Southerners share with New Yorkers an attitude of exceptionalism—America is their country and we just live here. Maybe it has to do with the fact New York City was the only Northern city to support secession. New Jersey-ites are more like Midwesterners, we share Midwestern angst, defensiveness—I’m better than no one and no one is better than me. When it comes to music, it is hard to argue against Southern exceptionalism. The music that basically has come to define American Music (and by extension, ourselves), was discovered below the Mason Dixon Line—Rock & Roll, Blues, Soul, Gospel, R&B, Bluegrass, Country—you know the litany.
One of the Holy Days of Obligation on the Serious Music Lovers Liturgical Calendar is the annual Southern Music Issue by Oxford American Magazine, and this year’s the best yet. I might have said it every issue, this is their 11th –the magazine is a quarterly and other issues during the year deal with Southern Literature, Food, and I think Architecture. I’m not sure. I sometimes get the Literature one, but not always. I always get the music one.
Without a doubt, without question, it is the best Music Writing of the year. Love Rolling Stone, whose editorial is more towards news and what’s happening (and way too much celebrity journalism), besides the great political and popular culture coverage. The Brits do a great job with Uncut and Mojo, and like Oxford American, they have a CD with the issue, but Good Lord, them Brits are cheeky, and they have some solid interviews, but those magazine are more geared towards record collecting—what is the music worth having—and lack social history and context. The Brits remind us why we love the music we love. Relix is similar to the Brits, although the CDs they have are not quite as clever. Oxford American tells us stuff we don’t know. Accompanying CD and caliber of the writing, sorry in spite of the best efforts, hands down this issue of this publication is the best.
The CD is part of the experience of this magazine—the magazine features in-depth articles on the songs and artists that are on the CD. The connecting theme is of course—the South, but it is the New South, a multi-racial culture. Actually just black and white, I don’t remember much Asian, Hispanic or Native America in the magazine’s writing and let’s face it, those groups haven’t had much of an impact on Music made in the South. These are liberal, progressive southerners; honest about the troubled past but intent on letting the past be its only definition. God Fearing, Intellectual, Witty. The magazine is usually in the literary magazine section of magazine racks, but unlike most other literary magazines, it’s not boring.
The bulk of the tracks are no-hit or one hit wonders, and those hits tend to be regional. These are the obscure outsiders only the die-hard music geeks and serious musicologists tend to know about. The artists have degrees of obscurity, and sometimes the magazine will pick somebody well known, but take a look at a specific period. Peter Guralnick, the author of the great two volume Biography of Elvis, had a long piece last year about Jerry Lee Lewis. Speaking of Elvis, a coupla three issues ago, the CD had the first live version of Suspicious Minds, pretty hip.
Unlike other music magazines, Oxford American presents an array of types of music articles—straight-out interviews, appreciations, historical analysis, why so and so is important or why so and so is so important to me, or how they tracked down the song and the scant information about the artist. Most of the artists are old timey—the 50s are particularly rich vein, although there are some decent contemporary music, such as Kelly Hogan, with “Papa was a Rodeo,” a kind of Gen Y retro folk rock ode to accepting irresponsible parenting, “Water Tower,” a 1990 recording by the Gunbunnies that sound like a cross between the JayHawks and Nirvana, or what has to be most bizarre rap song, Savoir Faire by Suga City, with a bass line played by a Cello, it is both disturbing and appealing.
My tastes tend towards New Old Music, and this issue delivers. A blues name I’ve heard of but never heard, Bukka White, does Parchment Prison, sounds as good as Robert Johnson, funky gospel with the Jubilee Hummingbirds, and Frank Frost, simply stunning—sun record bluesman, discovered by Sam Phillips. And the Rockabilly—Billy Lee Riley gets deserved props, a fascinating ditty called I Viborate, by some one-shot cats Bobby Brown & The Curios. No, the four-disc Rockin Bones by Rhino Records didn’t have it all after all. Song sounds familiar I realized—the melody is a Great Balls of Fire rip-off! They have a song by Sonny Burgess—someone I’ve only heard about, I’m going to get some of his CDs. And, the topper—Treat Me Like A Dog, by the great, Sleepy LaBeef. It’s a song of his I never heard, from what seems to be a mid-90s out of print record. Damned if it is not the best one of his I’ve heard yet. Weirdest X-File song is “It Happened in Tennessee,” a folky epic replete with studio flourishes that reminded me of Pistol Pete on the recent Springsteen, or some over the top Cash like Johnny Yuma. The song is by Wayne Jackson, who was a Stax trumpet player, who blew, according to the accompanying article, on more than 50 #1 songs, from Dock of the Bay and Soul Man, to Suspicious Minds and U2’s Angel of Harlem. This song is a story song—although the plot is as obscure as Lily, Rosemary & The Jack of Hearts, guitar is the main instrument and is simply—out there in a no-way dude, yes WAY, kind of way.
I always go to the store after an issue and seek out some new CDS, and this year, it will be Frost and Sonny for sure.
Basically the CD is the best mixed tape you will get this year. And, with this issue, you get two—more than 50 songs, no kidding and all worth hearing and most classics waiting to be discovered. For some reason, the collection is better this year, maybe there’s more diversity, or there is a nice selection of Rockabilly, or there are fewer glaring mistakes in selection, a tendency that flawed some recent issues. All I know, is that I’ve been playing the CDs for a few days now and the player ain’t sick of them yet.
To inaugurate its second decade, Oxford American has started a new series. Not only are they releasing two CDs per music issue (they did the same last year), one of the CDs are devoted to the music of a single Southern State—this time out, Arkansas, where the handsome publication is produced. The idea is the artist has to be born in the state—an surprisingly, Arkansas gave birth to Ronnie Hawkins, Levon Helm, Al Green and Johnny Cash, among many others but as the editorial pointed, instead, they “hone in on artists we haven’t spotlighted before.” So, we get a fascinating Rockabilly by Andy Starr, a forgotten star-crossed rockabilly artist, however, one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read in a few months, by A. Ferrel James that finds this sort of lost soul, a recluse living in rural Arkansas, and like the best of Southern writing, it’s a heartbreaking yet funny read.
Like I said, the best musical journalism of the year. I noticed that this year’s issue doesn’t have a lot of “name” writers—in some circles the magazine is quite prestigious, so well known writers like Guralnick accept assignments. There are also more articles—a complete piece, on each artists—and there is a real consistency to readability and quality writing, a consistency that sometimes wasn’t upheld. Oxford American has set a new standard for themselves and apparently have done so by using lesser known scribes. Well done.
Used to be, the magazine came out at the end of the summer. Then it was sometimes in the Fall. This year their website said December 1. It was finally in a Barnes & Noble on December 8. The past few years has mean the issue’s release date is a moving target (welcome to our new world of magazine publishing ladies & Gentlemen)—but if you love music and music writing, go out and get it Now!