The Oxford American, the literary magazine that focuses on Southern writers and artists, has published 12 versions of its “Southern Music Issue.” Until now, only one state (Arkansas) has found itself to be the focal point of an entire issue. That all changed, however, when the publication recently devoted an entire issue and accompanying compilation CD to the music of Alabama. This year’s edition of the “Southern Music Issue” hit newsstands on December 1 and Oxford American editor/founder Marc Smirnoff is pleased by the response to the issue.
“It’s been very encouraging and it’s been very positive, even from non-Alabamians,” Smirnoff says, speaking by phone from his office in Conway, Arkansas, a town 30 miles north of Little Rock. “That’s an important point because our aim is not to be scholarly and dry with this thing. We’re trying to put on a great party tape, but use all these musical genres and prove the validity of Alabama’s musical excellence by this one symbolic CD. There’s no way to be comprehensive about Alabama music— this CD is supposed to just hint at what’s out there. If someone’s never heard of [singer] Mary Gresham and thinks she’s great, it might lead that person to think that way about other artists as well. It’s supposed to be provocative, but first and foremost it’s supposed to be a great musical experience.”
Smirnoff emphasizes the feedback he’s received from knowledgeable listeners has helped validate the issue’s success.
“People outside of Alabama don’t really care if it makes Alabama look good or bad,” he offers. “It better boogie or funkify or rock or they’re going to throw it out the window. It’s very pleasing to know it’s passed inspection from a lot of people. There were a lot of record collectors and music nerds— people that know much more than I do—who waited on it and ended up liking it. I knew people would like it and that’s not being cocky. It was easy pickings in a sense. There’s so much great material from the state of Alabama that we would have had to show some slight-of-hand to screw it up. We didn’t want to be obvious about it—no one needs Oxford American to tell them that Hank Williams is great. Dinah Washington is on the CD covering a Hank Williams song and how cool is that? Two giant Alabama talents that were different genres, races and genders and yet the common link is Alabama excellence.”
So over the course of 176 pages and a single CD, how did Smirnoff decide what—and who—to cover given the state’s prominent musical heritage?
“What we have learned over the years is that Southern music is so rich and so full of hidden gems that you’ve got to be really respectful,” Smirnoff explains. “We separate, for purposes of research, by genre—Jazz, Blues and Rock & Roll. When we approached Alabama, we simply tried to collect all the names in each genre that we should know about. You start with the famous and well-known folks and you go from there. We talk to as many experts as we can find and there are, believe it or not, Alabama Garage-Rock experts for example and Rockabilly and Soul experts. They can be found at record stores, they’re musicians, music writers, bloggers and they’re all over the world. Then you go to record stores, eBay and Google. There’s a wonderful list of names at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame website, but it’s not comprehensive. We just look for those names that are missing first and foremost, so we spend a year trying to collect names, songs and getting familiar with as many acts as possible. What’s funny about it is that, once we were done, more important names emerged—it’s amazing.”
In addition to detailed histories and photos of noteworthy, and often forgotten, Alabama musicians, the “Southern Music Issue” contains contributions from regional and national authors. Greil Marcus offers a rare fiction piece, giving a first-person account from Blues legend Skip James. Other writers featured in the issue include Daniel Wallace, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Dan Baum, Jamey Hatley, Rachael Maddux and Tom Franklin.
But even a labor of love like preparing such an issue can be strictly laborious at times. Smirnoff admits that obstacles arise and, you guessed it, money lies at the root of them.
“The biggest (challenge) is getting song rights,” Smirnoff says. “We’re a small non-profit and, in order to do this, we need the owners of the recorded material and the owners of the song lyrics to waive their normal royalty fees and to donate their songs. A lot of great people do that every year and a lot of behemoths don’t do that. That’s always the challenge—getting song rights—and it’s a nightmare. The way we deal with that is we fall in love with them and we chase them. But we make sure we fall in love with five Soul songs from African-American females if we want that type of sound covered. That way, if we get rejected on one, two or three, we still have a chance for the fourth and the fifth.”
On Saturday, February 5, Oxford American will host its ABALABIP! kickoff concert at the Alabama Theatre. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Featuring Ralph “Soul” Jackson, The Sex Clark Five, The Secret Sisters, Mary Gresham and Arthur Doyle, the show is the first in a series of concerts spotlighting Alabama music. The performance will allow attendees the rare opportunity to see several artists featured on the “Southern Music Issue” companion CD in the same evening. Ticketholders will also receive free entry to the show’s after-party at Bottletree Café featuring Huntsville Hip-Hop duo G-Side.
