Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Points South. I'm your host, Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. This year our annual music issue is a very special Greatest Hits edition guest edited by Brittany Howard, the Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter and lead vocalist of Alabama Shakes. For this issue, Howard selected ten of her favorite OA music stories to republish alongside a section of new writing on musical icons. The issue also comes with more than a dozen hours of music, including ten streamable playlists curated by writers and musicians, including Brittany. You can access these directly in the magazine and listen along to this jam-packed issue while you read. The issue, which features Sister Rosetta Tharpe on the cover, is shipping to OA subscribers now. It’s also available at OxfordAmericanGoods.org and will be available on newsstands nationwide December first. In today’s episode, OA managing editor Danielle A. Jackson, who led the music issue project and worked with Brittany on her editor’s letter, sat down with the visionary musician to discuss her reading life, the roots that shaped her sound, and the dualities of the South.
Danielle Jackson: So the issue is all about the greatest hits of our magazine, focusing on our music issue, which has been around for 23 years this year. And you picked the best of the best Oxford American music writing. And, you know, you've been written about as a musician, I would say for about a decade. So, you know, it's, it's really wonderful and helpful that we got that kind of perspective in curating and editing the issue. So I was just wondering, what kinds of music writing do you like to read and also what do you like, or what don't you like about being written about?
Brittany Howard: I'd say the kind of music writing that I like is, um, a lot of stories talking about where the musicians or songwriters grew up, what kind of circumstances they grew up in and what led them to choose musicianship as their outlet. I think that's really interesting. Cause I feel like that's where I can relate to a lot of musicians. Like it's really before all the fame and success hit, it's like that grind and that hunger. Yeah. That's usually the most inspiring perspective to me. And as far as being written about, um, I just like when people take their time to try to understand me, where I come from, you know. It does seem like I came out of nowhere, overnight sensation, Alabama Shakes, all that stuff. Uh, but there's a lot more to the story. You know, I knew what I wanted to do since I was 11 years old and I put all that work into it. So I was already doing it for 10 years before any of us hit the scene. What I don't like is when, um, people kind of sing the virtues without having any of the backstory, you know what I'm saying? Like to me, where I come from it's a miracle to get to do what I do. I think it matters. It matters to why people make music. I think that's interesting to me, personally.
DJ: So could you maybe talk a little bit about your grandmothers and singing with them and learning music with them?
BH: Yeah. So, I have my two grandmothers. Uh, one is white, her name is Ruby. And my other grandmother is Black and her name is Helen, but we all called her Mama Helen. So I'll be referring to Ruby, Nana, and my Mama Helen. Those are the two different grandmas. So Nana, uh, at her house, you know, we used to cook a lot of food together. We pretty much always spent life in the kitchen, um, sitting around a table, drawing or listening to music or watching the news from the kitchen table. That's where we did everything. She had a little boom box in there and she was showing me how to cook things, like peach cobbler. She was showing me how to make casseroles and how to make biscuits and chopping up okra and, you know, splitting peas and, uh, shucking corn. And it was always around food and music and we would laugh and goof off and have a lot of fun. And she would always show me the songs from when she was a teenager, cause she still loved them. And so that's where I got like a love and appreciation for old doo-wop groups and people like Chuck Berry and James Brown. And she would, she would show that to me at a really early age. And to me, that was just what good music was. Of course I heard the stuff on the radio, but if I'm being honest, I liked her type of music better. Um, and Mama Helen, she had a like cool kind of music style. She liked that smooth, like R&B, like Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross and Barry White and things like that. And at the time I didn't really understand why it was good. I just knew that like, that's what she liked, and so we got to get with it. My grandma was cool. Mama Helen was cool. And so we used to have like the cookouts in her front yard and everybody in the family would come over. And here comes, you know, my, my cousin pulling up in his, like, green Jeep Cherokee, you know, with the rims on it. And, and here comes everybody else pulling up and in their cars and parking in the front yard, coming out and wearing their FUBU and trying to look cool. You know what I mean? With the gold teeth in and listening to that kind of music in the front yard. And just having the best time. And whenever I hear that kind of music, that smooth R&B kind of music, I think about how happy those times were when we were all together and everything was just cool and peaceful and all we had to do was eat, you know?
[AD]: Hey Points South listeners, thank you for tuning in! Did you know that the Oxford American is a non-profit organization that relies on you to keep the lights on? We’ve got a special offer for you today that will save you some money and support our mission to explore the complexity and vitality of the South. Head to OxfordAmericanGoods.org and use promo code PODCAST for 15% off your purchase. Including our Greatest Hits Issue, guest edited by Brittany Howard.
DJ: You know, our cover star for the issue is going to be Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
BH: Yes, ma'am!
