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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Twelve years ago, the historical reissue label Dust-to-Digital released a six-disc masterpiece of early spiritual recordings called Goodbye, Babylon. Lance Ledbetter, who runs the Atlanta record company with his wife, April, is working on another project that will match Goodbye, Babylon in size and scope. That is, if they can finish it.
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.
An essay from the Place Issue
Today, I venture proudly and safely into the straight world outside the confines of bars and clubs once designated specifically as “gay” spaces. I can be free. This wouldn’t have been the case a generation ago. Within my lifetime, queer behavior has put people in jail, in exile, and in danger. For many who faced their truth in the decade before Stonewall, often the only safe choice was to leave the small towns where they were shamed and muted and to run away to cities—though even in Atlanta, a town with well over a half million people in 1960, the year Frank arrived, gay bars were dangerous and illicit places.
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.
A Points South essay from the Place Issue
As of today’s journey, our family has been in quarantine for more than a hundred days. Summer camp plans have fallen by the wayside, much like those color-coded home-school schedules parents passed around at the top of the pandemic. In their place are daily, valiant, sometimes pitiful, efforts to educate our kid, get our work done, love each other, and stay alive. The shelter-in-place sameness was beginning to feel a little like Groundhog Day—that is until late winter, early spring when death came in threes.
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.
I think the best that we can do as songwriters is try to document and try to record something about the time that we’re living in. If you want to connect with people who are alive now—unless you’re singing to ghosts—you better talk about things that are happening in the present.
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.