A Deeper South Playlist: Georgia

A Deeper South Playlist: Georgia

The Deeper South story started where Johnny Cash left off, on August 11, 1997, the day after his last show in Atlanta. So this playlist of tunes that have some origin in Georgia begins with an ending too. The last song on the list is in some ways the one that triggered the entire Deeper South project over twenty years ago. The year before, Cash had released Unchained, his second American Recordings collaboration with Rick Rubin. But it was a song from four years earlier that was ringing in our ears that summer: a tune Bono wrote and tried to sing himself, but gave up, saying that only Johnny Cash could sing it. “The Wanderer” concludes U2’s 1993 post-Cold War Euro-drama Zooropa (an album that has featured regularly on Southern Tours 1-6 in our conversations about the best U2 album). The song is a kind of post-apocalyptic vision starring a preacher who, “under an atomic sky,”

went out walking
Through streets paved with gold
Lifted some stones
Saw the skin and bones
Of a city without a soul

It was an important moment in the revival of Cash’s career, which really took off a year later with the first American Recordings album in 1994. But the odd mediation of Johnny Cash-by-way-of-U2 turned us both back towards the south. A “city without a soul” could very much have named Atlanta in 1997, at least as we experienced it. It would not be the last moment when a European band reminded us how good American music could be, and what we were all in danger of forgetting in the name of Vorsprung durch Technik (“progress through technology”).

John lives in Augusta now, so when we got around to planning Tour 6, we met up at his place to sketch out a rough itinerary. We would trace more or less the route of the first tour, a big jagged oval from Georgia to Memphis and back, ending up in Atlanta. We laid out maps of the deep South, leafed through WPA Guides, and reviewed photos from previous tours. We looked over what scant notes we had taken on earlier trips, narrowed down the places we wanted to revisit, and others we hadn't been to before. Then we hit Broad Street. It was St. Patrick’s Day.

In his preface to the 1990 reprint of the WPA Guide to Georgia, Phinizy Spalding wrote that Broad Street, “once one of the finest streets in the South and the envy of the rest of the state, is virtually dead every afternoon by six o’clock.” But at mid-afternoon on St. Patrick’s Day, there was nothing dead about Broad Street. It was positively thumping with revelers—black, white, Asian, drunk, semi-sober, superficially sober, mostly in green and glinting with strands of gold beads around the neck. It looked a little bit and sounded a lot like James Brown.

James first heard the kind of music he would make his own in the United House of Prayer for All People on Wrightsboro Road in Augusta. When the future Godfather of Soul visited in 1941, it changed his life. He heard his future in there. He heard and felt the shouts of the big brass bands, the throbbing pulse of United Houses of Prayer in towns all over the country, wherever its founder Sweet Daddy Grace felt needed it. Walking Broad Street on St. Paddy’s, we came across the band from the church in Augusta, throwing it down like they were heralding the Second Coming of the Lord. This recording is from a group in Charlotte, but gives the feel of what we heard that afternoon, and what got James up and moving.

African-American church music is sometimes treated as a quaint cliché of the past, a charming and mythical but dead art form. It may be struggling for breath, but it is no more dead than Augusta's Broad Street at six o'clock. At the UHOP they've been doing it for decades. Since 1946 Brother Theotis Taylor, a turpentine farmer and preacher in Fitzgerald, Georgia, has been doing it, too: playing piano and singing the gospel blues. “You got to be anointed to be anointed to do it right.” His latest album, released in June 2018 (and maybe the best record made this year, but I who am I to say?), is proof that Theotis, now in his nineties, has definitely got the anointing.

Sonny Terry was born south of Athens in Greensboro, the seat of Greene County in central Georgia. My parents live south of Greensboro now, and I have passed through the town many, many times. And I have been listening to Sonny Terry’s collaborations with his longtime musical partner, Brownie McGhee, since I was introduced to them circa 2000 at one of those CD-sampler stations at the now-defunct Millennium Music in Durham. I had never put Terry and Greensboro together until about an hour ago. But you grow up backwards. The great musicologist Alan Lomax called Terry “the greatest of harp blowers.” “He would beat his cupped hands and make blatting trumpet notes,” Lomax wrote. “He could make it sing the blues.” This reverb-heavy recording of “Old Jabo” features Brownie McGhee and Terry's harp singing the blues in the studio in the 1950s.