DJ: You inducted her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You gave a really beautiful performance and you kind of expressed that it was belated and overdue. I would love to know or hear you talk a little bit about how she, as well as other Black women pioneers, influenced your sound. Like, how would you trace the roots of your sound?
BH: Sure. Um, first off it was an honor inducting her. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was someone, um, that I've been looking up to since I think my late teens, early twenties, when I found out about her. Because suddenly people were saying, "Oh, you're like Rosetta Tharpe, you look [muttering]." And I'm like, "Who's that?" So I started looking her up and getting into her, you know, and I was like, "Wow, this is so cool!" The way she plays, her style is so cool. We played like the same guitar, which is not on purpose. It just happened that way. I was fascinated and really got into her and realized how important she was to the history of rock and roll and soon realizing that she, uh, probably created rock and roll, so. And as far as, like, my own genealogy with music, I listened to everything I could get my ears on. I was born with really big ears. My mom said that's the first thing that developed on me. So I just love sound. I love music. I like classical music. I like world music. I like, um, pop music. I like doo-wop music. Um, and I think the one thing that I respect the most out of all those different types of genres, if you want to call them that, is the, uh, the spirit behind it, the soul behind it, the celebration behind it. There's something very human and raw about all the different types of music we listen to. They all have something connecting them all. They all borrow from each other. So in a way, I learned that string and I learned that, uh, the more you can contain, the more options you have when you're going to write your own stuff.
DJ: So specific songs, um, on your album, "Georgia" is one that I wanted to ask you about. So I read in some things that the song is about a crush, like when you're a young girl. Um, I read some things that said that song is about the singer-songwriter, artist, Georgia Anne Muldrow. Can you talk to us a little bit about that song?
BH: Yeah. The way the song came about is I was taking a break from working and I went in the house, made lunch, and I'm reading this article and it had Georgia Anne Muldrow mentioned in it. And it was just kind of like listing all the different people she worked with. And then I just thought to myself, like, "Man, I wish Georgia knew I existed because if she worked with me, that means I'm dope like all these other people." And then I just started singing it, "I just want Georgia to notice me." And I was like, "Oh, I like that!" And then the bassline came into my head and I was like, "Ooh, that's kind of, ooh, I don't know. So simple, so catchy." And then I put my sandwich down and ran into the studio and, um, started forming this track that took on this completely different meaning, this completely different definition. So like Georgia inspired it, but the song's definitely not about her. It turned into this story of being young and having, like, a really innocent desire of love and not understanding where it comes from or why you're different. Um, and just living in that for a second, that feeling. That feeling of, yeah, it's about desire, but it's also innocent. And I never heard a song like that before, so I wanted to write about it.
DJ: Another thing you talk about in your letter is the way that you felt a connection in some way to all the pieces that you picked for us. What do you read or, yeah, what do you read for fun? Like, what is, tell me a little bit about your reading life.
BH: I actually like things that are nonfiction. Um, believe it or not. Just like, almost to the point of like scientific journals. I really like to educate myself. I'm inspired by things like, um, sci-fi, but possible sci-fi. Like it's possible. This could happen in the next 30 years, we could be doing this and we can have this. And that actually inspires me creatively. Um, I never really thought about it until now, but the world of possibility of the world of tomorrow actually inspires the way I think. And it kind of gives me this like liberation of what's possible.
DJ: I'm also really curious about kind of your most recent release, um, the remixes for Jaime. Um, I was wondering, I think it, we, like from an, from a perspective of like editors of writing, you know, we're always thinking about, what's the best way to, to start this? Like, what's the best way to, like, get readers to, like, get immediately emotionally invested in the piece? Should we remove, um, this part, should we put this paragraph in like the beginning instead of the end? You know, we're constantly reordering it, recasting. So, um, you know, that kind of sparked some questions about how your collaborations for the remixes came about. And how those, those collaborations were able to help those songs live differently or speak to the audience a little bit differently.
BH: Yeah. That's the whole idea behind it. I really do think that everyone working on this remix album, I respect them. I respect the way they see things. And I just wanted to hear how my kind of ideas would flow through them. What did they get out of it? How could they transform it and change it? Uh, and yeah, to touch their own audiences. But also it was just like out of pure fun and play. It's fun. It's a fun little project. I mean, the thing behind it was really just, "Hey, what do y'all think? What would y'all have done different?" And it's been so cool. Um, I've always been fascinated. Um, how other people see things, you know. Cause, cause you know, this is my reality, but somebody else's reality is gonna be totally different. Um, so yeah, I'm having fun with it. I'm excited for it.
