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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A Kentucky Music Issue web-exclusive liner note.
For some twenty-five years I’ve maintained an obsession with four specific seconds in all the history of rock & roll. Four seconds of a single guitar ripping a hot lick, the opening salvo to a rock & roll song from 1969, a song I don’t particularly love (it’s not my typical go-to music), played by a band I almost never listen to (no disrespect intended). But these scant seconds thrill my ear, lift my spirit, and send me back to my own guitar with renewed enthusiasm, and they capture the singular virtuosity of Steve Ferguson—a great musician from Louisville you’ve likely never heard, which I consider truly unfortunate, because boy is he ever worth the hearing.
In her career as a pianist, arranger, founding member of the indie chamber-rock group Rachel’s, and internationally acclaimed composer, Grimes has graced metropolitan stages around the globe. The long reach of her creativity is, in some important regard, the result of her upbringing in Louisville and her exposure to the collaborative and experimental music scene that has been vibrant there since the eighties. She draws her water in rural Kentucky, though, and has returned to the Commonwealth’s Bluegrass region continuously throughout her life as though guided by a divining rod.
The Louisville trio Maiden Radio—Cheyenne Marie Mize, Julia Purcell, and Joan Shelley—took the reins on gathering a contemporary octet of Kentucky women, inviting Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs of the Local Honeys, Heather Summers and Anna Krippenstapel of the Other Years, and Sarah Wood to join them. They recorded their version at Louisville’s Locust Grove in August 2017. The text—past the first two verses—is a composite of their own.
In the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, unionism—or its lack—was a creed people held and defended as fiercely as those of the region’s charismatic religions. And the music Sarah Ogan Gunning and her siblings produced between the 1930s and 1960s was as steeped in unionism and communism as it was in the traditional songs, ballads, and hymns of Appalachia.
The music made by the Booker Orchestra of Camp Nelson, Kentucky, has been almost completely obscured by time. In that distinction, it’s representative of many of the contributions made, to the Commonwealth and to the country alike, by rural black Kentuckians. Jessamine County’s Camp Nelson was a major site for recruitment and training of African-American soldiers in the Civil War, and more than ten thousand United States Colored Troops and their families cycled through during and after the war.
As an indie-besotted college student when Me Hungry was released, I took to the album immediately. Rarely in life have I felt so alone. Music snob friends turned up their noses at the lighthearted funk and ridiculous story; critics were largely indifferent, occasionally hostile. At the time, I ascribed the chilly reception to polite society’s general wariness of humor in music. Maybe!
When Lindsey raps “I’m talking rainbows,” I think he must be talking black joy. I think he must be talking the kind of rainbow you see in the shimmer-swirl of color that floats over the curve of a soap bubble. How alike they are, soap bubbles and black joy: Beautiful. Carefree. Tenuous.