Back To Tennessee: The Oxford American's Annual Southern Music Issue Just Made 2013 Better

Sometimes it seems like we’ve reached a peak-oil situation with regard to good, old, formerly unknown or obscure music: the great stuff has been located, mined and hauled to the surface. Now there are only little pockets left to be blasted out and brought to light, or flushed out to the open air with great force and lots of waste in the extraction process. How many more artists or bands like Death or Rodriguez or Jim Sullivan, or the Nu Grape Twins, or Bobby Charles, or like the long-lost big band sessions by Andrew Hill or outtakes from whichever genius giant you pick, how many can there be left? Just when one starts to despair about the prospects for a thrilling new discovery, the Oxford American’s annual Southern Music Issue arrives to set things right. If it doesn’t contain surprises and previously undiscovered gems for you (I bet it does), then it at least will point even the encyclopedic music buff back to the record collection with renewed fervor.

The annual Southern Music, which has been coming out around this time every year for a while now, signals the holiday season more powerfully than turkey or snow or decorations or carols or presents or unused vacation time do for me. The 2013 issue is another cause for celebration. The magazine is devoted to Tennessee this year. (For the past several years the OA has been organizing its music issue by state -- they’ve tackled, by my recollection, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, prior to this one.) The magazine retails for $12.95, and it comes with a two-CD set of Tennessee-related music. It’s worth the price just for the music, but it’s also worth the price just for the writing, even if you no longer own a CD player (it’s possible).

Volunteer State exceptionalists might take issue with the fact that Johnny Cash is on the cover (the mag includes a touching recollection of childhood by Rosanne Cash) and an amazing story by Joe Hagan about the fan letters written to the great singer Charlie Rich, since both JC and CR were in fact born over the river in Arkansas. There are surely others who might not pass the strict TN litmus test, like the portion of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s in-depth exploration of the early days of ska and reggae in his story about one-time Wailers singer Junior Braithwaite, aka Bratty. But don’t get hung up on state borders.

Cash’s story includes moving memories of her early years in Memphis, before her dad became hugely famous, when she and her parents lived on Tutwiler Street. JC got the pad by failing at his job as a refrigerator salesman, telling a woman that a new fridge was too expensive and didn’t have a good warranty. The woman offered Cash and his young pregnant wife the other half of a duplex, about five miles from Sun Records. 

Hagan’s Charlie Rich meditation presents tantalizing bits of fan mail that were sent to the Charlie Rich fan club by eager and innocent -- and kind of wild -- young (and not so young) listeners. (Hagan tracked down the former head of the fan club who had the old mail, which at remained unread for for 40 or so years.) One of the more surreal letters was from a 14-year-old girl from Cincinnati who recounts a dream she had of the singer performing “on a ‘floating platform’ on a pond near her house.’ With a touch of Found Magazine-style ready-made prose art/detritus, the story does for Charlie Rich what Cintra Wilson’s astounding book about celebrity obsessions, "A Massive Swelling," did for horny Aerosmith fans, diving in to the murky world of fantasy and delusion and longing that many music fans have for their objects of obsession. But Hagan’s piece is more than that, too, charting the connection that Rich had with rhythm and blues and jazz, and how he sort of split the difference between Elvis Presley and Ray Charles. (The Charlie Rich tune included in the collection, “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs,” is a masterpiece of slowness, restraint and poise. The lyrics, written by his long-suffering wife, Margaret Ann, about a long-suffering wife, are up there among the greatest of country music’s dark-tragic miniatures, and the groove -- like Percy Sledge on cough syrup -- is sublime.) 

The always virtuosic John Jeremiah Sullivan includes some revealing bits from an interview he did with Bunny Wailer three years ago. Bunny describes working with legendary producer Clement Dodd on those early recordings. From the Wailers and Junior Braithwaite (who moved to the States after his early reggae recordings) Sullivan moves on to connect with Memphis pianist Rosco Gordon, who played a kind of syncopated off-beat pattern that has similarities to the foundational rhythms of ska and reggae. Sullivan makes broad connections between the cross-current of musical and cultural info that was going to and from the Caribbean and the American South, seasonal laborers bringing back American records to Jamaica, etc. It’s an unsolvable musical mystery. The piece includes top-notch digressions about people posting video of vinyl records playing on YouTube, about doing musicological research online and more. 

There are also stories on Bessie Smith, a piece by singer and radio host Laura Cantrell on the Grand Ladies of the Opry, on the Fisk Jubilee Singers, on Big Star, on jug band pioneer Gus Cannon, and a ton more.

The OA music issue is always the ideal stocking stuffer for any music or writing nerd on your list. I’ll be pawing over it, reading and rereading, listening and relistening, between now and New Year. It just made 2013 a little better, which is good.

It’s worth noting that the Oxford American has, like most print publications, experienced some tribulations in recent years. It’s relocated, and canned a long-time editor after an intern scandal. But, from the looks of the music issue, which is probably the mag’s biggest product each year, it’s in good hands with editor Roger Hodge. Consider the cover cost a donation to worthy, worthy cause. I can’t wait to read and hear the OA music issues devoted to North Carolina, Georgia and all the rest.