Originally from Alabama, then in Athens, Brooklyn, and now based in Nashville, Matthew Houck is nothing if not mercurial, but his band is called Phosphorescent. Houck stands in a jagged musical lineage passing through Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, to whom Phoshorescent dedicated an entire tribute album. On their debut album they evoke Aaron Riches’ Guelph-based band, Royal City, and maybe a dash of Flannery O'Connor:

You'll hold me here until i can't afford your kindness
You'll hold me dear until i can't afford to leave
While lightning real is leaning out and calling
But there's all of that doubt plus all of that skin
But all is grace and all is beauty
And when all this is gone beauty will remain

That lyric would be enough to include him on any playlist, but for this one it’s this track from 2013’s Muchacho, which has been on regular rotation for me for the last several years.

“Statesboro, Georgia, that is.”  On his searing 1968 cover of Blind Willie McTell's classic, “Statesboro Blues,” Taj Mahal felt it necessary to remind listeners that he meant the Statesboro is 80 miles south of Augusta on US 25. Taj’s cover and its opening guitar lick would become the basis for the Allman Brothers’ even more famous cover of the song at Fillmore East in 1971. But the Statesboro Blues go back to Thomson, Georgia near Augusta, where Blind Willie McTell was born William Samuel McTier in 1898. He became one of the most prolific Piedmont blues musicians from the 1920s to the 1950s. According to Bob Dylan, “no one can sing the blues / Like Blind Willie McTell.”

I first heard the Vigilantes of Love play at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem in about 1992. They were touring the southeast in support of their 1992 album, The Killing Floor, produced by Mark Heard and REM’s Peter Buck and Mark Heard. The live experience and the album amounted to a revelation, and helped to get me back on the good foot musically, after a protracted struggle with bad 90’s country music. Led by Athens native Bill Mallonee, The Vigilantes were a big part of the thriving music scene in Athens in the early 1990s. Bill and his wife Muriah Rose have since moved out to New Mexico, where he has continued to write and record music prolifically (in 2013, just before we left Texas for good, Bill Mallonee played a show at our house, which may be the best thing I did in Waco). Killing Floor was a kind of much needed musical-spiritual therapy for me in the mid-90s; it also introduced me to the story of Andersonville, Georgia, site of one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps in American history.

Curley Weaver was born in Covington, and was a regular collaborator with Blind Willie McTell up through the 1950’s. Curley had a daughter, Cora Mae Bryant, who was a ferocious blues guitarist herself, and was a regular at the Northside Tavern, the home of the blues in Atlanta. This solo recording of Cora Mae was made in 2001, when she was 75 and still kicking ass.

I met Jake Xerxes Fussell a year or so ago at a function at the National Humanities Center in Durham, where he is based. We ended up randomly sitting together at the same table and talking Columbus, where Jake grew up. The son of Fred Fussell, Jake grew up traveling around the South with his father, recording traditional blues music. As a teen, he apprenticed, toured, and recorded with Precious Bryant. A student of traditional American music, those—and many other—influences have made their way into Jake's music. “I’m just link in the chain,” he says. “I don’t really see myself as being all that different. I’m just trying to serve the song.” His 2017 album, What in the Natural World, is representative of the way Jake's music is not interested in quaint nostalgia or manufactured authenticity but in taking part in and adding his own voice and distinctive guitar picking to a living musical tradition.

Outside of Columbus a piece in Talbot County, Precious Bryant was born in 1942. Like many blues artists, she was first recorded by a folklorist with a recorder, in this case Atlanta-based George Mitchell in 1967. Thirty-five years later, she recorded another session in folklorist Fred Fussell's home studio in Buena Vista. “Broke and Ain't Got A Dime” is Bryant's interpretation of Blind Willie McTell’s “Last Dime Blues,” which is itself an interpretation of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Dime Blues,” recorded in 1927. Lemon probably heard it from somebody else, who heard it from someone else.

I spent a lot of hours in Columbus, Georgia during my childhood, including every Thanksgiving dinner for 20+ years at my maternal grandmother's house. But as with Sonny Terry, I never realized until much, much later, that Columbus is home to arguably the first female blues recording artist. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was born in Columbus in 1886. She was already so well-established in the 1910s that Bessie Smith joined her band in 1912. In the 1920s Ma Rainey recorded songs that would become blues standards, including “See See Rider Blues.” This haunting recording of the tune is very different from the horn-heavy rhythm-and-blues opening number that Elvis played to hip-whip his live audience into a beehived frenzy. It was pressed in vinyl in 1923 for Paramount, and features Ma backed by “Her Georgia Jazz Band.” On cornet, some dude named Louis Armstrong.

