So you want to be an arts writer. Welcome to the indentured servitude of dealing with artists who can’t deal with criticism, who have no grasp on the concept of subjectivity, and who really don’t want anything from you besides your willingness to stroke them in print. There’s a reason why some of the best and worst writing is done about artists who are either dead or essentially retired from creative life in the public eye. You don’t have to worry as much about what dead people think about what you write about them, and artists in the twilight of their careers—if not their lives—often tend to just be happy that someone would still be interested enough to write about them at all.
Not to mention the fact that a lot of those old-timers come from old-fashioned upbringings with honest-to-goodness manners. Southern manners, in the case of Oxford American’s current Music Issue, which pairs excellent writing about 23 Southern (counting Texas) musical acts with a companion CD with one track each by the artists written about. Not all of the artists are interviewed (not all of the artists are still alive), and not everyone interviewed in the magazine is a recording artist.
Things can get a little contentious, but for the most part, the writers keep their tone nice and genteel, making this fat collection of essays a pleasure to read. It’s music writing at its most gentlemanly.
Bucolic, too. Even the writers from north of the Mason-Dixon approach their subject matter with a quiet reverence for dogwoods blooming in April and spring sun rendering asphalt back into raw petroleum products.
“It is a thick scent,” writes self-described “north-woods flatlander,” Michael Perry in describing the Tennessee home of jazz messenger Clarence Beeks, “molasses-brown and dumpy, the perfect base against which to draw in the fragrance of the dogwoods, like meringue over mud pie.”
Through the Arcadian recourses of writers like Perry, the South is written into the story of Southern music presented here as an all-embracing and long-suffering mother, patiently waiting for the spiritual return of so many prodigal sons and daughters. Run-down schoolhouses, graffiti-scrawled watering holes and tarpaper shacks abound here, each with a story or a tiny light still flickering inside.
One of the most intriguing pieces in the magazine is Eddie Dean’s exploration into the rarefied world of Chris King, a 31-year-old 78 rpm record collector who lives in a 19th century farmhouse in Virginia. King dismisses Howlin’ Wolf as “way too slick” and despises practically all music recorded since the end of World War II. When Dean begs to differ, “[H]e’s clearly offended,” writes Dean, “as if I’d just spit on the hardwood floor of his immaculate record room.”
Descended from other record collectors and old-time fiddlers, King pursues a lifestyle as close to Depression-era rural living as he can make it. At the same time, he’s also a producer and restoration engineer whose only discernible concessions to modernity are the expensive speakers and stereo components interspersed with vintage playback equipment and appliances in his home. He knows rare blues and country 78s the way some people know baseball cards, and he won a Grammy for his work making analog-to-digital transfers for Revenant Records’ seven-disc Charley Patton set, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues.
He is, in short, a fascinating character study for Dean, rife with quirks seemingly incompatible with the rest of his character. Among the very few modern recording artists he can swallow: noise pioneers Sonic Youth and the perpetually zonked Cypress Hill.
In many ways, the piece on Chris King is the touchstone essay to the two dozen-plus articles that follow. The greater availability of authentic, rare period recordings (including the 23 tracks on the accompanying compilation), as well as timely re-releases of deleted LP titles on more established labels, justify this excellent collection of writing, which if not for digital technology might have been a well-intentioned exercise in esoteric teasing.
Missoula author Kevin Canty joins this collection with a fine reminisce of discovering Mississippi-to-Chicago transplant Little Milton as a suburban teenager; rarer recordings than those are available for subsequent generations to discover thanks to custodians like Chris King.
“There are spots in the groove that, for whatever reason, haven’t been tapped,” a label owner tells writer Dean of King’s skill at engineering crisp transfers from records savaged by steel Victrola needles. “If you view it as a relief map, part of the terrain hasn’t been traveled on and Chris can get to it. He knows where to go in the groove to find music that’s still coded in there, that hasn’t been ground down to nothing.”
People, too, have music coded in them. The more subjective excursions into the kinds of feelings that perfect band or song can elicit in a listener color many of the reminisces in this music issue and guide its most amazing essay—one of the most amazing pieces of music writing I’ve ever read, period.
“I Think I’m Going to Hell,” by William Bowers, uses the gothic revival of a current Southern band, My Morning Jacket, to explore the inner topography of the obsessive music fan. Freeing himself from the wearisome task of writing what the band actually sounds like—or even trying to legitimize My Morning Jacket’s increasing stature in Southern music—Bowers is able to map some miraculously virgin mental terrain in the same way that Chris King can plumb a junked 78 for the crisp recording still hiding somewhere in its groove. It’s through writing like this, about music like this, that the South will always rise again.