This year we’ve compiled our “greatest hits,” including selections of the most beloved music writing from our archive—guest edited by Brittany Howard, the Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and frontwoman of the Alabama Shakes. This jam-packed issue also includes new essays on iconic Southern artists who have changed the trajectory of American music.
Rather than including a CD this year, we’ve asked guest contributors to curate a selection of playlists that limn the bounty of Southern music across genres. These are available to stream on Spotify.
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The 1960s were coming to a close when rising country rock musician Gram Parsons posed next to Nudie Cohn, the celebrated Western-wear designer more than three times his senior, for a photoshoot. Neither of them would have predicted that Parsons’s “Nudie suit”—embroidered with rhinestone-studded marijuana leaves, sequin-dotted poppies, and sugar cubes laced with LSD—also foretold of his death.
Johnny Mercer drew from the same black musical traditions as Elvis would a generation later and made, if not quite a billion dollars, certainly an inexhaustible fortune, and left behind a half-dozen of America’s most indelible melodies besides.
The Rock*A*Teens came along in the early nineties, after a string of tragedies rocked the Cabbagetown community. As Atlanta-based journalist Doug Deloach told me: “To tell the story of the Rock*A*Teens is to also tell the story of Cabbagetown and all the bands that came before them.”
MC Shy D brought hip-hop to Atlanta. Or anyway, he brought Atlanta to hip-hop—in the mid-eighties, he was the first rapper from the city to break out of it, to tour the country and make a name for himself. He became an object of adulation to the whole region.
Bessie Jones nurtured a prodigious repertoire of songs—hundreds of them, for work, play, worship, instruction—as both a rite and as a vocation. Her vision was one of radical egalitarianism, inspired by the enduring collective, expressive folk traditions—occupational, recreational, spiritual—of the black rural South and her ardent faith in a kind of ecstatic liberation theology, which found activist application in the civil rights movement.
During Sweet Auburn’s heyday, a brotherhood of gifted guitar-playing soul singers, though largely unknown by a wide audience today, formed a loose collective. They wrote songs together, recorded them, encouraged one another, and competed fiercely, each believing in a coming personal glory that never came.
An installment in our weekly series, The By and By.
I am lying in bed on the Fourth of July. The apartment is empty. A box fan is propped on the dresser, blowing cool air, though I can’t hear it. I’m wearing headphones and listening to Bohannon: Speaks from the Beginning. This is the audiobook memoir of Hamilton Bohannon. Not the audiobook of the memoir, in other words, but the audiobook memoir—it only exists in an audio format. He didn’t find it necessary to write down the details of his life. Sound is his medium, always was. So he speaks.
A conversation with Cynthia Shearer. I got trained as a fiction writer to shamble in like Moms Mabley asking that the house lights be turned back on because we are not done talking about this or that particular thing. In Fletcher Henderson’s case, we need to pull the camera back a little on that stock scene of the little boy locked in with the piano and get more in the frame.