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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In 1966, Loretta Lynn was anything but little. She had already released eight solo studio albums. Just one year later she would be the first woman in country music to achieve a certified gold album for Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind). But a “little girl singer” was not considered a true solo act. She was there to support and round out the male stars of a show. The “girl singer” moniker was used by her male colleagues and by emcees as a way to separate and diminish the achievements of women in the industry.
Ella had grown up in the Smoky Mountains, first on farms and then in lumber camps, where she and her mother took in laundry while singing old mountain ballads. According to accounts, Ella’s singing voice was deep and seasoned with pain, and her lyrics reflected the plainspoken style of her speech.
Established in early 1933, the Plantation Echoes were made up of fifty Gullah field hands who enjoyed singing spirituals, most dating back to slavery. A handful of the singers were, in fact, former slaves themselves. Heyward’s praise of the Plantation Echoes was effusive. “The entertainment is not only highly unique but enlightening,” he later remarked. “There is an electrifying quality to the ‘shouting’ and the performers’ ability to shift from one time to another in perfect unison is a revelation.”
A Points South essay from the Kentucky Music Issue.
The station’s first transmission was of the revered union ballad singer Nimrod Workman offering a lyrical good-morning salute to “all of my people”—and WMMT 88.7 FM has been an inclusive and surprising notch on the dial ever since. It broadcasts at 15,000 watts from the center of Appalachia, beaming out from the highest-elevation transmitter in the state and serving the heart of coal country via an elaborate system of translators that bounce the signal up remote hollows, from Clay County, Kentucky, in the west to the coal counties of Southwest Virginia in the east, and bleeding over into the mountainous edges of West Virginia.
This is the second time I’ve heard him play in the past few months and it’s always the same: nobody knows who Malcolm Holcombe is, except those who do. And those who know really know. You listen to him and you become evangelical about his music, this scarecrow of a man folded over his Martin guitar.
“I know a different echo to that,” she said, and proceeded to sing a version of “Hold On,” delivered without accompaniment, in hushed intonations, the refrain “keep your hand on the plow, hold on” replaced, after one verse, by words that are not found in any transcriptions of the song previously cataloged by folklorists: “keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”
Bounding from one circle of attendees to another, dispensing heartfelt hugs and introducing himself and his Danish boyfriend to newcomers with the comportment of a Southern gentleman, was my friend Brandon Godman, a bearded, bearish hipster type whose jolly, grandfatherly laugh belied his twenty-nine years. He was the closest thing to a master of ceremonies, a thoroughly modern export of rural Kentucky who’d become a galvanizing presence in the Bay Area bluegrass scene.
Then there’s the stripe of love-sickness where you’re not even sure it’s hurting. The pain often masquerades as energy, even optimism, yet there is always, in Johnson’s phrasing—in the way she hesitates against the beat—the hint of denial and delusion, and the suggestion, in those seconds where her voice rises and cracks, of trouble ahead. It might let you sleep, but it will be with you first thing, and stay with you all day.
A liner note essay from our South Carolina Music Issue
We all know that Southern music needs to be heard and celebrated. However, visibility (exposure) cannot be pitted against our chance at a healthy life. The Oxford American’s ask of under-resourced Southern musicians to donate their song licenses is exploitative, and must end.
Originally published in our North Carolina Music Issue.
I wanted to start with the wild weeds and the creaking wood on the front porch, walking up to Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina. I wanted to start where she started, imagining her daddy playing jazz standards on the piano, her mama cooking something good and greasy in the cramped kitchen with siblings zooming around. I envisioned myself, like Alice Walker looking for Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave, shouting Nina in the derelict home, hoping somehow she would appear, gloriously phantasmagoric, and answer all of my incessant probing questions.