Like you, probably, my first introduction to Jerry Reed was as The Snowman from Smokey and the Bandit I, II, and III (when he did double duty as a discount Bandit in lieu of the mostly absent Burt Reynolds), or as a master of novelty music like “The Bird.” But there was another Jerry, who in the early 1970s was the hottest fingerpicker in Nashville. Reed was born in Atlanta in 1937 and raised in foster homes until he got his start as a session player in the 1960s. He cultivated a distinctive style playing mostly on a nylon-string classical style guitar, which almost no one apart from Willie Nelson played. Starting in the early 70’s, Reed teamed up with Chet Atkins and cut several albums together. At the time Chet was a VP at RCA, but a cancer scare turned him back towards the guitar. Like Reed, Atkins had also grown up and learned to play the guitar in Georgia, in Harris County near Columbus. While it’s very difficult to resist the temptation to include “East Bound and Down” on a road-trip-through-Georgia playlist, this much less well-known cover of Junior Parker’s 1953 Sun Records single, “Mystery Train” (made famous by Elvis's cover two years later, also for Sun) gives the feel of Reed's and Atkins's antiphonal collaborative style. To tell who is who, pay attention to those car stereo speakers; Jerry is on the left, Chet on the right.

One-man band Jesse Fuller is known mainly for the blues standard, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” which he wrote in 1954 in the Bay Area, where he became a local celebrity. But Jesse was born in Jonesboro south of Atlanta in 1896. Terribly mistreated as a child, Fuller worked small jobs around the state in Macedonia, Brunswick, and Griffin, until he lit out north for Cincinnati. Part of the first big wave of the Great Migration, Fuller was one of many African-Americans who ditched the oppressive racial caste system of the South for opportunities elsewhere. After hopping a freight train to California, Fuller ended up in LA, where he happened to meet the Hollywood mega-star Douglas Fairbanks. This 1959 recording of “You're No Good,” a tune closely resembling “San Francisco Bay Blues,” features Fuller on the fotdella, the contraption he invented that allowed him to play an upright bass with his feet, in addition to the guitar, kazoo, harmonica, and high hat.

Sometime in the early 2000s, when we were living in Texas, I saw Larry Jon Wilson perform “Ohoopee River Bottomland” live at the Bluebird Cafe on the Turner South cable TV network. The performance was so unlike anything I'd ever seen that I searched everywhere for Wilson's records, and even switched cable companies to one that carried Turner South. But Larry Jon’s records had all gone out of print by then, and even trips to Waterloo Records in Austin—an almost encyclopedic inventory of recorded music—yielded nothing. Turner South went under in 2006, and so did Wilson a few years later. Larry Jon had put together a string of albums in the 1970s, and then walked away from the music biz. He returned to music later and when he did play live, he often did it at the Bluebird. Wilson’s music was deeply rooted in south Georgia where he was born in 1940. His voice sounds like it was dug up out of the ‘Hoopee River bottom itself, and his recordings showcase a wide-ranging talent with distinctive guitar and unpredictable songwriting styles, a sign of the kind of risks that Nashville was willing to take in the early 1970s.

About the time Larry Jon died in 2010, I heard about JJ Grey and Mofro, a swamp-rock band based in Jacksonville, Florida. They had just released an album called Georgia Warhorse, named after the local grasshopper (Romalea microptera) that haunts the cypress groves and soggy wetlands of south Georgia and north Florida. JJ is from that part of Florida that could be described as metropolitan south Georgia. It is a part of the state that is still recognizably southern, the last gasp of the Suwannee River watershed before the blank space before you get to Florida™. Southern Florida is Everyone’s Idea of Florida, but the northern part of the state, especially the area around the Okefenokee Swamp, is like a different country. I call it Pre-Florida. Because JJ Grey and Mofro sound like the Okefenokee to me, they’re here:

North Florida is a liminal state, maybe a liminal state of being. It’s part Georgia, part Florida, an area where territorial claims are as contested as they are ambiguous. Florida claims the Okefenokee, even though most of it is in Georgia. Georgia claims the Suwannee River, even though most of it is in Florida. Both states claim Stephen Foster, who wrote a song about it but never set foot in either state. Georgia and Florida both have a rightful claim to Ray Charles, who was born in Albany and grew up in Greenville, Florida. And to mash all of that confusion together a little further, “Swanee River Rock” is Ray’s interpretation of a Foster song, which in its original form is patronizingly sentimental in a classically racist sort of way and also the official state song. But here Ray takes the song back, and makes you never want to hear the original version ever again.

