Hang up your ‘Gone fishin’!’ shingle and pick with the best musicians at Bass & Grass festival

From a couple of years ago in Georgia Music Magazine:

This place dangles some irresistible lures to reel in creatures known for their gloriously big mouths — from bass lunkers to bass players.

The Green Bell Guest House, a sixth-generation, hundred-acre spread in Middle Georgia, features a storied “party barn” and fire pit; sleeping quarters in a magnolia-shaded farmhouse and cabins; and the well-stocked, 100-acre Goose Lake. All of it makes for a rambling and hospitable venue for the Bass and Grass festival, four days of tuneful, distinctly Southern leisure and enrichment. “As in big bass and bluegrass,” clarifies proprietor Jennie Hart Robinson, “with lots of fishing and good eating scheduled around picking and jam sessions, which sometimes greet the dawn.”

The annual event, usually slated for late October, also offers two workshops a day for mid-level musicians to refine their technique with professionals such as Jeff Mosier; autoharp legend and “colorful character” Gove Scrivenor; fiddler Caroline Pond of Snake Oil Medicine Show, and Steve “Big Daddy” McMurray from Acoustic Syndicate.

bass and grass2 “We sit around in a circle and make music together,” says flat-picking guitarist Larry Keel. “There are unspoken rules to that sort of thing that take practice, such as getting the courage to solo and expanding your musical vocabulary. I see progress every year in our students.”

These lessons and all of the late-night noodling and riffing culminate in a round-robin showcase that is recorded on keepsake compact discs. This year, Keel also plans to videotape the performance for a television pilot in the works.

“The artists are not shuttled off somewhere else, separate from the students,” Robinson says, explaining that she also rolls out cots in the barn for this informal fish-camp setting. “We have big, family-style breakfasts, and go out in boats for some phenomenal fishing, capped off with a big fish fry. So, in addition to the formal lessons, you get plenty of intimate, coffee-drinking time with Rev. Jeff and the other big names, who are happy to give helpful pointers during your picking on the porch.”

The festival started in 2008 when Keel, who owns a Virginia-based company called Fishin’ and Pickin’, met Robinson at the Magnolia Festival in north Florida. “I sing a lot of songs about fishing, and we got this idea to combine these two loves we shared and get other like-minded people together for it,” Keel says. “When I visited Green Bell, I was struck by this family atmosphere that just felt special and right, and it always seems to bring out the best in everybody. Plus, even the smallest fish in that lake feels like a whale!” (His largest catch so far? A 9-pound, two-ounce large-mouthed bass. “But I know there are bigger ones swimming out there.”)

Besides, adds Robinson, “I live in the middle of nowhere, so I have to bring the party to me,” joking that she resides in a midstate “Bermuda Triangle” with a Fort Valley address and a Perry phone number, just over the line in Macon County — a leafy, isolated complex among the peach and pecan orchards with red-dirt roads that thwart even the most fine-tuned GPS.

Envy whoever gets lost here, though, in the state’s sweaty navel. This earthy  conservatory preserves the landscape — in camellias and communion — of Old Georgia.

“My father was in the textile business, and he used to bring clients here to do business the old-fashioned way: over hunting, fishing, and fried chicken and biscuits, all sealed with a handshake,” Robinson says. “For 60-plus years, the name was Malatchie Farms — many people still know it as that — but we wanted a fresh start, so I chose ‘Green Bell’ because of the big camp bell and also because of a wonderful family tradition from my husband’s family of ‘giving someone a bell,’ which means you ring a bell as your friends and family drive away after a visit to ensure peace and love ’til you meet again.”

bass and grass1 City folks will realize they are far from Buckhead when they see the walls and shelves of the comfortable accommodations that are dubbed — with down-home irony — “the shack” and the “dog-trot,” which showcase portraits of prized retrievers and coon dogs; a  homemade pecan exhibit; faded photos of Governor Herman Talmadge; caricatures of “Lint Head Shoots” from the 1960s and ’70s; and displays of antlers and other taxidermy trophies, including the head of a growling bear in a bunk room (skittish types might want to sleep elsewhere). The sign over the entrance to the farmhouse directs visitors to “Unload Guns,” and its bar offers the similarly practical advice, “Danger: Men Drinking.” The bookshelves hold musky titles such as  Deliverance and yellowed hunting and field guides along with a few, incongruous copies of The New Yorker, which, I suspect, are a flourish from Robinson, who holds a degree in studio art from Kenyon.

Along with their musical instruments and fishing gear, visitors can bring their dogs to Green Bell, which boasts several chickens and a donkey named Delilah. “A whole repertoire of jokes has accumulated among the musicians about my ‘fine ass,’” Robinson says, rolling her eyes.

Even though Bass and Grass is in its third year, music is hardly new to the farm. In addition to his textile “bidniss,” Robinson’s father, Walter Forbes, was also an R.C.A. recording artist who would bring his Nashville buddies home for song-filled retreats.

“He called them ‘music swarms,’” Robinson says, name-checking accomplished guests such as Cowboy Jack Clement; Fletcher Bright; pianist and arranger Charles Cochran; and Roger Cook, who wrote “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

Keel still hears their happy echoes.

“Green Bell is truly magical,” he says. “It’s a place where the years of good times and great experiences have left their mark so deeply you can feel them. That’s why I feel so comfortable and inspired every time I come here. We want to share that with other people who love music … and fishin’.”

For more information, visit greenbellbedandbarn.com and bassandgrass.com

How Blondie Strange handles celebrities… (Shame on you, DeNiro!)

Nobody upstages Blondie Strange, not even Lady Gaga.

“She is very down to earth and respectful,” says the legendary exotic dancer at the Clermont Lounge, the gamy landmark of choice for celebrities passing through Atlanta, which recently has become the capital of “Hollywood South,” as Georgia’s film industry grows.

More important to Strange: Gaga tips generously, as do P!nk, comedian Margaret Cho, and chef Anthony Bourdain, all of whom usually slip her at least $100, which is the highest figure she remembers tucking into her “kitty.”

Strange did her signature move of crushing a beer can flat between her breasts for Robert DeNiro, who stiffed her, and Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline each gave her only sawbuck, she says, fuming.

blondie2aThe 56-year-old ecdysiast has been performing at the bar since 1978 when she is believed to have become the first dancer to integrate Atlanta’s strip clubs, making her an X-rated civil rights pioneer. According to lore, William S. Burroughs was so inspired by her bravura that he scribbled a poem about her on a cocktail napkin, but she does not recall that Beatnik tribute or the author.

She and Bourdain usually discuss chow, of course – “I make a fine cuisine, if I do say so” – and she exhorts him to pen a “Food for Dummies” book. With other stars, she mostly talks shop. “Margaret Cho and I discussed my movie,” Strange says, referring to the indie documentary “A K A Blondie,” “and I read some of my poetry to P!nk, and she liked it, of course, but I don’t have much time for chitchat when I’m working. Celebrities don’t get special treatment from me; everybody’s equal at the Clermont.”

