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The Oxford American’s 22nd Annual 
Southern Music Issue

Guest edited by
BRITTANY HOWARD

 

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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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November 20, 2018

A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.

I first heard Wesley Johnson’s name in 2008 while speaking with Carlotta Fleming (née Samuels) about her vocal group, Odyssey 5. After recording their lone LP, First Time Around, for Brunswick Records in 1974, she’d spent a few years in Italy singing in a group called Wess Machine, the namesake disco ensemble of a man named Wesley Johnson—a Winston-Salem native who’d been moving and shaking to some degree in Italy. I didn’t get tied up in the few details Fleming had to offer, so I was floored a decade later to encounter a box of Wesley Johnson LPs—all Italian pressings—in a Jamaican record shop. These beautiful, gatefold affairs revealed that Johnson was not some draft dodger or bail hopper, but a prolific expat whose overseas success story remained mostly unknown back home. In Winston-Salem, his sister Linda told me the best person to speak to about Wesley would be his best friend, Carl Ray Johnson, whom I knew as the drummer and primary songwriter for the Eliminators, another important local soul combo from the seventies. Luckily, I was already in touch with Carl.

January 14, 2019

A lyric essay supplement to our 2018 North Carolina Music Issue—plus H. C. McEntire covers Led Zeppelin.

God is right there, in the brier. Turn the rows, change the tires, bow the heads, feed the mouths. Only the rhythm will yield the harvest. Go on, now. Shoot the hog between the eyes. It’s easiest that way.

Serve them all.

November 20, 2018

A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.

In Ryan Adams, the mythic memory of Thomas Wolfe is reincarnate in a contemporary host: an emotional kid from a marginal city in North Carolina with a precocious—underlined—and prolific—triple underlined—talent for transmuting the cramped circumstances of his childhood into dramatic, heartbreaking art of a rarefied sort. Hailing from opposite ends of the state, they each ended up in New York City as young men by way of a crucial teenage education in the Triangle—Wolfe at Chapel Hill during World War I and Adams in the bars of nineties Raleigh. As creators, the unfathomable volume of each man’s output clouds the artistic legacy.

February 20, 2019

Following up on Ryan Adams.

Last week’s news is a colossal disappointment for Adams’s fans—many of whom, like myself, had remained loyal to his music despite his career of public tantrums and well-documented selfishness. And it is an embarrassment for many writers and critics who gave him our words, thereby ensuring his celebrity and thus his power, so often situating his assholery as an excusable byproduct of tortured genius.

November 20, 2018

A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.

Around the close of the 1950s, if you wanted to hear the beginnings of the funk music that James Brown would soon introduce to the world, you wouldn’t find much of it on his records. Brown’s late- ’50s recordings with the Famous Flames, like his plaintive “Try Me” and the shatteringly sweet “I Want You So Bad,” are indisputably cool, and they spill over with the vocal histrionics that would characterize his performance style for decades to come. But the overall aesthetic of his music from that era is still redolent of doo-wop and ducktails. He’d only just begun to take some sandpaper to the smooth sheen of ’50s pop music. 

No, if you wanted to hear funk music before 1960, your best bet might be the Maola Ice Cream talent show in Kinston, North Carolina. 

November 20, 2018

A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.

Funk can be a sense of place, transmigratory memories filtered through the nose. For George Clinton, the smell of pig shit crosses state lines. “I remember feeding them pigs. I was knee deep in pig shit. Cosmic pig slop. That’s why you make the same face when something smells. Funk tickles the same muscle. That Southern vapor. Up in there with the biscuits and bacon. Your mother cooking with that iron stove, especially on Sunday morning. That was that same good smell that make you frown like you hear that funky blues.” 

August 03, 2016

The closest the Cable sisters can get to home these days is by floating above it in a boat. This is how they spent the third Sunday in May, reminiscing about what lay beneath Fontana Lake back when this North Carolina land was a spring-fed family farm ringed by mountains.

April 04, 2016

Drive north from Raleigh, North Carolina, a city that stands for all that is positive and prosperous in the New South, and you might feel that you’ve entered another world. Warren County is fifty miles away, past farms and hickory forests veiled with kudzu and preternaturally green. It is one of the most rural counties in the state. Also one of the poorest. The population is a little more than fifty percent African American; more than one in four people here live below the poverty line. Jobs are scarce, healthcare is limited, and schools perform below state levels.

November 20, 2018

A feature essay from the 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.

March 23, 2016

Not very long ago I was packing my daughter’s Hello Kitty lunchbox when I heard a squeal of brakes and a metallic crunk from the road out front. In the morning commute, a young antlered buck had been walloped in the street by a small car. The deer was still alive but lay on its side against the curb behind the parked car my wife would soon use to drive our daughter to school.