Big Maceo Merriwether was born in Newnan in 1905, a few years after that town became the center of national attention for the notorious lynching of Sam Hose. Like Jesse Fuller and other black musicians, Maceo had enough of the regime of white terrorism in the South and hit the road north for Detroit in the 1920s, and ended up in Chicago, where he died in 1953. In Chicago the piano master recorded for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, and nailed it on the first try. One of his first recordings, “Worried Life Blues,” became a hit and, ultimately, part of the blues canon. I was first introduced to the song through a cover by Eric Clapton, but you could name just about any blues or R&B musician from the last 70 years, and odds are they’ve covered Big Maceo’s signature tune.

Like “Worried Life Blues,” I first heard “It Hurts Me Too” in a Clapton cover. That’s not the only thing the two tunes have in common, however: “It Hurts Me Too” also became a blues standard (covered by everyone from The Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones to—naturally—Foghat), and it was also written by a Georgian. Born Hudson Woodbridge in Smithville, Georgia near Albany in 1903, he moved with his family to Florida, where he became better known as Tampa Red. Having mastered the slide guitar, Red moved to Chicago, where he first hit the big time playing slide for Ma Rainey. It was through Tampa Red's intervention that Big Maceo Merriwether was first introduced to the folks at RCA Victor.

The writer of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley,” The Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey is known chiefly for his contributions to black gospel music. Born in Villa Rica in 1899, Dorsey, like Tampa Red and Maceo Merriwether, joined the Great Migration, and left the Atlanta area for Chicago in 1918. Before he became the father of the gospel music, Dorsey was known as Georgia Tom, and regularly played and recorded with Tampa Red in Chicago. Their single, “It's Tight Like That,” has sold 7 million copies since its release in 1928. A recording of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom playing together exists, as do several brassy editions like this one recorded in 1954 in Copenhagen by Chris Barber's Jazz Band, an English Dixieland ensemble. This one traveled an unpredictable lineage from a gospel composer in Atlanta to a white jazz band in London to the Odd Fellows Mansion in Copenhagen back to America again. Music makes odd fellows of us all, word.

I first heard Bernice Johnson Reagon sing at a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University in the early 1990s. “Heard” is probably not the right word, though: I don't think I have ever been in the presence of so powerful a vocal presence as Reagon’s. With a single turn of phrase or crack of the voice she could shift the room on its axis, or tighten some knot in your gut you did not know was there. When I first heard her, though, I did not realize what musical and life experience coursed beneath the voice that seemed like it could liquefy bone. Reagon had founded the SNCC Freedom Singers during the Albany Movement in her hometown in 1961. First a student activist, she became a decorated scholar of cultural history. In 1965 she recorded a solo album of freedom songs and African-American spirituals for Smithsonian Folkways label, and in 1972 she recorded another solo album, this time with an a cappella backing group and featuring the arrangements that would become the signature of Sweet Honey in the Rock, formed in the next year. “Sound is a way to extend the territory you can affect,” she once said. “Communal singing is a way of announcing you are here and possessing the territory.  When police or the sheriff would enter mass meetings and start taking pictures and names, and we knew our jobs were on the line, and maybe more… inevitably somebody would begin a song.  Soon everyone was singing and we had taken back the air in that space.”

There is a straight line from Bernice Johnson Reagon backwards to Bessie Jones, and you can hear it in Jones's recording of “O Death.Jones was born in Smithville, like Tampa Red, and grew up in Dawson, like Otis Redding. In the 1920s she left her young daughter with her mother and sought work in Fitzgerald, around the time Theotis Taylor was born there. After a stint playing cards and rolling dice, working in kitchens and making and selling moonshine in Florida, she ended up on St. Simon's Island in 1933, and joined the Sea Island Singers. Her story resembles at points that of Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel. Hurston had accompanied Alan Lomax on his first visit to the Golden Isles in 1935, but Lomax didn't meet Jones until 1959, when he recorded her for the first time. “Sometimes” was used by Moby for his 1999 album Play, but it deserves to be restored to memory in its original, visceral version:

The Sea Island Singers folded in 2006, but up the coast aways, the McIntosh County Shouters are still kicking it. The setting of the phenomenal Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene’s story about the county’s crooked white sheriff and the collapse of his regime in the 1970s, McIntosh County is a storied place: it includes Darien, which was the site of a Colonial fortress put up in 1721, well before James Oglethorpe showed up, and the mouth of the Altamaha River. Just north of where the Altamaha empties more freshwater into the Atlantic than all other rivers but two, Sapelo Island is the definition of a “long story.” According to some, the first Catholic Mass was celebrated on Sapelo in the sixteenth century, but it is better known for the Gullah-Geechee community centered around Hog Hammock, where descendants of enslaved West Africans have lived since the 18th century. The island is increasingly contested, as tax increases and legal battles are making it difficult for local residents to maintain their land. Some of the anguish and hope of African-American residents of McIntosh County can be heard in the stomping plaint, “Blow, Gabriel.”