The egalitarian vibe notwithstanding, visitors would do well to show Strange a certain deference. She felt insulted that the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” did not request her by name, so she snubbed them in return, but she predictably found common cause and kindred spirits when the women of “Double Divas” dropped in, as well as buxom Tura Satana, of Russ Meyer’s “Faster Pussycat! Kill, Kill!” While Strange makes a point of not fawning over famous fun-seekers, she warmed memorably to Jon Stewart. “I beat the hell out of him with my titties, and he loved it,” she says.

DeNiro can expect similar blunt-force trauma — with malice aforethought — if he ever returns.

“I try to keep a Christian attitude, but it makes me angry that people with millions of dollars are so cheap and have such bad manners,” Strange says. “I’m a celebrity, too, dammit.”

Nothing weeps as exquisitely as pedal steel

          Whenever Harold “Shot” Jackson was tinkering in his workshop, he did not fret — in any sense of that word.

          He clearly reveled in playing his steel guitar and dobro on stage at the Grand Ole Opry with artists such as Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells, and, noodling around, envisioned all kinds of sonic innovation, installing string pullers with pedals on Fenders and Rickenbackers to bend a note in sly, unconventional ways.

         Image In 1955,  Jackson, who grew up in Blackshear, Georgia, teamed up with his musician friend, Buddy Emmons, to develop a fretless instrument  that you almost have to see — and then hear — to fathom its honky-tonk physics. It relies on a metal bar to fret, or shorten, the length of the strings, along with pedals for the feet and knees to change the pitch, enabling what composers call portamento or glissando. As if country music were not plaintive enough, suddenly even the guitar could weep. Jackson and Emmons christened this newfangled ax the “Sho-Bud,” a combination of their nicknames, and the pedal steel guitar helped usher in the historic era that became known as the “Nashville Sound.”

          “You might not know exactly what a pedal steel is, but you certainly recognize that sound when you hear it,” says David Jackson, the son of the “King of Pedal Steel.”  “It opened up new possibilities for musicians because if they wanted a note to waver, they could do it on pedal steel in ways they couldn’t on a regular guitar. They used this steel bar to express their inward self, to make a soulful, crying kind of sound.”

          So high-lonesome went high-tech as the pedal steel enhanced the music’s range of expressiveness while smoothing and polishing its rougher “hillbilly” barbs to a tear-stained gleam. Porter Waggoner became the first spangled headliner to use a Sho-Bud, and then Webb Pierce went wild with it. Soon enough, Shot Jackson was crafting, customizing, and refitting instruments for Roy Clark, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, and anyone else who drifted into the Sho-Bud music store on Broadway, trailing sequins from the Ryman Auditorium next door.

          “It was a full music store, but it also had kind of lounge, where stars sat around and told stories, pounding a lot of whiskey,” David Jackson recalls, explaining somewhat apologetically that “it was just the lifestyle most of those singers had back then.”

          Shot Jackson’s sons expanded the business, adding coveted features and gadgets. In the late 1960s, David patented a new pedal device that would become the most replicated string-pulling mechanism in the guitar industry. He operated Music City Manufacturing Company, where his older brother, Harry, built most Sho-Bud steel guitars, while their dad transformed the dobro into the “Sho-Bro” and worked on other nifty projects upstairs in the shop. Today, Willie Nelson still plays “Trigger,” which the elder Jackson repaired and customized for him, and, in Branson, Buck Trent dazzles tourists with the pedal banjo that he acquired in the early ’60s. Shot Jackson’s instruments not only made history; they have endured it “on the road” and everywhere else.

          “My dad was a mechanical genius who absolutely loved — lived and breathed — music,” David says.

          Pedal steel eventually infiltrated rock ‘n’ roll — Eric Clapton and the Eagles took up Sho-Buds — and found a jubilant home in the Sacred Steel tradition of gospel music, an African-American Pentecostal movement that originated in the House of God Which Is the Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy.

          In 1981, Gretsch-Baldwin bought Sho-Bud, and, later, Shot Jackson sold his repair shop. A couple of months after retiring, he suffered a stroke that impaired his speech and left him unable to play music until his death in 1991. The master inventor — whose handle was a truncated version of his childhood nickname in South Georgia, “Buckshot” — was inducted into the Steel Hall of Fame in 1986.

          “I’m not 100 percent sure about this, but I believe the Jackson family claims more patents in the business than any other,” David says.

          And they are not finished.

          After a long hiatus, the music-loving clan — now with the David’s daughter, Dawn — recently revived the family business and based it in Dahlonega, with the motto “Pulling Strings since 1955.”

          “We relaunched it for reasons of heritage,” David says, “but also because I get down on my knees to pray, and God just keeps sending ideas. I’m 67 now, but if the good Lord lets me work, I’m going to keep doing it. We’ve applied for three patents, and I have six or seven more in the works, all related to pedal steel and string pullers, to standardize the tuning to simplify the playing. We’re planning a pedal-slide.”

          Before these developments, David had worked on touring vehicles for musicians. During a bus repair, he met his current wife, Susan Peck, who sings with her sister in the award-winning gospel act, Karen Peck and New River, based in north Georgia. In 2005, he unveiled the next generation of instruments, a Jackson Steel guitar, at the band’s annual homecoming celebration in Dahlonega.

          Along with his prayer-driven creativity, he was inspired by his daughter’s growing interest in music. Another Jackson with a dual flair for science and the arts, Dawn had studied biology at Mercer University and then worked in the health-care industry, but in 2002, she founded Sho-Bud Music Inc., an indie record label and publishing company. (Its first single, “Beer on the Table” recorded by Josh Thompson,  went to No. 17 on the Billboard charts.) She handles sales and marketing while writing songs and working on a documentary about the Sho-Bud dynasty. Her uncle Harry who still lives in Nashville, does metal fabrications, manufacturing, and development for the company.

          “Word is out that the Jacksons are back in business!” David says.

          One of their hippest exponents is Robert Randolph, who grew up in Sacred Steel and now plays R&B. “In my church, the pedal steel guitar substituted for the organ,” he says. “I wanted to do with it what Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix did.” Randolph was working with T Bone Burnett on last year’s much-praised release, “We Walk This Road,” a jukin’ celebration of black roots music, when he called up the Jacksons to request more instruments.

          “With so many others out there, you have to cut and paste parts together,” Randolph says, “but the Jacksons have figured out a way to nail it all down in a cohesive way that meets in the middle and consistently gives you a superior tone. You can plug one of their pedal steels into any amp and know you’ll get a great sound.”

          It is one of “pure emotion,” Dawn says.

          “It’s ironic to me that these guitars truly come from men of steel,” she muses, “in the sense that Papaw and Dad and Uncle Harry are men of few words who don’t show much emotion in talking. But these instruments say it all.”

