The Music of Tennessee by the Oxford American

Reminiscence and reflection are complicated matters.  Over winter break, I picked up the Oxford American’s annual music issue.  The featured state is Tennessee, and the issue comes with a double disc music compilation of Tennessee music.  I was in Tennessee – where I’m from – and I was missing the hell out of

Like I said, looking at the past is complicated. In order to accurately represent the music of the South, one cannot simply discuss the musicians, their style and influences.  Music in the South, music in Tennessee, all of it is directly tied up with segregation and civil rights.  It is a matter of a few very poor, very talented folks who happened to make it big in Memphis or Nashville.  But it’s also a matter of how they made it big, who was there pushing them through, who was tripping them up, who was buying their records and who was not.

The OA tackles this complicated, bumpy history the best anyone can in 147 pages, and mostly it thoroughly succeeds. From the first article “Let’s Put Him on the Air” by Christine Cooper Spindel, the magazine orients itself between both the rich, beautiful music from Tennessee and the systemic oppression that it sprung from.  Spindel’s article discusses the wild decision of the WDIA radio producers to “work alongside Negro people.”  This decision leads to B.B. King’s first live broadcast. Robert Gordon’s essay “Stax Magic” (excerpted from his book on Stax Records) perhaps addresses this complicated history best.  He describes Memphis as a “beacon” for those rural people from the surrounding area, the “disenfranchised, the hungry, the hopeful” who want “to realize their dreams.”  However, Gordon explains, “plantation prejudices still prevail” in a city where racism in all its iterations were “embraced and enacted as a civic enterprise.”  And despite this reigning mode of prejudice, “great art” was created.  Other articles in the issue address (and dispel) folklore rumors of musical greats, like Bessie Smith and Johnny Cash, that have been passed on to become part of their mythology.  Laura Cantrell interviews the “Grand Ladies” of the Opry.  Gus Cannon and his motivations are considered in “Can You Blame Gus Cannon?” by Dom Flemons.  Each piece focuses on the musicians and their music, but in every line there is the undercurrent of class and race, of people toeing the line between tolerance and true acceptance.

The accompanying discs run the gambit in a way the magazine doesn’t quite achieve.  There is everything from hillbilly bluegrass to the blues; gospel to Nashville country; the compilation includes funk and soul, Dylan and Parton. More recent, highly recognizable names are absent: JT and Three 6 come to mind, but I’m sure the rights are out of the budget of most magazines.  And the music they got is good.  It is very good.  Listen to “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” after Claudia Perry’s “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now.”  Likewise for Roseanne Cash’s “The Long Way Home” and her own essay “The Long Way Home.” Bo-Keys’ “Deuce and a Quarter” is probably the most fun I’ve listened to this month.

Personally, I’ve nearly worn out both discs in just a couple weeks.  Maybe it’s nostalgia.  I haven’t lived in Memphis in about five years, and I just moved from the far west of Acadiana to New Orleans.  I love this place, but today, as I drove past my destination (the park) three times without making it (I blame one-way streets) I had Tennessee music playing.  My winter trip home hit me hard with nostalgia, and I can’t shake it.  And that’s what was beautiful about reading this issue of the OA.  I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and I found myself longing for Memphis, not so much the rest of the history and the city’s many issues.  But the streets mentioned by name, the sometimes-brash bluntness with which we address our history.  And the simple familiarity.  When I read Jerry Lee’s name, I don’t think of his music or his marriage, I think of my ex’s grandmother, his long-time housekeeper, and the stories she told about Jerry and his son. Robert Gordon’s account of Stax Records was wholly compelling, but I was first reminded of the friend who edited film for him.

Roseanne Cash dissects her Tennessees: where she was born, where she visited as a teenager, where she lived as an adult, and where she still performs.  Her versions of Tennessee are also complicated, tied up in her family, her memories of her father, the Nashvillian that she could never quite be.  Twenty years removed, she lives in New York, but she recalls “the unchanging verdant landscape, sprinkled with lightning bugs.”  During a summer visit in the Smoky Mountains, she finds her “real Tennessee.”  “I felt my heart crack a little with love for Tennessee,” she writes. “It was like discovering some new piece of information about your parents that you can only understand as an adult … something beautiful that you suddenly realize they have passed on to you without your knowledge.”

The Oxford American’s music issue gives dimension and vitality to the music of my home state.  The issue is ripe with both reminiscence and reflection, and it is a tribute to the musical history.

Pages: 147   FoA pages: 33652

(plus 50 tracks of Tennessee music)


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