Cue the banjos, and deliver us from developers

The Legacy of Deliverance

James Dickey’s wild Appalachia has been tamed

December 1, 2010

Forty years after its publication, Deliverance leaves most of us native Appalachian readers feeling—much like that quartet of luckless river voyagers—conflicted and sore. Its legacy of comedic shorthand spawned in the backwoods of northeast Georgia functions as a regional guilty pleasure. Most of us do not know whether to bow up at the story’s gamy iconography or wear the gag-gift T-shirt that reads “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music!”
However, many of the toothless-sodomizer jokes I have cracked over the years taste brackish in my purty mouth now that I finally have read the book, which does not contain the “purty mouth” or “squeal like a pig” lines made famous in the movie’s harrowing man-on-man rape. I grew up just down a curvy road from where the story’s action takes place, but I shied away from the novel for years, leery of what I might discover about “my people,” and possibly myself.
Certainly, for home-folk, some passages prove excruciating to read, but the writing swept me like a current into an exalted awareness of the primeval and our part in it, reinforcing a perverse pride in our queer—or quarr, as old-timers say—otherness. Appalachian Studies majors usually sputter when their turf is described as “the country of nine-fingered people,” defined in one brutal stroke by sawmilling mishaps. However, poet James Dickey’s novel, which was published as the leaves changed colors in 1970, struck some notes of cultural and geographic chauvinism in me that are, like a twangy, claw-hammer mountain ballad, more complicated and less guileless than they sound at first. Could it be that I am that odd hillbilly who read Deliverance and felt . . . proud?
Its lessons on nature, rendered with such lyrical precision, have been overshadowed by the so-called “love scene.” Dickey wrote with a pupil-dilating rapture for wilderness, for wildness. The river is “blank and mindless with beauty . . . its icy pit of brightness, in its far-below sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence . . . the more wonderful for being unbearable.” Just his description of feeling an owl’s talon through tent canvas is worth the price of the book, which could make a vegan dream of bow-hunting. Humans—the orthodontically challenged and ultimately the Atlanta bidniss-men—are just more feral players in this darkling landscape.
Lately, some critics have pronounced this “man vs. nature” theme dead, but its seeming decline in relevance is really a matter of mud-spattered supply and demand, with nature on the dwindling end of things. I am scanning the lumpy silhouette of the mountain behind my childhood home, where I used to poke around junked 1968 pickups rusting in the weeds, unearth old Mason jars half-full of moonshine, and look in vain for the legendary buzzard roost. Now it, like most of America, is a subdivision, “blank and mindless,” but not, as it turns out, with beauty. The rivers, too, have been “neutered,” as my outdoorsman friend Joe says, meaning dammed for electricity and exclusive, seasonal colonies of the lake house peerage. If you think those peckerwood psycho-rapists were clannish and hostile to outsiders, lug a cooler and a fishing pole around Lake Seed looking for recreational public access. The torrents of Tallulah Gorge, where parts of the movie were filmed, are timed with sluice gates for “aesthetic” releases—a show for tourists. A few wild stretches of rapids still exist here and there, but the shale-bed shoals increasingly conduct guided, inflatable rafts or neon-pink inner tubes that Lewis Medlock, the buff survivalist of Deliverance, would use for target practice with his bow and arrow. “Every ten feet, there’s a house, most of the time,” Joe says.
Atlanta, too, has changed. At the time, it was a preening boomtown dominated by ruddy, smooth-talking Southerners who were just a generation or so removed from dirt farming—men like James Dickey, a Buckhead native who was revered in literary circles for his exquisitely euphoric poetry but was better known around the city for obstreperous drinking and ass-grabbing (everyone who encountered him has a story). He had been a hotshot copywriter for Coca-Cola, and the book is narrated by the similarly employed Ed Gentry—think Mad Men in breathable seersucker. That “back to the land” theme hit much closer to home then than it does now, in the coffee shops of Kirkwood.
Fittingly, the book starts with Lewis observing, “We really ought to go up there before the real estate people get hold of it and make it over into one of their heavens.” Well, those “gray affable men” finally have taken over. And they always were more predatory than the mountaineers, who tend to depend on each other in the social compact—if, at times, truculently—in lieu of Realtors and stock dividends. For all of their resourcefulness, Appalachian people historically have lacked the resources to block the developers and the vintners and the retirees migrating here from New Jersey by way of Tampa.
Some of those settlers are my friends. I do not, as a cousin once did, greet them with a shotgun, and I am not suggesting that Bobby Trippe was “asking for it,” though the literary character—a disdainful and dull man—is noticeably less sympathetic than Ned Beatty’s portrayal on film. My senses, however, tell me that a certain amount of savagery remains essential to the ecosystem, that we need Tennyson’s “nature, red of tooth and claw” to keep our pulse from growing faint. I miss the haintlike skirl of the panther that used to stalk the mountain laurel behind my house. I always imagined this muscled cat in the moonlight with a shiver, similar to the exhilarating fear, the awe, that Dickey anatomizes.
“I had never lived sheerly on nerves before,” muses Ed Gentry, “and a gigantic steadiness took me over, a constant trembling of awareness in a hundred places that added up to a kind of equilibrium, that made my arms move in long steady motions and showed me where the rocks were by the differences in the swirling of the water.” That strange ecstasy of survival and endurance illuminates the nightshade of this story like foxfire. Deliverance, like the river that runs through it, is all the more “wonderful for being unbearable,” even if its players, with or without banjos, are now extinct.
Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

– See more at: http://www.atlantamagazine.com/great-reads/deliverance-legacy/#sthash.UM021ok7.dpuf

Advertisements

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

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.

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.