That’s what friends are for: Letters between Flannery O’Connor and Betty Hester

This ran several years ago in Atlanta magazine.

Despite a title like “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” Flannery O’Connor did not write “chick lit,” unless you count her detailed observations on those cherished peacocks.

Not many female readers (or male ones) breeze through her books at the beach and think: “I wish I had a fun-loving girlfriend like her!” This is the acid-tongued, Southern Gothic curmudgeon who summed up her obsessions with virtue, suffering, and freaks in one famous sentence: “‘She would of (sic) been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ ”

Who wouldn’t be afraid to sip Chardonnay and go shoe-shopping with Flannery O’Connor? However, as her painstakingly typed, Milledgeville-postmarked letters reveal, she could be the best kind of friend – a compassionate confidante who honored her pal’s secret, which no doubt would have scandalized most of the “good country people” at the time.

This month, Emory University unveils a collection of about 270 letters that O’Connor wrote to her longtime friend Elizabeth “Betty” Hester, an intense, reclusive Atlanta woman who supported herself as a file clerk but lived and breathed philosophy — the more esoteric, the better. The two women bantered Big Ideas on heavy morality, usually “Romish” in tone, as O’Connor described her militant, blood-soaked Catholicism, and in search of the “Absolute.” They are leavened, though, by folksy, catty gossip; avian updates; and whimsical, out-of-the-blue pronouncements. “I feel lumpish,” she sighs at one point, and that seems a perfect adjective for a certain state of mind. She must have made her pensive correspondent, who suffered “up and down times of elation and depression,” laugh out loud with her dispatches from Andalusia, the family farm in Milledgeville, which, to any native Georgian, connotes the state’s storied mental institution: “I promise a trip to the asylum and the reformatory…can you wait?” It pains modern fans to be reminded, of course, that the author occasionally and offhandedly dropped the ugly racial epithet. Still, gathered together, these intimate writings make for some of the most revelatory, “Christ-haunted” epistles since the New Testament.

Image

Flannery O’Connor

If you can look past the point-counterpoint on Wittgenstein and other high-minded dialogue, there is also fun girl-talk, like a pillow-fight among valedictorians in a very, very smart sorority house. O’Connor bristles when Hester calls her a “fascist,” and in turn accuses her of being a “Romantic.” Visualize them smirking, sighing, and rolling their eyes behind their hornrims. “You will probably find me tricked out in the personality of the GA Farm Girl or Good-Earth-Loving Author or something equally horrendous,” O’Connor writes about a newspaper profile. Then, later, referring to the photo: “There must have been something better than that one of me looking gimlet-eyed across the hog waller with the shack in the background.”

Some of these letters are published in partial, expurgated form in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, who then donated this archive to Emory in 1987 on the condition that it remain sealed for 20 years. Hester’s name was a fiercely kept secret, even among that most indiscreet of demographics – Southern literati. In The Habit of Being, her contributions – passionate, cerebral treatises on everything from modernism to virginity — are signed simply “A,” for anonymous. The identity of the mysterious “A” finally was revealed, tragically, in 1998, when Hester shot herself in the head, surrounded by 4,000 books and several cats, in her small, musty Peachtree Street apartment. She was 76.

She left behind some unpublished stories and novels, along with her voluminous correspondence. Hester and her famous friend had written to each other almost every week for nine years, until 1964, when O’Connor, 39, died of lupus. (Ironically, in adolescence, both women lost parents to the forces that later would kill them – Hester’s mother committed suicide, and O’Connor’s father also succumbed to lupus.) These boxes stuffed with yellowed sheaves of O’Connor’s discursive observations remained unpublished and under lock and key — until now.

What, exactly, transpired between these unusual pen-pals, who seem to have reveled in some kind of sweet, mutual girl-crush, even if it was sublimely Platonic?

Curator Stephen Enniss hears this question often enough.

“Betty was a lesbian, and at one point in the correspondence, she appears to allude to her sexuality,” says Enniss, who is director of Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library. “At least, that is what you can infer from a close reading of Flannery’s response to Betty’s letter. I’m just guessing here…? It certainly doesn’t sound as if she’s talking about the weather.” He shrugs, pauses, and smiles sympathetically. “I assume it was at least partly because Betty was gay that she did not want the letters scrutinized at the time.”

Signs of Hester’s brave, anguished “coming out” can be detected in an oblique letter dated Halloween of 1956. The normally acerbic O’Connor, whose default mode admittedly was, in her words, “you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you,” crafted a response that is breathtaking in its tenderness:

“…I can’t write you fast enough and tell you that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference in my opinion of you, which is the same as it was, and that is: based solidly on complete respect. … I have a tendency myself to dismiss other people’s torments out of hand, but this one, being yours, will have to be partly mine too. …You were right to tell me but I am glad you didn’t tell me until I knew you well. … But you wonder whether it makes any difference to me if you drop out of my existence. Yes it makes a difference. It would be impossible for me to let you. You have done me nothing but good… but the fact is, above and beyond this, that I have a spiritual relationship to you; I am your sponsor, self-appointed from the time you first wrote me and appointed by your afterwards, which means that I have a right to stay where I have been put.”

But, she adds with a sly hipness, don’t tell my mother why you “got out of the air force” because she “lives in a world Jane Austen would be comfortable in.” She closes with: “I can see now how very much grace you have really been given and that is all that is necessary for me to know in the matter. What is necessary for you to know is my very real love and admiration for you. Yours, Flannery.”

betty hester

Betty Hester

An eyebrow-raising passage in one letter alludes to a Milledgeville visit by Hester during which the guest bed clearly had not been slept in, notes Lynne Huffer, an Emory professor of women’s studies who specializes in feminist and queer theory.

“What are we to conclude from this? And why does it matter so much?” Huffer asks. “One of the great things about queer studies today is that it goes beyond sexuality as a question of acts—did they ‘do it’?—to other, more interesting questions. There are other aspects of a person’s life, including sensibility, emotional affinities, taste, and forms of relation, that are equally—even more—important to what we might call someone’s sexuality. I certainly wouldn’t call O’Connor a lesbian, but she has a sensibility that comes through in her letters and fiction that you might call ‘queer,’ although you have to be careful since that word can easily become so capacious that we can use it to apply to just about anyone.”

So was she or wasn’t she?

Grad students long have venerated O’Connor, with her querulously “queer” vibe – somehow ecstatic, doctrinaire, and subversive all at the same time — as a deep-fried Sappho. “Surely she was a lesbian, I told myself,” novelist Dorothy Allison mused, “and took comfort from her stubborn misfit’s life, the fact that she lived with her mama and never married. I did not need her to sleep with a woman to prove her important to me, though I would have been grateful to think of her with a great love comforting her as lupus robbed her of all she might have done.”

In fact, O’Connor’s work figured prominently in a conference titled “Queering the South” a few years ago at Emory.