“We’ve got a great Soul man in Ralph “Soul” Jackson—he may be old, but he’s cooking hot,” Smirnoff says excitedly. “The Secret Sisters recently had an album produced by T-Bone Burnett. When you’re dealing with Alabama music, you have to be diverse and cross genre lines or you’re not really representing. We just want to break even so we can pay the bands and get people excited about the talent in their midst. It’s just such an exciting mission and we took this very seriously, but it’s all worth it. It’s a worthy mission celebrating a culture that’s still alive, has a wonderful legacy and maybe needs a little more respect paid to it by outsiders.”
Speaking of respect, I mention to Smirnoff that Alabama has some stiff competition with New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, Memphis and Nashville – each places of great musical importance - as its neighbors.
“First and foremost, we have to recognize that every Southern state is rich in all the musical genres,” he responds. “Every Southern state has a Blues history, a Rock & Roll history, a Country history and so on. The big-name towns like Memphis and New Orleans that hog the spotlight deserve attention but they’re not the only ones that deserve the attention. You start off with the big names of Alabama music—Hank Williams, Sun Ra, Emmylou Harris, The Louvin Brothers, Nat King Cole and on and on. But if one goes beyond the big names and you look for talent, regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with these names, you start coming up with such a large list that you start to wonder why Alabama isn’t ranked quickly at the top as a musical hotspot.”
One place that Smirnoff mentions in particular is Muscle Shoals, the northwest Alabama town that, along with surrounding cities Sheffield and Florence, became an unlikely musical hub. Since the 1960s, recording studios in the region have hosted The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan among countless others. The fact that such renowned musicians grasp the area’s importance gives it all the credibility it needs, according to Smirnoff.
“The fact of the matter is Alabama is thought of as being as important as New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville when it comes to the musicians,” he says. “The musicians revere the Muscle Shoals area just as much as they do Memphis and New Orleans. That’s why Joe Cocker comes down, that’s why Cher comes down and all these people that come to this small little area in Alabama. These people, people with the sharpest ears of all, knew that this sound coming from this particular hotspot in Alabama was worthy of their pilgrimage. The public hasn’t adopted the stance that all these musicians have, but that’s the public’s fault.”
Though countless theories exist as to why the Shoals area first became a musical hotbed—the most common being its close proximity to Nashville and Memphis—I ask Smirnoff for his take on the subject. I also ask him why the scene is sometimes overlooked among music’s historic places.
“It may be true that it’s near Nashville and Memphis, but those musicians came from Alabama—they aren’t imports,” he says. “While I was thinking about the Muscle Shoals area, I was thinking that it was as rich and mysterious as the Mississippi Delta because what you have in Florence is the father of the Blues in W.C. Handy and the grandfather of Rock & Roll in Sam Phillips from the same little town. Plus, there’s a huge Soul scene. What I think is part of the problem is that it hasn’t been marketed properly. For example, even though the lineup for the W.C. Handy Festival always looks really good, it sounds like a Blues festival and Blues by itself doesn’t capture that area. It should be called the ‘W.C. Handy, Sam Phillips and Muscle Shoals Sound Festival’ because you get an inkling of the diversity and power of that place. It’s a cultural hotspot in other ways, too.”
Beyond the musical recognition the “Southern Music Issue” will generate, Smirnoff wants Alabamians and all Southerners to take pride in the past and present of Southern culture. He admits, however, that taking pride in the past doesn’t always come easy.
“People in the South are very quick to be criticized for the tragedies of the past,” he says. “The honorable thing to do is own up to the misbehavior of our forefathers, but we also need to own up to what was great from our past and that is our culture. Emmylou Harris can play anywhere and Nat King Cole is listened to in Iran and these are things that we need to be proud of just as much as we own up to the bad things. Southerners get so scared in thinking about the past and so ashamed that they throw the baby out with the bath water. As a result, we wait for Hollywood or New York to tell us whether this person or that person in our culture is worthy of attention.”
In closing our interview, Smirnoff also gives an example of how we should rethink the music that is part of our fabric and our heritage.
“One of my favorite writers is from Alabama,” Smirnoff says. “His name is Albert Murray and he’s written a bunch of books about music. One of his big points about Blues music is that outsiders will think of Blues music as, in his words, ‘Just a bunch of pissing and moaning.’ But, in fact, blacks danced to that music and there are pictures of these juke joints and you’ll see people dancing. Even though the lyrics would be despairing, the music itself was for uplift. It was to make people feel better and to fortify them to go on. That’s something we have to accept, too, that this music was made during the hard times for positive reasons. It made people get along and that’s also why I love the idea of Dinah Washington covering Hank Williams. When it comes down to it, great music has nothing to do with race—it’s about a soul connection. It’s like a model of how we should behave.”
For more information on ABALABIP!, visit www.alabamatheatre.com. The February 5 show begins at 7:30 and tickets are an incredibly low $20. For more information on Oxford American visit www.oxfordamerican.org.
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.