers, OutKast, Otis Redding, Ma Rainey, Gram Parsons, Indigo Girls, Elf Power, the Allman Brothers, and more. Killer Mike’s untitled track 8 is one I really like.

I was so overcome by admiration for this album and the careful storytelling that came with it, that I took a little break before entering the rest of the magazine. In all, it took me a full week to read; but it was a week of enjoyable, thoughtful moments.

The whole issue is devoted exclusively to Georgia music, and I found this immersion really stimulating. I learned a lot more about the artists featured on that cd (and went back for another listen with better context), and about so many more. Blind Willie McTell, Johnny Mercer, Black Tusk, Hermon Hitson, Benjamin, the Rock*A*Teens, Little Richard, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Bessie Jones, Dave Prater, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Ray Stevens, Fletcher Henderson, the Dungeon Family, Sharon Jones, the story of Cabbagetown (referenced in the great Truckers’ song, “The Living Bubba”), and the collecting and archival work of Lance and April Ledbetter: the list goes on. I learned more about Killer Mike, listened to some more tracks, and ordered some albums. Kiese Laymon’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel)” hit me hard, both as a piece of communication and information, and as a piece of art. It took me a minute to figure out where I’d read this essay before: it also appears in The Fire This Time. I may have benefited from two readings, and you will too. Of course I can’t fail to mention the essay written by Patterson Hood (of the Drive-by Truckers) about Vic Chesnutt. Patterson never fails to impress, whether writing words to music or words on the page.

I even loved several of the included poems (always a little harder for me, as you know): particularly A.E. Stallings’s “The Summer Archivist” and Chelsea Rathburn’s “Elegy for an Accordian.” (The latter is spelled that way in this issue, which is not the typical spelling of ‘accordion,’ but is this an artistic vision, or a sic?)

I wasn’t always thrilled with the design decision to sometimes start the next article one column over, on the same page, from the end of the last; I felt that this distracted from the firm feeling of finish I wanted, that moment of pausing to reflect. For example, Elyssa East’s “Nudie and the Cosmic American” about Gram Parsons and Nudie Cohn ends on page 39 and, I felt, deserved a full top, but instead flows right into Greg Reish’s article about the Skillet Lickers.

There is no arguing with the breadth and immensity of this issue’s content. I’m amazed at the range of experts, and the music of their voices in writing. I had to stop and consider several insights and thoughtful issues. Take these lines about the ways in which physical infrastructure and environmental racism have impacted a music scene.

Today, there is little to be found of Atlanta’s colorful r&b scene. The construction of three interstate freeways in the late 1960s permanently splintered many of the city’s thriving black neighborhoods, which were further decimated by the construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the Georgia Dome, and Turner Field. Mercedes-Benz Stadium–future home of the Falcons–has cut off access to downtown Atlanta via Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from the west side, which is predominantly populated by African Americans. You can still walk by the Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue, with its vintage marquees, though the historic venue is merely a shell of its former self.

(from “With All Their Heart and Soul” by Brian Poust)

Simply put, again, I learned a lot. And the writing was, if not always then nearly always, extraordinary.

But I’m supposed to be reading these lit journals, at least in part, to study their forms and contents from an artistic perspective, and not only enjoying the reading experience. Obviously, when I forget to read as a writer, the work is effective. This was thought-provoking and beautifully crafted reading. That said, I did notice a few times when the writing got a little uneven. Overall, though, this is a deeply impressive issue of Oxford American, and the first thing I did when I finished reading it cover-to-cover, before writing this, was to buy a two-year subscription. (I am expecting this year’s music issue to come!!) Obviously recommended.

Rating: 9 shape notes.

Teaser Tuesdays: Gone ‘Til November by Lil Wayne

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


gone til november

That’s right, the rapper. Gone ‘Til November is his long-awaited book-form release of his diary from a prison term served in 2010. What can I say, I like the unexpected, and Lil Wayne certainly has a perspective to offer.

Today’s teaser comes from page 1, and makes a true and poignant point:

Isn’t it bugged out how only time will tell?