“This does not ‘out’ Flannery O’Connor,” says Enniss, shifting in his tweed. “There has been a lot of reckless speculation over the years, but it’s pretty clear from these letters that Flannery’s interest in Betty was a spiritual interest. Betty became a Catholic at one point and then lapsed, and Flannery was concerned with bringing her back into the fold.”

Of course, some overactive imaginations might be tempted to read between the lines of O’Connor’s response to her friend and intuit the age-old rebuff of “I just want to be friends.” However, that interpretation also would cheapen the mystery – that vaunted, defining, and consuming force in O’Connor’s life, work, and legacy.

“Henry James said the young woman of the future would know nothing of mystery and manners,” the author grouses in one of the letters. “He had no business to limit it to sex.”

Now that the less-numinous, less-mannered future she envisioned is here, bumper stickers for sale in the gift shop at Andalusia announce, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find: Flannery O’Connor Said It Best.”

Fortunately, she found true friendship with at least one good woman.

The Toilet Paper Queen of Alabama (yes, you read that correctly)

     A “brite” for Auburn’s alumni mag. Warning  — atrocious puns ensue.

Iris Hill worked so hard, just to see her career end up in the toilet.
The 29-year-old Auburn alumna won a national competition to become “Queen of the Charmin Go Nation,” a position that puts her, in the cheeky phrasing of the toilet-paper manufacturer, behind a movement to make bathroom experiences more enjoyable.“I truly believe Southern hospitality I learned growing up helped me achieve this goal,” says Hill, a Tuscaloosa native who graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and in 2005 with a master’s in biological sciences. “At Auburn, we value the toilet paper that decorates Toomer’s Corner, and we all know how difficult it is to find a nice bathroom while tail-gating. Toilet paper matters.”
Hill proved her commitment to Charmin’s “enjoy the go” campaign by swathing herself in the product and standing on a street corner in her hometown to collect more than 3,000 toiletries for the Salvation Army and shelters for homeless veterans and domestic violence victims. “I vowed not to remove my costume until I’d met my goal, so I looked like a marshmallow for four straight days,” she says.On a roll, she wiped out the other four finalists in a series of wacky events, including a toilet-paper toss, a TP pyramid stacking contest, and a bathroom trivia tournament. “I had drilled with flash-cards, so I knew the answer when they asked me what musical key a toilet flushes in,” she says. “E flat.”
Charmin executives were bowled over. “Iris Hill’s energy and enthusiasm to help others ‘enjoy the go,’ demonstrated by her community toiletry drive and steadfast determination were exemplary!” says brand manager Patrick Khattak. “She is the ideal queen of our throne.”“Glee” star Jane Lynch crowned Hill during a December coronation.“I sat on the throne — um, a real one that was all fancy,” says Hill, who works as a model and actor in Los Angeles, “and I wielded a scepter that was not a plunger.”
Hill left the ceremony flush with a $50,000 prize to reign over the comfy “Charminized” bathrooms of Times Square during New Year’s Eve. “I taught passers-by the potty dance, which is sort of a cha-cha-cha, but I added a little country line dancing and hip-hop to it. You have to have a really outgoing personality to hang out in bathrooms in New York.”
Her goal for the future? “To get Charminized bathrooms for the Iron Bowl.”

You bring the tailgate; he’ll bring the party

An oldie for Georgia Music Magazine:

The stage name “Colt Ford” sounds like a blunt-force blow struck for the glory of certain totems in the singer’s back-road, four-wheel drive landscape.

“Nope, it has nothing to do with guns or trucks,” says the country rapper, born Jason Brown, in Athens. “My real name just didn’t sound that cool. My wife, Jessica, came up with it around 2006. We were driving in the car and it just popped up in her head.”

In any case, that handle sets the tone for his music and sends all of the right signals—as recognizably twangy as a hunter’s duck caller—to the Carhartt-and-camo crowd. Ford’s third album, from his label Average Joe, reached No. 3 on the country charts, and, this summer he is scheduled to release Declaration of Independence, packaged as the “Ultimate Trilogy” with projects from his label-mates and touring buddies, the Lacs and JB and the Moonshine Band, all of them busting propulsive rhymes about honky-tonkin’, hell-raisin’, kick-ass women, and other Rural Route delights.

Rapping, just like Hank(?)

An heir to Bubba Sparxxx, Colt Ford performs country rap (his debut featured guest appearances by Jermaine Dupri and Bone Crusher), a trending blend of genres that, to the uninitiated, fosters a sort of cognitive dissonance, with Rebel flags flapping to a hip-hop beat. However, Ford is quick to clarify the parameters: “Recitation and talking records were here long before me, and they’ll be here long after me,” he says, citing Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga” and Jerry Reed’s double-talk.  “I’m a country artist and I want people to know how much I genuinely respect this music and my fans.”

Besides, in the South, music always has functioned as a unifying catalyst of reconciliation, along with sports and food. “I reckon I’ve got all those bases covered,” says Ford, who lettered in several varsity sports before becoming a professional golfer, competing in national tournaments and working as instructor.

“That was 100 pounds ago,” he says, his woolly goatee widening into a grin. Nowadays he is, as one fan put it (alluding to bluesman Howlin’ Wolf) “a big ’un built for pleasure, not speed.” He has lent his name to a line of vodka and Georgia-distilled moonshine (“an 85-year-old recipe from some ol’ boys in the mountains I won’t name”), and he partnered with the Santa Fe Cattle Company to design the substantial, bacon-laden “Mr. Goodtime Burger,” billed as “hotter than Alabama asphalt.”

Heartfelt and Coronary

Victuals—preferably washed down with something high-test—and varsity sports turn up in his lyrics; his biggest hit, so far, is “Chicken and Biscuits.” “Boy, my mama makes the best cat-head biscuits,” he says, pushing back his cowboy hat with barbed-wire trim. (If you play his song “Waffle House” on the jukebox, don’t expect a syrupy ditty; it is the noirish dramatic monologue of a drunken cuckold plotting, over grits, to shoot his wife, who has been messin’ around with the sheriff, the preacher, and the judge, among others.)

Ford likes to say, “I didn’t get into music; music got into me.”

“The songs I was writing with the priority of being marketable just didn’t feel authentic,” he says. “Finally, I realized when I wrote from my heart and my experience, fans responded to the honesty,” he says, noting that after his first real gig in 2008—an outdoor, Fourth of July concert that drew a crowd of 5,000 in Valdosta—he stayed past midnight signing autographs. “I know exactly who I am. I believe in God, family, good times and America. I pray before I eat, and I take off my hat during the national anthem. I like a tailgate party in a pasture—gimme barbwire instead of some fancy velvet rope at a nightclub.”

And, he adds, “You can tell, I love to eat.”

Emily Saliers and her father, on the music that connects Saturday night & Sunday morning

This is one of my favorite books, by Emily Saliers and her father, about the spirituality of music. I wrote this a few years ago for Georgia Music Magazine.

