Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Georgia on Its Mind: The Oxford American Annual Southern Music Issue, Winter 2015

In lieu of a top ten list of the best music for 2015, I’d like to pay tribute to one of my favourite magazines, The Oxford American that celebrates the music of the American South every December with a compilation CD and some outstanding music journalism. I’ve been collecting them since a good friend of mine introduced me to the periodical in 2010. This is a magazine worth keeping.

Now in its 17th year, the Oxford American focuses on the history of the southern United States. It is published four times a year but the magazine’s best issue arrives in December. Simply titled the “Southern Music Issue,” the magazine features recordings, past and present, from a particular state or region in the American south. Last year the magazine and accompanying CD featured artists from Texas. This year it’s the music of Georgia, with a 77-minute sampler and some fine storytelling about the State’s musical heritage.

There’s one phrase that seems to characterize the music from Georgia and that is “break out.” From James Brown and Ray Charles to R.E.M. and Drive-By Truckers, the music of Georgia stands out for its pride of place in America. It’s a State that is still socially close to the political roots of the Civil War and its attachment to independence. But while the days of secession are long memories found in some history books, the people of Georgia create music emphasizing their autonomy from the rest of America. This issue of the magazine is full of stories that express that notion of assertive individualism.

The music of Georgia isn’t necessarily one sound. While that could be said of any region of the United States, the music coming out of Georgia is quite diverse and the accompanying CD certainly bears this out. Every form is well represented from hip-hop to country, blues to R&B, and pop to funk (but not enough jazz for my liking). Nevertheless the album, like all of the CDs in previous issues, is merely a juried sampler of the State’s musical riches. Compiler Maxwell George has done a decent job of reflecting Georgia’s gumbo by sequencing the tracks based on feel, rather than any chronological evolution. The result is an eclectic mix starting with the break out sound of James Brown (“Hot Sweat”) moving right into a pair of early blues tunes to be followed by Gram Parsons. The CD is basically a flip-flop through time from the 1920s (Ma Rainey) to the present (Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings).

We also hear the edgier sounds of Drive-By Truckers from their recent 3-CD live release followed by the alt-rock band called Smoke, from the Atlanta suburb known as Cabbagetown. Those tracks are quickly eased by the sounds of Indigo Girls (“Tried to be True”) and the beautiful ballad, “Potter’s Field” sung by an obscure Georgian native, Alice Swoboda, released in 1972. The essays that fill the magazine complement the album and it’s in these essays where the real music begins.

Alt country/Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers are among those profiled in Oxford American's Winter 2015 issue.

Most of the stories in this issue have a personal, rather than academic, focus from the roster of over 30 contributors in Issue No. 17. The essays are as varied as the tracks on the CD as the reader goes from one region in the State to the next like you’re on a musical journey rich in politics, history and religion. Almost every piece I read had this blend of ideas all fused by the humid climate of Georgia. This is the state where the tempo of- ife is slower than most places while never becoming complacent or lazy. What I learned is that the community of Georgia not only wears its heart on its sleeve, but feels emotions a lot deeper than most of us in the anxious North.

Highlights include Peter Guralnick’s opening essay on Blind Willie McTell, whose contribution to African-American culture went far beyond simple blues songs from the porch. Elyssa East’s story of Gram Parsons is a marvelous blend of his hybrid of country-rock music along with a fashion statement. Her story introduced me to Nudie Cohn who tailored some biggest names in rhinestone suits: Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Parsons. A full-page photograph shows off the singer’s threads.

Another favourite is Amanda Petrusich’s story of the Allman Brothers, called “The Road Goes On Forever.” She not only celebrates the music of the band, who came from Florida but established itself out of Macon Georgia, but she also ties in the genre known as Southern rock, which had a social and political mix first spawned by Duane and Gregg Allman. I liked the way she told the story of the band and critically evaluated their music. Her piece wasn’t overly sentimental, which is a large part of its appeal.

I was engaged by Brian Poust’s story about the late-60s Atlanta singer Hermon Hitson and the work of Lee Moses, who in Poust’s words is a singer “imbued with drama wit and tortured pain.” He goes on to write about the golden years of Atlanta soul music whose days ended when “the construction of three interstate freeways in the late 1960s permanently splintered many of the city’s thriving black neighborhoods.” As in most of the articles in this magazine, the issues of social unrest are always a part of the story.

Finally, the magazine devotes 20 pages in tribute to Athens, Georgia, a college town that gave rise to a new American sound in 1981 with the bands R.E.M., the B-52s and Pylon. According to author/musician David Barbe, the music coming out of Athens is still vibrant in 2015 thanks to an environment that “still has a strong DIY ethic.” The same could be said about Oxford American.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in 2016.

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