Yes, sir, it is that.

Stick around for my review to come.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

movie: Walking Tall (1973)

walking tallIn this movie, Buford Pusser returns home, after a stint in the Marines and a career as a wrestler, to McNairy County, Tennessee with his wife and two children. The town has changed since he’s been away. Almost immediately, he gets beaten nearly to death at a bar where he busted the house cheating at craps. The sheriff wants nothing to do with the case, and tells him to drop it. Buford returns to the juke joint to beat the crap out of his attackers in turn; represents himself at trial for assault charges, and wins; and then goes on to run for sheriff, and win.

As the spunky new sheriff, Buford is determined to run the gambling, prostitution and illegal stills out of his home county. Corruption runs so high, however, that he is nearly a one-man crusade. He has a staff of deputies, a few of whom are loyal. But it’s uphill work.

This plot is based on a true story, and here I’ll confess that my interest is not in this movie in its own right. Instead, I am fascinated by the larger debate this movie is a part of: the legend and history of Sheriff Buford Pusser, in its various representations. I first heard of Pusser and Walking Tall in a couple of Drive-by Truckers songs. (Regular readers may recall this is my favorite band.) In “The Buford Stick,” I heard the perspective that Buford Pusser was a crooked sheriff and a bully, messing around with a system that had worked just fine before he came along, thank you. Or, from the lead-in to “The Boys From Alabama”:

We’re gonna take you up to McNairy County, Tennessee
Back in the days when Sheriff Buford Pusser ran things around there
Sheriff Buford Pusser was tryin’ to clean up McNairy County, Tennessee
From all them boot leggers that was bringin’ crime and corruption
And illegal liquor into his little dry county
And for his troubles he got ambushed, and his wife was murdered, and his house got blown up
And they made a movie about it called “Walkin’ Tall”
This is the other side of that story

And that’s what I knew about the movie.

One of the many things I love about the Truckers is that they are unafraid to look at the complexity of the real world, its ugliness, and they don’t turn to the easy out of choosing sides: they are neither consistently pro-establishment nor anti-authority, because it’s not that clear-cut, is it. In the case of Sheriff Buford Pusser, with these two songs, they experiment with the perspective of McNairy County’s criminal element – or, to put it another way, “a hardworking man with a family to feed.” In other songs and other cases drawn from real life, the Truckers continue to question corruption in positions of authority.

The movie shows Pusser in an on-balance-positive light; among other things, he pushes (not always gracefully) for civil rights for the black residents of McNairy County. But even in this portrayal, there are disturbing glimpses: he is not a fan of rights for the (alleged!) criminals he pursues, and I didn’t enjoy the scene when he is arresting a prostitute and slaps her ass. This history, like so many in life, was probably pretty complicated, with good guys and bad guys on both side of the law – or, good and bad within each guy.

I love this stuff: layers, ambiguity, and especially the intersection of art (movies, songs) and deeply serious real life. This is probably a great example of the interdisciplinary nature of life. (Even a teaching opportunity!) Literature and other creative, fictional forms comment on life, which responds to literature.

So I found the viewing experience engrossing, for reasons outside the movie itself. The movie itself is fine, and interesting; it certainly paints a picture of a time and place. And I think even without a backstory that it should provoke some consideration: like, just how “good” are the good guys? A social study, to be sure. I’d recommend this for any number of audiences.

Rating: 8 routine matters.

movie: Heartworn Highways (1976)

heartworn highwaysOh, man, what a treat. This 1976 documentary showed at the Pickford a few weeks ago, and Husband and I really enjoyed it.

We were not expecting such a departure from the documentary as I know it, which tends to splice in interviews, voice-overs, text captions to identify players, and the like. Instead, this was just 90 minutes of footage strung together. Which is not to say that it wasn’t artful; transitions felt natural and it was edited, of course, but there was no guide to the experience, which is different from what I’d imagined. So we were just bystanders to the action: Larry Jon Wilson records “Ohoopee River Bottomland” in the studio; Townes van Zandt takes the camera on a tour of his home in Austin and chats with Seymour Washington; David Allen Coe road-trips to the Tennessee State Pen and performs there; Gamble Rogers gives an outstanding spoken-word performance between songs at a bar; Charlie Daniels plays a high school gym; a teenaged-looking Steve Earle sings around a table with Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and others. As you can just imagine, it’s all very atmospheric, alternately very funny and touching. Guy Clark’s “Texas Cooking” really got to me.

