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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There are no great books about the Everly Brothers. No classic documentary films. Despite their influence on American pop music, which would be difficult to overstate, or the great, gaping beauty and sadness of their music, we are left with no lasting monuments to their catalog beyond the catalog itself. That, and—along with other personal tributes—this sad, ugly, perfect collage by Ray Johnson, who finished the piece by scratching large Xs across its surface, some weeks before filing it away in a box, folding over a thousand dollars in cash into the pocket of his windbreaker, and diving off a bridge that January night.
Walking through the sliding glass doors of the Peabody Hotel, across plush carpets under high industrial chandeliers, the first person I saw was a guy in a t-shirt and kilt. Not a plaid kilt, but a leather kilt—more like a skirt that a Roman soldier might wear. The man had a name badge around his neck with ribbons hanging from it and it turned out he was one of the conference organizers. Welcome to SSAWG, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group—weird farmers of the South.
Take Sturgill Simpson. Sturgill (can I call you Sturgill?) is a Kentucky rascal, born in the heart of the Appalachian mountains. Jackson—population around twenty-one hundred. He comes from a family of coal miners. He was in the Navy. He worked on the railroad and played music and sang, and his wife reassured him he was good and should keep doing it. Sturgill Simpson’s first album, High Top Mountain, was self-funded, self-released in 2013, and the first track is “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean.” In 2017, Sturgill’s first major-label album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, won the Grammy for Best Country Album and was nominated for Album of the Year while being largely ignored by country radio and the country music awards.
Originally published in our Kentucky Music Issue
It was 1995, the year Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” was released, the end of my eighth-grade year, in rural Kentucky where homophobia was—and continues to be—rampant. My secret boyfriend and I—the one I had kissed in darkened classrooms after Science Olympiad practice, his blond scruff chafing my freshly shaved cheeks—had broken up. We were bullied and threatened in the hallways at school, and gossiped about when we passed notes between classes and had lunch together. I ache for those two boys now, for the normal acne-scarred romance they were never allowed to have.
“At first, I couldn’t come in a place like this,” Helen Summerville told me one recent afternoon as she forked into a mound of cornbread dressing and giblet gravy at Kairos Kafe on the south side of Birmingham, Alabama. “And then, for a while, I wouldn’t come in,” she said. “None of that matters now.” Prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Summerville, who is black, would not have been served in most white-owned dining rooms in Birmingham. Back then, Ollie’s Bar-B-Q—which was open from 1926 through 2001 and claimed three locations in this neighborhood, including the one now occupied by Kairos—was among the staunchest defenders of the Jim Crow laws and practices that dictated separate eating facilities for whites and blacks.
“I didn’t do any research,” Luther Dickinson said with a grin as he opened the door to his room at the Washington Square Park Hotel. Dickinson was in New York for a show that evening at Rockwood Music Hall, and he had agreed to talk with me about a question I’d become obsessed with: Did blues slide guitar evolve from the Hawaiian steel guitar or from the African instrument usually claimed as its ancestor?
In 1892, Mildred wrote an article titled “Negro Music” for Music, a Chicago journal. She used the pseudonym Johann Tonsor because she was worried that her ideas wouldn’t be taken seriously if readers knew she was a woman. Two decades before the appearance of jazz, she claimed that the African-American sound would be the basis of American music in the next century. Mildred, who died in 1916, had no idea that one of her own African-American-influenced tunes would become an enduring part of popular culture.
There is a name buried deep inside the treasure troves of long-dormant record labels, a name that is whispered among soul music’s true believers: O. V. Wright. He sang like God was sitting on his shoulder, urging him to bear witness to the pain that comes with hardship.