Whenever Little Richard’s hollering and piano-playing grew too boogie-woogie rowdy for the church services of his Macon upbringing, some choir matron would swat him with her pocketbook. Those righteous blows, intended to enforce the old “play for the devil or play for the Lord” dictate, sent him reeling for the rest of his career between gospel and rock ’n’ roll.

However, sacred and secular music are not nearly as contradictory as they seem, argues the father-daughter writing team of Don and Emily Saliers in “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice,” a mix of memoir and musicology published earlier this year by Jossey-Bass.

“If playing loud music in a dark, smoky dive late at night sends your soul to hell, then mine was lost a long time ago,” emily_saliers1Emily says matter-of-factly. As one-half of the Grammy-winning, Atlanta-based folk duo, the Indigo Girls, she has enjoyed her share of neon-lit, dancing-fool fellowship. “Music is the language of the soul made audible, and it’s also a deep part of our physicality – our heartbeat, the sound of our breath, the tension and release of muscles, the tempo of our bodies. It’s the rhythm of life, moving within us as well as moving us from the outside. It doesn’t have to occur in church to be spiritual.”

Adds her dad, “Music can make us come alive, provided we bring our lives to the music.”

Both Salierses have done just that, noting that a joyful noise thrums in “our family DNA,” albeit to different beats. Emily is an out-and-proud lesbian engaged in a “lover’s quarrel” with organized religion; Don, a theology professor at Emory University, serves as a Methodist minister, organist, cantor and composer of liturgical music – an old-school psalmist who knows his Bach. Writing in contrapuntal harmony, father and daughter bring a “Saturday night and Sunday morning” appreciation to the “communion through music” that sanctifies juke joints and honky-tonks just as surely as cathedrals, as long as it “draws inspiration from honest encounters with the mysteries of life.” The resulting volume proves lyrical in every sense of the word.

“Music that moves toward the good, the true, the just, and the beautiful often brings a sense of transcendence to hearers,” Don writes. “The plain fact is that the church can often hide from God simply by uttering the words of unreflective piety. The appearance of religious words is no guarantee of authentic praise. Some nonchurch music that truly expresses the heart’s torment, the soul’s lament, or the ecstatic joy we experience within the beauty of creation may be more religious than hymns with poor theology sung without conviction.”

Since strumming guitars together as Emory students more than 20 years ago, Emily and her Indigo Girls partner, Amy Ray, have attained Sapphic heartthrob status with a repertoire of hits – “Closer to Fine,” “Galileo,” “Shame on You” — that fall into that particular “nonchurch” category, emphasizing social justice and soul-burnishing introspection in a warbling lilt. During their early, pass-the-hat days, they reigned affectionately over bohemian Atlanta, packing the house at the Little Five Points Pub and scruffy Decatur taverns where the air hung thick with cigarette smoke and angst.

“When I was playing in bars every night, music really held everybody together, and it was a motley, ragtag crew,” Emily says with a laugh. “There were drug addicts and all kinds of hard luck stories among these novice songwriters and ‘freaky people’ – and me, the PK (preacher’s kid). But music made us a community. Everybody came, night after night, swayed to the music, shared a meaningful part of themselves, felt they belonged to something bigger. It was like a church, and the way music shaped our consciousness and made us want to go out into the world was like a benediction.”

Her grandfather probably felt the same way at times.

Don was the son of Hal Saliers, a Midwestern hepcat who moved to New York in the 1920s to play sax and violin with major acts such as Jack Teagarden and Paul Whiteman. By the end of his life, “he was a Saturday night *and* Sunday morning guy,” Don writes, explaining that as the high times of the Jazz Age gave way to the Great Depression, his father struggled with alcoholism and finally moved back to Ohio to work at a factory. Eventually, though, the elder Saliers found a redemptive sense of purpose when a Methodist pastor tapped him to lead a church orchestra.

“Taking on that responsibility somehow began to change Hal’s own self-image from that of a musically gifted drunk to that of a musically gifted Sunday morning fixture,” according to “A Song to Sing.” “Saturday night music had almost taken Hal away from his family, but Sunday morning music gave Don his father back.”

So Don, understandably, became a music scholar and theologian. He has written several respected books about congregational life, including “Worship Come to its Senses,” exploring the four “senses” of God: awe, delight, truth, and hope.

His most recent collaboration with his daughter contains references to philosophers such as Simone Weil as well as rappers like Notorious B.I.G. The authors muse about the creative tension found in the predictable generation gap in tastes; the power of a well-placed silence; a revitalized interest in chants, such as the ancient harmonies of the Taize community in France; and the use of music as a galvanizing agent for causes around the globe. When Russia pulled out of Estonia, a quarter of a million people joyfully gathered in a stadium to sing a setting of Mass in what became known as the “singing revolution.” And the solidarity of the American civil rights movement, of course, owes a debt to “We Shall Overcome.”

“Whatever people can say with passion and in heightened speech they will end up singing in some form,” observes Don.

Consequently, music also can divide us.  Richard Wagner’s stirring operas always will be associated with the Holocaust because of their use in Hitler’s propaganda. Don also recalls a skirmish in the so-called “worship wars” over modern church music. (Guitar-driven Christian contemporary or stately pipe organ? “Mankind” or “humanity”?) In the 1980s, his committee deleted “Onward Christian Soldiers” from the Methodist hymnal because of its militaristic overtones, but restored the song after a barrage of protest.

“We must make musical judgments but not in a judgmental manner,” Don and Emily urge.

Mostly, though, father and daughter marvel at the echoes and similarities, the ongoing dialectic of the sacred and profane, encompassing Elvis and the black church; “string theory” and faith (is that God plinking those vibrating subatomic particles like a Stradivarius?); and classic hymns that began as secular, if not downright bawdy, ditties. Bet you did not know that the Holy Week standard “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” was a 1601 rewrite of “Confused are all my feelings/A tender maid’s the cause.” Don concisely sums up that age-old “crossing over” impulse, which can drive salty bluesmen and rebellious rockers back and forth between the Baptist altar and the barrelhouse:

“The more one learns to express awe and thanks and to cry out for mercy to God, the more one is plunged into the depths of what it is to be human,” he writes. “At the same time, the more one sounds the depths of human experience, the more one finds the mystery of God unfolding.”

No wonder “the tremendous power and poetry of Biblical images have landed comfortably in many an Indigo Girls song,” Emily points out. The duo’s ballad titled “Everything in Its Own Time” contends that, in this mean, strife-torn world, “music whispers to you in urgency” and that one source of hope is to “hold fast to that languageless connection.”

Pass that hymnal, and a tambourine.

The Atlanta Boy Choir — the sound of innocence

            This is a short piece I did several years ago for Atlanta magazine.

Each mouth forms a perfect “O” in its serious, little face. Then an eerie, pristine peal of high notes rises from the Atlanta Boy Choir. If innocence has a sound, this is it.

Even the most jaded listeners – especially those, actually – are transfixed.

