Southern culture on the skids

Oxford American's Southern music issue needs more grits, less gravy.


Sarah Vowell
May 16, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

this late in the century, to be a French fashion designer or a Canadian
hockey player or a musician in the American South involves a tension between
tradition and talent, custom and character. The great ones walk on air, if
only because they must live in the gorge between past and future, between the
culture that has made them and the private desires that will push them
beyond it. In the case of Southern music, I'm thinking here of Elvis
Presley -- and I'm not just thinking of his first recordings at Sun Studios in
Memphis and the way he took bluegrass hero Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of
Kentucky" and turned it sideways, insinuating a want into the song that
Monroe wouldn't have dreamed of. I'm thinking just as much of his alien
hair, his flashy taste in clothes, of the mere fact of the guts and vanity it
took to set himself apart and reach for a new look, a new sound, a new
life.

As Presley's friend Carl Perkins tells Joe Tidwell in the current special
music issue of the Oxford American, "People ask me when I think this
Elvis thing is gonna fizzle out. I tell 'em, it ain't. Why should it? He's
in the pages of history. If they forget him, then they need to tell George
Washington to move over too." Perkins' remark is one of the little moments
in this wildly inconsistent issue of the John Grisham-published Southern
culture magazine that remind the reader just what's at stake in tackling
the sonic contributions of the land of cotton: the idea of genius and
community, the towering influence and inspiration of race, and the beat Southerners
like Presley and Little Richard and their brethren made that sent
the whole world dancing.

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Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff claims he hasn't set his sights on comprehensive coverage of so huge a subject: "Instead, we have strolled, unhurriedly, down various avenues." That a Southern magazine devotes an entire double issue, enclosing a compilation CD within, to Southern music is at once a no-brainer of the sort we depend on from our glossy journals and a big risk -- because, quite simply, so much has already been said. Just as current Southern musicians must contend with the ghosts of greatness, so must writers
on the subject take on some truly fine commentary. The same bookstores
peddling the current Oxford American just received shipments of the
new fourth edition of Greil Marcus' unparalleled "Mystery Train," a book
that's as much about American ambition as it is about American music.
On the critic's role, Marcus writes: "Putting the pieces together, trying to understand what is novel and adventurous, what is enervated and complacent, can give us an idea of how
much room there is in this musical culture, and in American culture -- an idea
of what a singer and a band can do with a set of songs mixed into the
uncertainty that is the pop audience. Looking back into the corners, we
might discover whose America we are living in at any moment, and where it
came from." That's a lot to ask. But I will say this: Putting the Oxford American's mundane feature on the overrated nouveau swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers next to "Mystery Train" is so unfair it's obscene, like pitting a paper doll against Mount Rushmore.

Smirnoff's admission that he's only known about such a thing as good country music for a whopping five whole months doesn't exactly inspire confidence. I get the feeling that this issue of the Oxford American came together more out of luck than skill. Still, any
publication would be fortunate to print the essays of Peter Guralnick and
Nick Tosches, as this one does. Tosches' piece on minstrel Emmett Miller is a cool, complicated history of the singer, "one of the strangest and most stunning of stylists ever to record."
In his righteous essay, Guralnick lovingly accounts his youthful admiration of blues
artist Skip James as a way of condemning the startling racism, the "language
of sociopathy," in Stephen Calt's James biography "I'd Rather Be the
Devil," in which Calt defames the musician as "the plantation equivalent of
a successful drug dealer in a modern-day housing project."

But why must the Oxford American deface the intelligence and
originality of Tosches and Guralnick (not to mention Miller and James, who
contribute the two finest performances on the CD) with dopey little
personality profiles of people like Kate Campbell, whose "When Panthers
Roamed in Arkansas" is the most intelligence-insulting song on the CD?
Similarly, thankfully short features about Cajun dancing or about the New
Orleans funk band the Meters (ugh: "so viscerally funky that [their] grooves
are practically guaranteed to put you in traction") bear the editorial stamp
of an American Airlines in-flight rag, not of a publication whose boasting
subtitle is "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing."

This issue's one wonderful conceit is its obstinate refusal to acknowledge the marketplace.
Half the people profiled -- Janis Joplin, Sister Rosetta Tharpe,
Charlie Rich -- are dead and have no specific new product to plug. Few
mainstream magazines (like, none) would be likely to publish Robert Gordon's superb
look at Sun producer Sam Phillips' disruptive appearance on "Late Night With
David Letterman" in 1986. Gordon's description finds one of the century's
most unusual men in what's become the boringly usual circumstance of talk
show guest. But Phillips slyly refuses to answer all the old dull questions
about his old interesting past, expressing amazement that a gap-toothed man
such as Dave could make a million dollars. Looking Dave in the eye, he tells
him, "'You gotta work for this one a little while tonight, son." As Gordon
puts it, "Sam has, naturally if not consciously, designated Dave the artist,
and he is extracting from him a nervousness and a deference that is very
unlike Dave's usual suave and cool performance. Sam is now producing Dave."

This kind of pushing, this kind of upset, is what great artists do. Placed
in a chair countless others have sat in for the express purpose of telling
stories we've all heard before, a real opportunistic genius will milk the
situation, crack us up, make us nervous and, best of all, call forth surprise. Mostly, the Oxford American's "unhurried stroll" through Southern music could have used a little more hellhound on its trail. Too many of its pages are spent lingering on corners listening to neighbors with nothing to say about nothing.


Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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