Oxford American, issue 99: Kentucky Music Issue (winter 2017)

You can see further details or purchase this issue here, and I do recommend it.

I’m amazed, again, at my enjoyment of this magazine, especially in its Southern Music issues, this one about Kentucky – and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many names I knew, both in contributing writers (a few associated with West Virginia Wesleyan) and in musicians. I shouldn’t put these mags off so long; I enjoy them so much.

I am reminded of past OA music issues, of course, and of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. The liner notes, so to speak, in this music issue for the accompanying album of 27 tracks often expand into mini-essays not only describing the music but arguing for its place in history, its importance, its context… as when I read Poetics, I find myself recognizing something I’d been missing: music written of as the art form it can be. I haven’t found enough of this in the world, I guess. Also, of course, OA‘s concentration on the American South overlaps with my own concerns, and our musical tastes so far line up nicely too.

I am also astonished to see the same themes that plague my own mind and life keep recurring… it was one thing to find the theme of home-seeking in Matt Ferrence’s Appalachia North, which I am reading now, a book I chose for its relevance to my own obsessions. But the same themes turn up in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m listening to on audio now (birthday present from my mom, thanks Mom)… and the music of Kentucky often as not approaches them too. Look at Harry Dean Stanton explicating “Cancion Mixteca”:

I see it as, when you’re truly at home there’s no more suffering… crying to get back to where you come from.

Maybe this is what’s so haunting and impossible about our (apparently universal) yearning for home: that we’re trying to get to place with no suffering, where everything is resolved. Talk about setting yourself up to be disappointed.

Or this:

Inoculated with a love of and fascination with her homeplace, Rachel Grimes became a student of its history.

Again I’m thinking of Appalachia North, Matt Ferrence’s research-rich investigation of his own home: work I aspire to do for mine. Partly I self-select (consciously and not) to expose myself to the media that I am likely to appreciate, of course. But doesn’t it also seem like we encounter things in groups or bunches? A new topic is suddenly all around us. I remember the first time I heard of the concept of a murder ballad. It was from a woman from Kentucky (of course), a fellow student in my MFA program. I was intrigued by the concept; and suddenly murder ballads were all around me. Again from this Kentucky album & magazine: the murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” which I can’t say for sure isn’t the first one I ever heard, sung by Amanda Jo on the dorm steps at dusk in West Virginia’s July, backlit by fireflies.

Perhaps I most loved the brief notes on each song included with the cd that comes with this magazine, those succinct reasons why King Kong’s “Me Hungry,” Freakwater’s “My Old Drunk Friend,” and Sarah Ogan Gunning’s “I’m Going to Organize, Baby Mine” join Loretta Lynn, the Everly Brothers and Les McCann. Reading these paragraphs and listening to the songs and making my own observations about the music and meaning is always the most special treat of an OA music issue. But there was so much I loved here: Jason Howard*’s “If God Had a Name,” about Joan Osborne’s influence on his own life and spirituality (I love the song, too). Jeffrey A. Keith’s study of the Appalshop*. John Thomason on John Prine’s Paradise. Ashley Bloom’s lovely essay “Fire in My Bones” on religion and reclaiming her body. Crystal Wilkinson’s story “Cleo, Cleo Black as Coal,” a piercing piece of fiction to cleanse the palate, except it’s more flavorful than any palate cleanser. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Death Rattle” was a remarkable piece of investigation, even anthropology. And of course, Silas House*’s gorgeous feature, quoted below. So much astonishingly lovely writing, throughout.

Zandria F. Robinson’s feature, “Border Wars,” confounded me some; sometimes I didn’t know what her sentences meant, although they were always lovely. I found myself both nodding emphatically along, and also sometimes disagreeing. It was an engaging piece of writing, and I guess any differences I felt with her drive home the point about shifting borders and differing definitions, and how they can divide us. If I didn’t always agree, I certainly respected and admired.

David Ramsey’s “Tuned Up in the Spirit,” about the Old Regular Baptists and their line-called music, gave me a little trouble as well. It was a bit too many pages of religion (perhaps without quite enough music) for my tastes. And when he notes that the Old Regulars forbid woman from leading songs, preaching, or taking part in church business, and then moves right along, I think, only a man could brush past that.

Here are a few of the lines I marked, usually in noticing how they speak to my own home-seeking.

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 [this issue].

From Deputy Editor Maxwell George’s introduction to “The Music of Kentucky.”