“After all this time, I still get choked up hearing this particular choir do ‘Ave Maria,’” says Adisa Nickerson, an Atlanta Boy Choir alumnus and its current executive director.

Imagine the Pied Piper, in reverse.

The Grammy-winning choir, regarded as one of the country’s best, was incorporated in 1957 by Fletcher Wolfe. It became Atlanta’s first musical organization to perform outside the United States, as part of John F. Kennedy’s entourage. This year, it celebrates its fiftieth season with gigs that range from the Oprah Winfrey Show to a tour of Russia and Ukraine.

“It’s neat to go places you never dreamed of!” says Thomas West, a gimlet-eyed 12-year-old who especially relishes Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.”

Image Thomas is one of 120 boys who meet every week for intensive rehearsals at the choir’s Druid Hills campus, which has stained-glass windows and navy and mustard walls, like a Brooks Brothers cathedral. The ABC takes boys as young as four and, until recently, retired them at puberty’s first crackle. “Singing past the voice change used to be thought unhealthful, but it can be done with guidance,” says artistic director David White.  Hence the formation last year of the Atlanta Young Men’s Ensemble for those whose downy cheeks have developed stubble.

“It was very traumatic for me when my voice changed,” Nickerson recalls. “To have the adulation of singing before those crowds and then, all of a sudden, lose it. It’s still bittersweet when a chorister graduates to the young men’s ensemble.”

Before that “Peter Brady moment,” followed by other texturizing traumas of aging, there is that unearthly pitch, clear and true. Boy choirs emerged in the Middle Ages, when women were forbidden to make a peep in church, and today many social critics decry their single-sex exclusivism. However, a boy’s voice is considered a unique physiological instrument that peaks in timbre before puberty, while female vocals enjoy a postadolescent prime. So it is not necessarily a matter of “no girls allowed in the treehouse.”

Besides, that would be rude, and the ABC hews to a code of politesse in its “Rules for Living,” 72 protocols, with a subset of 26 table manners, outlined by White and stringently enforced when the guys are not behaving like, well, choirboys. (No. 29: “The top of your pants belongs at your waist. Nobody is interested in seeing your boxers.”)

“I believe there is an overemphasis on self-esteem and an underemphasis on self-respect,” White says in a soft Carolina lilt. “In order for us to perform at the level we strive for, the boys start with externally imposed discipline, which eventually becomes self-discipline and real respect for others.”

In these times of hand-wringing over “the trouble with boys” – the so-called “Ritalin generation” – the Atlanta Boy Choir sounds that much sweeter.

Young Man with a Horn: Meet Scotty Barnhart

I wrote this for Atlanta magazine when Scotty released his wonderful solo project a few years ago:

When Scotty Barnhart began composing and arranging his first independent jazz album, he recalled some practical advice from the preacher who baptized him.

“My mother used to tell me that Daddy King was always instructing Martin, ‘Keep it simple, and say it plain,’” says the Grammy-winning trumpet player, referring to the Civil Rights dynasty that galvanized his upbringing in the pews of Ebenezer Baptist Church. “That’s how I envisioned this CD — accessible and uplifting, with something to move everybody.”

barnhartBarnhart, 44, has toured and recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra since 1993, and he is expected to assume leadership of the seminal big band this year. “Say It Plain,” his solo project released this month by Unity Music, swings with melodies that are “unusually hummable and danceable for jazz,” as Barnhart notes, but with ethereal contributions from Wynton and Ellis Marsalis, Clark Terry, and Marcus Roberts, it is anything but simplistic.

“They all create what some call ‘tall smoke,’ heat reaching up to the sky,” writes critic Stanley Crouch in the album’s liner notes. “One hears deep feeling, tonal variety,

di­fferent kinds of swing and equally different kinds of wit, from the broad joke to the sly observation in the way a note is colored or bent.”

The title song, dedicated to the King family, especially jumps with jubilation.

“I was trying to evoke what takes place after a sermon, the opening of the doors of the church, when the music turns upbeat,” Barnhart says. “So I got Herlin Riley (a Marsalis percussionist) to play tambourine to give it that old Baptist feeling. We recorded that song in one take, and — oh, goodness, the gyrations going on!– everybody was dancing, trying not to knock over microphones. It was a deeply spiritual thing.”

On the album, Barnhart, who has been dubbed “a young Walt Whitman of the trumpet,” also draws from the brassy Second Line tradition of New Orleans jazz funerals, and ever-mindful of roots, pays tribute to author Alex Haley. After years of hepcat adventures playing behind legends such as Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson, and Joe Williams, Barnhart says his family takes  pointed pride in the myriad ways that he always comes home, riff after riff, to the call-and-response cadences of Ebenezer.

“I was mesmerized by the walking bass lines that the organist would play while the choir literally rocked the foundation of the church,” Barnhart says  “That music became part of me early on and never left.”
Now it function as a benediction for the rest of us.

‘Whatever has been hidden': The emotionally charged literary archive of poet Ted Hughes