I had no idea Townes van Zandt was such a riot, and now I want to see Be Here to Love Me. This was great. If you’re a fan of “outlaw country” or regional flavor, check it out.

Rating: 8 holes.

movie: The Winding Stream (2014)

The Winding Stream is a documentary about the contributions of the Carter Family (plus Johnny Cash) to music as we know it. I was deeply impressed, and learned a lot, and was reminded here and there of another excellent music-history documentary, Muscle Shoals.


source (click to enlarge)

The Carter Family began with the trio of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle (also a Carter by marriage to A.P.’s brother), who began playing music together in the 1920’s. The scope of the story is astounding, how many of these Carters there were and are, how many songs they recorded – the original trio left 260 recordings behind as their legacy, if I remember correctly. A.P. was an early music ethnologist, who traveled throughout his region – the Appalachian mountains of Virginia – seeking out old songs, “mountain music” as they called it (there was no “country music” yet). He noted the lyrics and the tunes and took them home, where he and Sara and Maybelle arranged them, rebuilding them somewhat, and then recorded them for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Today it occurs to us to wonder about the ethical implications of all these songs ending up being Carter songs; but as the movie points out, back then there was no concept of music being “owned” by anyone in particular. And but for A.P.’s avid, even obsessed calling to save this old music (even at the cost of his family life), many of those songs would have been lost to history in the Appalachian hills.

The trio eventually became part of a radio empire in Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas: “border radio” sprang up to avoid U.S. regulations, and used a high-powered frequency to send their programs across the States. (Stranger than fiction: the founder of the Del Rio border radio station was a doctor famous for his goat gland transplant procedure that supposedly boosted men’s sexual function and who promoted female circumcision [to make women less frigid, he claimed].) This is how a young boy named Johnny Cash first heard the Carter Family singing their old-timey songs. The group by this time involved some of the next generation, including Maybelle’s three daughters who would eventually be the Carter Sisters; one of them was little June. As Johnny Cash grew in stature, he kept Mama Maybelle close: in footage from his late life, he calls her the biggest star he ever knew.

The story goes on from there. You’ve heard of Johnny’s daughter (June’s daughter-in-law), Roseanne Cash. Their only child together, John Carter Cash, appears in the movie with his wife, an avid student of the Carter Family history who inspired him to learn more about his own legacy. These contemporary Carters still play the old music. In fact, one of the impressive details is in how many Carters there have been, and how they all seem to have had that music running in their veins: it was just a part of their lives, it appears, and they all could play. For example, Janette Carter, A.P. and Sara’s daughter, appears throughout the documentary, recalling her parents and their career. Only late in the movie do we learn that A.P. asked her on his deathbed to continue the legacy – and so she opened a dance hall and picked up her guitar and played. All of these characters – so many Carters – are rich, colorful figures in a compelling history.

As with Muscle Shoals, this film inspired a purchase: we went out immediately and bought an album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops after discovering them onscreen. One of the points made throughout is that the Carters have influenced all the music we know today. Like the (better-known) Beatles, everything that came after had a note of Carter Family in it.

Not only an extraordinary story, The Winding Stream is a well-produced and visually pleasing documentary, rich with family, detail, and emotion. I will say that in the animation of old black-and-white photographs of the original trio performing their music, the moving, blinking eyes were entirely creepy. But this was a rare treat of a movie. I learned a lot, and the music was outstanding.

