A Deeper South

Twenty-one years ago next month, Johnny Cash played Atlanta for the last time. John Hayes and I were in the audience that night in Chastain Park. The next morning, we left Atlanta in John’s 1977 Ford pickup bound, more or less, for New Orleans. We wanted to see the South that had produced Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters, Flannery O’Connor and Martin Luther King. The South that isn’t on the main tourist drag. The South we didn’t learn about in school.

A Deeper South.

It was August in a different era. Johnny Cash was still alive. We shot on 35mm Kodachrome transparencies and Ilford black and white film. We printed our own prints in hired-out darkrooms, mailed them off to Kodak or took them to local camera shops for processing. There was no Toyota Prius. The truck did not have air-conditioning. We used pay phones. There was no GPS. We used maps.

We weren’t sure how we would get there, or where we would stay, or what we might see. We did not have much of a plan, but we did have a few rules:

1. No interstates; stick to back roads.
2. No hotels, unless absolutely necessary, in which case “hotel” should spelled with an “M.”
3. Take lots of pictures.

We had both grown up in Atlanta and attended the same private high school together, but neither of us had ever really seen the rest of the South. Since shortly after the Civil War, Atlanta made a name for itself by being forward-looking and sometimes deliberately dismissive of the past. We wanted to look backwards, at the landscapes that interstates and our education had passed by, at towns that were being slowly drained of life by chain stores and shopping malls along the interstates, at the figures that we never got close enough to in high school to be shaken by.

We took four more trips in later years, and covered a lot of ground. We shot rolls and rolls of film and made various plans to publish them. We talked about doing another tour one day, but it never happened.

Until 2018.

In July, we returned to the road. For two weeks we retraced our steps from previous tours and light out into new territory. After years of becoming habituated to the convenience of digital photos, we both shot film again (read my post from March about film vs. digital photography, “Truths Breathed through Silver”). The same rules apply, but this time there will be air-conditioning because it comes standard on a minivan, you know? And also, duh.

The ethos of this trip is roughly seven parts old-school, analog, 78rpm, acoustic chemistry and one part new-school, digital, fiber-optic-speed electromagnetism.

As of December 2018, a long essay about the 2018 trip is in the process of being published, and if you’re on our email list (sign up below), you will be the first to know when it is published. The essay is basically the germ of a longer book, about how the South has changed over the course of our tours, but more about how we have changed with (or against) it. It is about what we did not look for and did not see the first time around, from the subtly encoded messages in the monuments of public memory to the darker stories from my own family history that I couldn’t believe I had never heard.

(See my three recent published essays for The Millions, The Christian Century and The Bitter Southerner, which reflect the direction this book has taken so far.)

I am really looking forward to telling you the story of A Deeper South. I hope you will follow along to see where it goes.