        In a weary-sounding letter to his mother-in-law, Ted Hughes once wrote, “In time everything will be quite clear, whatever has been hidden will lie in the open. Too many people are too interested, now, for anything to escape record.”
Hugheted hugess was referring to his six-year marriage with fellow poet Sylvia Plath, a connubial anvil that, decades later, still showers onlookers with its searing, costly sparks. Their union forged some of the century’s most enduring literature – and one of its most controversial love stories when, in 1963, a despairing Plath lay her head in an oven to die at 30.  She became a feminist cult figure in the U.S.; he ended his days in 1998 as frosty-haired poet laureate of England. And their relationship, on the cusp of the “personal is political” era, became a flash-point for the women’s movement, with Hughes reviled as the caddish, black-caped every-husband who oppressed his
American wife to death. All the while, he frustrated the lit-major crowd by staying mum on the subject.
Their marriage, he wrote, hit an underwater rock, and  “the geology of that rock is nobody’s business.”
Now Hughes’ prophecy about “whatever has been hidden” is, in some way, coming to pass with the help of an Atlanta university that the English man of letters never visited. His definitive, deeply personal archive — a lifetime’s accumulation of 2 ½ tons of papers — opens this month at Emory University in the special collections room at the Woodruff Library. The works, purchased for an undisclosed sum, include original drafts of every major poem by Hughes since the late ’50s; hundreds of unpublished poems by Hughes and Plath; candid letters; scrapbooks; photographs;
bawdy greeting cards and other memory-charged relics.
For almost three years, a small army of researchers has worked to catalog and preserve the fragile documents, which were shipped in 86 boxes that had been used for champagne and birdseed at Hughes’ quaint, thatched-roof cottage in Devon, England.
For scholars, access to Hughes’ artifacts is like finding the Rosetta stone for an Oprah-like
interview with the Sphinx: What secrets swirled through that benighted marriage and gave rise to such breath-taking poetry from both of them?
So Emory’s dedication ceremony, which will include friends and family of the poet characterized as “reclusive,” is sure to rivet the worldwide literary establishment. Hughes’ friend Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet who teaches at Oxford and Princeton, will speak at the event on April 8, and Hughes’ widow, Carol Orchard Shields, and Frieda Hughes, his daughter with Plath, will attend the ceremony. Emory also will exhibit paintings by Frieda Hughes, an artist whose
recently published poetry and physical appearance invite comparisons to her mother.
“He could have placed his papers in any institution in the world,” says Steve Enniss, Emory’s literary curator who negotiated the deal with Hughes during a stroll in Devon. “The fact that we have this remarkable collection is a measure of Emory and of the growth of Atlanta as a cultural center.”
Why did Hughes choose Emory, a campus so far from his roots in Mytholmroyd, England? Partly because of the school’s cache of papers from Irish writers – the collection of post-1950s writers looms larger than any in the world, including those in Ireland. Hughes felt a poet’s affinity for the Emerald Isle, and he had collaborated on two books with his friend Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s Nobel laureate whose papers also can be viewed at Emory. Moreover, the school has demonstrated a consistent interest in Hughes for the past 30 years. While many academic quarters were shunning him for his perceived marital sins, Emory was buying his manuscripts, letters, and all of his books in special collections.
Ronald Schuchard, a professor of modern English and Irish literature at Emory,  noted the erasures and scratched-out lines on poems in the archive.
“We didn’t want to buy his papers just to have for their rising collection value,” he said. “We wanted them to enable students to share in the awe of his creative process, with its great labor and revisions. It’s quite a development because the archive is so complete and you usually don’t get the papers of poets until 50 years after they’re dead.”
When Hughes expedited the opening of his reliquary, he evidently was engaged in some existential squaring up. Not long after the deal was struck, he startled readers with the unannounced publication of “Birthday Letters,” a collection of poems addressed to Plath. Achingly loving, the poems were deemed the “interview he never gave,” and the book crested best-seller lists and stirred ripples of merciful revisionism for Hughes. That many of the poems in “Birthday Letters” refer to the archive’s photos (“There you are, in all your innocence, sitting among your daffodils, as in a picture/Posed for the title: ‘Innocence’ “) suggests that he studied those items with ruminative intensity in his final years. So the tenderness invested so skillfully into those lines ratcheted up the interest in his archive and prompted a reassessment of his battered literary reputation; Emory clearly had snagged a treasure of mounting value.
Hughes also apparently gave his blessing to his children Frieda and Nicholas, who control Plath’s literary estate, to publish their mother’s remaining journals. In one of those cycles that suggest some reassuring synchronicity in the universe, Faber and Faber, the London company that “discovered” Hughes in the ’50s, will publish Plath’s documents this month, around the same time Emory’s archive opens. Hughes had planned to attend his collection’s christening and give some readings around Atlanta, but he died of prostate cancer just months after the publication of
“Birthday Letters.”
“He must have known he was dying,” said Ruth Looper, a literature professor who has given classes on the Hughes-Plath union at Young Harris College. “These papers are a wonderful gesture of completely opening himself up and becoming vulnerable and available while assuming absolute control. It’s as if he’s saying ‘This will tell my story; end of story,’ knowing that he won’t have to engage in any dialogue because he’s facing the ultimate silence of death. He put out the buffet and then left the restaurant.”
Whatever your motives — scholarly, ideological, or ghoulish — you likely will feel guilty while scouring Hughes’ personal effects, partly because they feel warm with the fingerprints of sensitive souls whose intimate motives have been dissected by so many critics and partly because you know the ending. But you won’t be able to stop. It is a paper trail that leads – Dante-like – into hell and back, and shows, in spiky, hard-to-decipher handwriting, the destructive and redemptive powers of art.
In a 1956 letter, Hughes urges college chum Luke Myers (who will attend the archive’s opening) to introduce him to an American poet named Sylvia Plath. “Get her somehow,” Hughes writes.
Get her, Hughes did. She came to England on a Fulbright scholarship and after a brief courtship, married the robust Cambridge lad who was struggling to publish his verse, described as “bangingly virile” by a besotted Plath. Here are their marriage certificate and passports. Photos from this period – touristy snapshots from a trip to the U.S. and a nervous “meet the in-laws” portrait — show earnest, attractive newlyweds grinning with promise and mutual adoration.
In his letters, Hughes confesses to being something of a dreamer, restless with wanderlust. He was publishing in obscure magazines under the name “Edward J. Hughes,” while Plath brought to their scribbling an American-bred marketing ethic, seen in her detailed logs of the circulation of Hughes’ poetry among different periodicals. She helped launch Hughes’ career by submitting some of his poems – under the catchier “Ted” – to a contest that awarded him the Guinness Poetry Award. T.S. Eliot took notice, and soon “The Hawk in the Rain,” Hughes’ first book of poetry, was published by Faber and Faber. He was anointed an up-and-coming lion. On a photo of Hughes taking his place among Eliot, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice, Plath has written the caption “A pride of poets.” She documented each success by pasting acceptance letters, payment stubs, magazine covers (his first poem in “The New Yorker”) and congratulatory telegrams into tidy scrapbooks, now yellow with age. The albums, so happy and homespun, seem awkwardly out of context in a library’s filing system instead of on some book-cluttered coffee table.
They, like so much else here, are painful to peruse.
“Those scrapbooks are such an act of love for him,” Shuchard says. “You see how lovingly she pasted in even the smallest details and wrote the captions. She was a very prideful companion to him in the poetic process.”
Plath, too, was writing prolifically and ambitiously. She often scribbled on one side of a
piece of paper, and he marked up the other. They covered their ripped envelopes, newspaper wrappers and other scraps with poetry in the way that others doodle. The archive features a typewritten page from “The Bell Jar,” Plath’s semi-autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown during college. It would become a feminist bible, of sorts, on every socially conscious undergrad’s bookshelf. On the back, in Hughes’ penmanship, is the poem “Digging,” the sort of nature poem about a bird that would typify his poetic themes. He describes the bird “singing long after good cause” with eyes “perfect as water.”
“That’s a poignant, tangible reminder of how collaborative their literary lives were,” Enniss says. “He on one side, she on the other. It’s a literal metaphor for the joint enterprise they were engaged in, and it shows how intertwined their strong individual talents were.”
The Hugheses had two children and enjoyed some accolades and a modest income from their work. Their marriage, however, started to unravel. Plath was working on a novel titled “Falcon Yard,” which she destroyed along with many of Hughes’ papers when she learned of his infidelity. She had never shown the novel to anyone, and it remained a matter of speculation until a student sorting the archive recently found two pages of notes on characters (“Peregrine: Heroine, kinetic, voyager, no Penelope”) and three random pages from the book that suggest Plath had finished a first draft. It was to be, the notes say, a “fable of faithfulness.”
The couple separated. While Hughes traveled with another woman, Assia Wevill (who later would take her own life, as well, along with that of her 2-year-old daughter with Hughes), Plath left milk and snacks on her children’s night-stands, sealed their room from the fumes, and killed herself in her oven, that symbol of Eisenhower-era homemaking. She had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts.
Hughes’ detractors accused him of stifling Plath’s creativity with domestic chores and secretarial work to further his career, in addition to driving her to suicide with his affair. His report that he lost one of her journals and destroyed another written in the final months of her life, to spare her children from that record of their mother’s anguish, further inflamed his critics.  For a time, vandals repeatedly chipped the name “Hughes” off her gravestone (which also bears the Sanskrit phrase Hughes often invoked to cheer Plath: “Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted”). In 1970, someone broke into his home and set piles of his papers ablaze in an apparent act of retribution. As a result, some pieces of the archive show damage by fire and smoke. A later letter to his college friend Myers, this one from 1984, speaks of his grief, saying “maybe life isn’t long enough to wake up.”
However, a few of the suffragettes (as feminists still are called in England) who came to his readings to hiss and heckle, ended up hearing a few lines of his poetry and then putting down their placards to listen with weak-kneed awe. That sea-change reaction to Hughes is typical, Schuchard says.
“At least a couple of scholars have entered the archive with a negative idea of Hughes and then changed their opinion after immersing themselves in it,” he said.
Deborah Ayer, a professor of literature at Emory, says she thought she knew Hughes, the patriarchal villain, until she spent a steamy Atlanta July poring over his correspondence. “What I found was a pretty decent man – an environmentalist, astrologer, anthropologist and disciplined writer” who delighted in Plath’s poetic breakthroughs and exulted in fatherhood, she says.
Ayer discovered that Hughes apparently handled much of the child-care and housework to allow writing time for Plath, and he took the 3′ by 3′ hallway for his study while his wife used the living room and bedroom for hers. He also built Plath a writing desk.
Instead of rampant misogyny, the “correspondence suggests some role reversal with the marriage,” Ayers says. “In some ways Sylvia took a more conventionally masculine approach and Ted a more conventionally feminine one. Before Sylvia proposed to him, he had planned to sail around the world, writing and adventuring. He seems less goal-driven than Sylvia, more connected to the earth and to stars as well as more nurturing.”
Hughes writes: “The main talk and business of our days was how Sylvia should get to the point of at last writing what she wanted to write. We did nothing that wasn’t meant to promote that. We assumed that my writing would carry on anyhow, somehow.”
plath daffodils      The correspondence between Hughes and his mother-in-law about the posthumous publication of Plath’s “Letters Home” show a rare moment of Hughes’ self-defense. He was responding to some charges in the collection of letters, which include raging missives Plath sent during their separation, and the correspondence reads like the usual thrust-and-parry, tit-for-tat acrimony of your neighbor’s — or your own — marital split. He asks: How could he leave her “penniless” when they had little money to begin with from their poets’ incomes? “She didn’t sacrifice anything to me any more than I sacrificed anything to her. We just sacrificed everything to writing, and then later fitted in the children,” Hughes writes.
Anyone seasoned in domestic feuds learns not to rush to take sides in the welter of grievances but to feel sympathy for everyone involved. Time usually brings peace. However, fame, art, and the zeitgeist conspired to preserve, as if in amber, this marriage when it soured.
Looper says, “His work shows that he was very much in love with her, but being the caretaker of someone who is mentally ill is a very debilitating and mysterious thing, especially when genius is flowering in it. Their marriage is finally getting a more complicated and fairer understanding that takes into account youth, human folly and mental illness. They both were victims of each other.”
They were boosters of each other, as well. The archive shows that, while Plath was promoting her husband’s career with “secretarial” work, he was reciprocating, before and after her death.  She had published only “The Colossus” and “The Bell Jar.”
After her suicide, Hughes arranged for the publication of “Ariel,” poems written in the final months of her life and filled with invective toward him. The collection introduced Plath as the Angry Young Woman of letters and earned her a place in the canon. For years, he continued to publish her work and offer scholarly commentary on it in several other volumes, including “Collected Poems,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for Plath, decades after her death.
“In the same way that Plath helped launch Hughes’ career with ‘The Hawk in the Rain,’ Hughes published the books that would establish Plath’s literary reputation,” Enniss says. “The acts serve as book-ends to their tragic lives.”
Consider the lives of artists, Schuchard says. “Do great artists have to lead great lives? It’s
difficult to perfect both. If you decide to perfect the art, much is going to go awry in the life. The art of both them, at least, outlasts their human suffering.”