Rating: 9 songs saved from extinction by A.P. Carter.

movie: Montage of Heck (2015)

Montage of Heck is the recently released documentary about Kurt Cobain’s life, and we got to see it in the theatre during Pickford’s Doctober. In a word, it was an unsurprisingly depressing, but compelling glimpse into an interior life that I did not know a whole lot about. It was well put together and enjoyable (in a depressing way) to watch. It was also fairly interpretive, on which more in a minute.

montage of heckAs a piece of art in its own right, I found this to be a fine film. I like the collage effect, of old home videos, recent video (of interviews with Kurt’s parents, Courtney Love, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, among others), concert footage, stills and animations from Kurt’s journals and sketchbooks, and animations of Kurt’s life. It was dynamic and expressive, like him. I learned a lot about him (I like Nirvana but am no super-fan, and no expert on his life), like that all-too-familiar combination of genius creativity, hyperactivity, and disturbance. I didn’t know about his stomach problems or the ex-girlfriend Tracy. It’s an enthralling story, and this movie made it immediate, and moving.

On the other hand, I am troubled by my lack of understanding of how real any of this is. I said earlier that the film is quite interpretive. The soundtrack includes synthesized and orchestral renditions of Nirvana songs: what would Kurt think about that? And the animations of his journals and sketches assume chronology and intention; who knows for sure? Contemporary footage of Kurt’s father and step-mother leaves the former looking nearly catatonic; I can’t believe there isn’t an editorial angle on that. Kurt’s daughter Frances is a co-executive producer. She’s family; she has as much business here as anyone. But she never knew him, as she was not yet two when he died. Even with the best of intentions, who knows how much she got right? Not to assume she had total control over the content…

Any time an artist dies, their work will be interpreted and presented to the public by someone else. And all artists die, although not all so young as Kurt Cobain. This is not a new concern. But this film did more interpretive work than it necessarily needed to do, and that just got me a little curious, and a little anxious. I like knowing where the line is drawn, and here I don’t know. If I knew more about his life beforehand I’d be better equipped to make judgments, but of course that would come with preconceptions and bias, too. And then there’s this guy who says it’s all a load of sh*t, and who do we believe?

As Husband pointed out, the footage of Kurt and Courtney in their apartment with baby Frances was hard to watch. Some of their home life goofing off was sweet, in a messy way – it really looked like they had fun together – but once there was a baby around it got more straightforwardly disturbing. What did we expect, though?

While I’m exploring expectations: the movie does not deal with his suicide at all, other than stating it in plain white text on a black screen. I’m sure some of us came for the sensationalism of learning more about his death, and those folks will be disappointed. But I can’t argue with the dignity – or maybe just the shying away from pain – involved in turning away. At what point should we expect his family or anyone who loved him to turn his death into movie theatre entertainment? What do we want, crime scene photos of splattered brain matter? I’m okay with this treatment.

This was a pretty great movie, unto itself. But it left me with more questions than answers, and feeling a little unsettled about the idea of Truth. Maybe that’s not the point. Beware Montage of Heck as an authoritative source on the life of Kurt Cobain; but for visual imagery and a moving experience, please enjoy.

Rating: a conflicted 7 unwashed locks.

movie: Muscle Shoals (2013)

muscle shoalsFollowing up on The Secret to a Happy Ending that we watched the other night, I finally found the time to watch this 2013 documentary, too. I’ve been hearing about it for the last two years and knew I needed to see it, and now I’m passing it on: go see this film now.

Muscle Shoals is about the town in Alabama of the same name, a small place, a backwater, where some of the greatest American music ever has been recorded. It’s full of beautiful cinematography portraying the natural beauty of the place, and full of impressive musicians talking about the special magic made there. The list of contributors is formidable: Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Rick Hall, David Hood (Patterson Hood’s dad), Mick Jagger, Alicia Keys, Ed King, Spooner Oldham, Keith Richards, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton… and that’s a who’s who of who is in the movie, not who recorded there. That list is longer and more impressive. There are also video footage and audio tracks from back when history was being made at FAME Studio and later at Muscle Shoals Sound. The whole thing is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. You can view clips here; but really, you want to go find the whole thing.

The morning after, I ran out to my local record store and bought albums by Etta James, Wilson Pickett, the Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. What will you buy?

Rating: 9 tragedies in Rick Hall’s life, whew.
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