Ronni Lundy quotes Dwight Yoakum:

…you have to break the ties to be yourself, and then you see how much those ties meant to you, so you try to put them back. Only you can’t really do it. You can’t do either all the way. But that’s where the story is, right? That place in the middle, isn’t that where it’s art?

This quotation means a great deal to Lundy, too – it gives her the title of her piece on Yoakum, “That Place in the Middle.”

From House’s inspired essay “Watershed,” on the Phipps Family:

There are many Appalachias, but this one is much like most of the rural places in the region: a wound, a poem, a contradiction – none of them easily defined, all of them complex, taut with history and culture that most people never bother to study or understand before passing judgment. Like most places in American, it’s a place of poverty and wealth, of education and ignorance…

And of course, you know what I’m going to say next, that all of this is true of most places in America. A wound, a poem, a contradiction. (I wish I’d written that.)

John Jeremiah Sullivan writing about the jawbone as a musical instrument, and its roots in slavery:

Slaveholders could forbid them the guitar, the banjo, the fiddle, everything. They might even embargo wire and string. But it’s not as easy to take away denuded animal bones. And while those were ready to hand, so was rhythm. That’s how hard it is to kill music.

That’s how hard it is to kill art.

In other words, forget it.

Forget it. This stuff is gold. Get all the Oxford American music issues you can.


Rating: 9 stays out of a man’s shirt collar.

*Recognize these names? From Hillbilly.

Oxford American, issue 87: Texas Music Issue (winter 2014)

oxford-american-texasThey’ve done it again. This is my favorite magazine.

Actually, lest you think me totally partisan, the Georgia Music Issue might have been even better. Let’s start with the included musical cds, which make this very fine magazine even more desirable. I’m really enjoying the Texas cd, which includes tracks by Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver, Rick Trevino, The Texas Tornados, Bob Wills, Freddy Fender, Kimmie Rhodes with Willie Nelson, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark and Janis Joplin (whew). But I do notice that there’s not much here that bucks a traditional idea of Texas music – that is, country and Tejano. Contributions by Ornette Coleman and Spoon take a few steps off that path. But I thought the Georgia cd did a much better job of showing the wild variety available in a state prone to stereotypes. And it’s not because Texas doesn’t have the diversity available. Likewise, the text accompaniments to these musical tracks were a frank disappointment after reading the Georgia version. Rick Clark’s text is a just a little more basic, which is not to say I would have been let down, if only I hadn’t read that other one, in which each Georgia track was brought to life with storytelling unto itself that made me need to go back and listen again. Here, I’m listening again and again because the music is good, but not because a whole narrative world was opened to me. Perhaps tellingly, the write-up of the Texas cd is located at the back of the mag, not at the front.

But there’s something there, too: the cd and liner notes read a little better, feel a little fuller, after taking in the magazine as a whole. Joe Ely, Doug Sahm and others get attention in shorter articles, while features include Margaret Moser’s groupie diary (which I really enjoyed) and pieces on Guy Clark, Paul English (Willie’s drummer and bodyguard/door guy/gunslinger) and DJ Screw. The latter finally provided what I was looking for: a feeling that Texas music is as broad as its state lines suggest. I especially liked Amanda Petrusich’s commentary on the extreme localness of Screw’s reign – and here I am being partisan – in Houston’s rap scene, shortly before the internet blew the world wide open and, as she says, offered

more opportunity for cross-pollination, but less opportunity for the kind of place-specific identity-making that Screw wrought for Houston. The membranes are too permeable now.

Other highlights, for me, included the quirky perspective in Rachel Monroe’s “That Drifting Place,” where she examines Roy Orbison through the lens (excuse the pun) of his iconic dark glasses. “Texas Calling”, by Joe Ely as told to Alex Rawls, was a fun one to read: a bunch of recollections about playing with the Clash – with no real plot to hold them together, but it felt all the more like realistic recollecting that way. A very short piece of fiction by Bret Anthony Johnson provided an interesting departure – I don’t recall any fiction in the Georgia Music Issue. And I was thrilled to read Aaron Alford’s interview with Amanda Shires. She says,

When I bring people there [West Texas], they find it very odd, but they eventually love it. It’s unique in the way that it looks, and the people are so hospitable there, friendly. You have to be if you’re in a place that has a lot of prairie dogs.

Which is perfect, of course, and funny, and I can just hear it in her sweet drawl.

All in all? A different piece of work than the Georgia version was. Another very fine cd, more good writing, and again I learned a lot. Keep ’em coming.


Rating: 8 outlaws.

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.
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