     In a photo from his later years, a publicity shot for his publishers, Hughes looks very much the eminence grise. His arresting, leonine face turns serenely into the camera, as if to say he has nothing else to prove. Now that the rehabilitation of Hughes’ image has begun, many of the already-converted hope that researchers will use the Emory archive to broaden their knowledge of his post-Plath career, which was long and multifaceted.
Hughes’ poetry, which enjoyed a more favorable reception abroad than in Plath’s home country, draws on themes of myth, shamanism, the occult and the feral beauty of animal life. It earned him the poet laureate’s post in 1984.
“I was attracted to his work early on because, as Hughes described it, it celebrates the warriors on either side in the war between vitality and death,” says Schuchard, who has championed Hughes-related acquisitions at Emory for 30 years.
Hughes’ energetic poetry with its swooping birds of prey, sharks, and pacing jaguars suggests that we can draw strength from the urgent rhythms and realities of nature.
Hughes also wrote several whimsical and affecting children’s stories, one of which was made into the movie “The Iron Giant” last year, and a book on how to memorize a poem using images instead of the rote method. Hughes was known for his prodigious memory, as well as his astrology (he did charts for his friends); environmentalism (he crusaded to clean the streams in Devon); and his support of poets repressed by totalitarian governments. His letters show that he eschewed the usual writerly rivalries and instead energized his associates with magnanimous encouragement. Among the treasures in the archive is his voluminous correspondence with Heaney, which is credited with expanding the Irish poet’s work beyond its nationalistic themes.
“In years to come, we expect that correspondence to be as important as the letters between Wordsworth and Coleridge,” Schuchard says. “Hughes’ rootedness inthe English soil was strong, but his consciousness was worldwide and attuned to the great intellectual traditions of mind, memory, and especially imagination.”
Hughes still is leaving something to the imagination he cherished by not yet  revealing
everything. One trunk in this sprawling archive must remain sealed for 25 years. Schuchard speculated that it could contain the Plath papers allegedly burned by Hughes.
“He didn’t want his children to see the notebooks, but I doubt he would have destroyed them because of their literary value,” he says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they surface when we have the distance to use them in an objective way, to look at them with ‘disinterest,’ which is not the same as ‘uninterest.’ To be disinterested means to be interested but without emotional attachment.”
Then Schuchard scratches his professorial beard for effect.
“We are not yet disinterested in Plath and Hughes.”