Fiddlin’ John Carson was a fiddling champion in the 19-teens and -twenties, and first recorded for Okeh Records in 1923. Two years later he started to make records with his daughter, Rosa, AKA “Moonshine Kate.” One of her first solo records (and also one of the first country music recordings by a woman), “The Ballad of Mary Phagan,” tells one version of the story (read the full lyrics here) behind the alleged murder of Phagan by Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman, in Atlanta in 1913. Kate and her father wrote the song during Frank's trial in 1914 and played it regularly to audiences in Atlanta, stoking the anti-semitic rage that led to Frank's abduction and lynching in 1915. Carson's politics were no secret—he campaigned for the segregationist Eugene Talmadge in 1932, and was a member of the Klan. This song, “Ain’t No Bugs on Me,” is an example of both the Carsons’ musical style and catchy self-righteousness, and includes both a shot at the theory of evolution and a small dose of attempted Klan humor:

The night was dark and driz’ly an’ the air was full of sleet
m’ ol’ man join’d the Klu Klux an’ ma she lost ‘er sheet

If you happened to wander down to Underground Atlanta in the late 1980s or 1990s—when people wandered to Underground Atlanta—you might have encountered a guitar-slinging woman busking on Lower Alabama Street, swinging her axe behind her head and playing the blues like nobody's business. Underground is where you might have found Beverly “Guitar” Watkins in those days, but in the sixties you might have found her opening for Ray Charles or James Brown or B.B. King. Before that, you'd have found her touring with Piano Red. Born at Grady Hospital in Atlanta in 1939, she has been a fixture in Atlanta's blues scene for decades. Now 78, she is still kicking it and putting much younger wannabe gods in their place. You might find her on a Saturday night at Blind Willie's or the Northside Tavern, but on Sunday she’ll be in church, singing like this:

Put one way, The Northside Tavern in Atlanta is a dive bar that specializes in traditional blues music. Put more truthfully, it is a living juke joint where the blues is practiced, one of the few places left in the Southeast where one of the region's most distinctive musical forms can find expression, a sanctuary for increasingly neglected artists to find paying gigs and an eager and grateful audience ready to shake its hips.If you want to understand what a musical tradition feels like, you go to the Tavern. A lot of what the Tavern represents is due to the vigilance of Danny “Mudcat” Dudek, the musical and spiritual anchor of the venue who keeps a standing engagement at The Tavern every Wednesday night. When we wrapped up Tour 6 in July 2018 in Atlanta on a Wednesday night, there was really no question that we would end up at the Northside Tavern with Mudcat and, for me at least, his signature tune:

I have always thought of R.E.M. as an autumnal—the most autumnal—band, and Deeper South road trips have been a summer affair. But but it seems more wrong to not include them at all. As I was driving into Augusta for that Tour 6 planning session on St. Patrick's Day, I had "Radio Free Europe" blasting on the minivan hifi-which was not made to blast in any manner whatsoever. We had just launched the ADS instagram account—made somewhere on I-20 behind the wheel en route to Augusta, in radical, shameless defiance of Georgia state law!!—and at that moment I was literally

calling out in transit
calling out in transit

But this track from New Adventures in Hifi, an under-rated masterpiece, if you ask me, from 1996 captures where I was musically on the eve of the first tour in 1997. I had come late to REM, which was in its way a sort of gift, because I was able to receive them when I needed them as if they were new and unfamiliar. When I was feeling particularly acute loneliness in Cambridge, I listened to Document on regular walks along the Cam in an attempt to remind myself who I was. In 1995, I had tickets for Meredith and I to see the band play in Frankfurt (with an opening act called Radiohead), but they had to cancel the show because Bill Berry had an aneurysm and subsequently had to retire. I could include almost any REM song here, but “Departure” seems appropriate as a penultimate tune. It also rocks.