DJ: Um, I like the EarthGang remix of "Goat Head." So I think maybe some people would be surprised that you mixed the song with a hip-hop duo. But it seems so like intuitive, of like a natural connection to me. Cause that song, to me, is like a hip-hop song a little bit anyway.
[clip from “Goat Head”]
BH: Yeah. It all makes sense to me with my music. I have so many different types of, uh, inspiration when I'm making a song. Uh, I'm going to say hip-hop is always on the playing field for me. Um, grew up listening to it. That's just a natural part of my own, uh, musical education. So doing this track with EarthGang, doing "Goat Head" with EarthGang made perfect sense. And I like the little EarthGang dudes, man, they're funny. They're talented dudes. I like them.
[“Goat Head” remix]
DJ: What I got into with your music as a fan is definitely, like, your love songs. When Jaime first came out, my song was "Short and Sweet." So can you talk a little bit about what your approach is for writing love songs, why you like to write love songs?
BH: I like to write love songs from a bit of a different perspective. Um, there's lots of different types of love. Can feel lots of different ways. People can explain it in lots of different ways, and it appears in all kinds of different situations. So I, when I write a love song, you know, I think that something everyone can relate to is love. And I think that's something everyone longs for. Um, so it's something easy to write about for me. There's a depth there when you talk about love, that's almost impossible to describe. So it's kind of fun to stay there and adventure there. And so when I was writing a song like "Short and Sweet," I thought it would be interesting to write from a perspective of, "I'm going to step into this love, but I know it's going to end." Um, and I thought that was interesting to me. I can't name a lot of songs off the top of my head that deal with that kind of subject matter. Um, and that just made it interesting to me and made me want to write about it, made me curious about it. So there's that.
DJ: Yeah, I think, um, it's really beautiful and super evocative of that feeling and like kind of bittersweet. And I think that speaks to, like, a lot about the moment that we're kind of living in, probably.
BH: I think we're all living in uncertain times and I think especially in America, this is a country that's always, um, prided itself on where you're going and how are you gonna get there and pull your bootstraps up and you can do it, ra ra ra, individualism, all these things. I think we're realizing more and more and more, especially during this time, we're waking up to the idea that being an individual is lonely and I can't do everything. I need help. Um, diversity is amazing because I don't want people that only think like me, only look like me. I need more information. I need more in my life. I need all the colors of the rainbow. I need all the sounds. I need to be outdoors. I need to remember what it was like to just sit and to cook and not have my phone in front of me. I want to know what it's like to wake up and be with my family and not just go to work and come back tired and moody. Um, people are like really getting a wake up call, uh, right now, I think. That there's more to life than just being a consumer. There's more to life than just playing a part in a, in, like, a capitalist country where it's just money, money, money, things, things, things, what happens when you can't get the money, what happens when you can't get the things? What happens when, uh, you have to stay inside with your family, with yourself? What happens when you have to actually spend time and mental energy on who you are? Um, so in that way that's painful, right? Cause that's a new thing and we're all going through it. Um, some people will become aware that it's a growing pain and it does lead to somewhere more, um, I don't know, awakening or enlightening? I don't know. Or some people will just see it as punishment. But I do think ultimately the way I'm holding it together is just knowing it's part of a bigger plan. I do believe that, and it makes me hopeful. Cause things have to get ugly before they can heal, you know?
DJ: You also talked a little bit about having some complex feelings about the South, or the South that you grew up in, and how it's changed. Can you talk a little bit about how your thoughts of living in the South have evolved as you've become a grown woman?
BH: [exhales] Uh, there's a lot to be said when we're talking about the South. Being someone who grew up here, it's kind of hard to be on the outside looking in. Because you just grew up here. It's just the way things are. But I think the more I traveled, the more I longed for home. But it's home, see? That's the thing. I can talk about the South, but I'm from here. It's hard to separate myself from it. It is different. The air is different. I miss it. Uh, even though, you know, the South has got a really bad rap, you know, it's always been slow in progress. It's always been like that. It's a place with a lot of duality because at the same time, as you're having the Civil Rights marches, right? The same time that Black folks and white folks are in the studio making sixties hits, that still inspire us today. Same time that there were lynchings, there was an Underground Railroad. There was hope. These things, these things live together down here. Which I think makes it so much more real because that's, that's how life is. There's duality, there's contradictions. Living down here with that, I think gets you to just closer to, like, the rawness of life. And also the fact that this is an agricultural place. Both of my grandparents, my white grandparents and my Black grandparents, picked cotton. It wasn't that long ago. They couldn't drink at the same water fountains. Uh, but here I am, you know. That's the thing about the South. It will change, it just has its own pace. But there's so many good people there. I'm sad that it's been devastated by, um, whataboutism and politics. Tensions. I'm glad we're talking about it, but it makes me sad that some people were sticking their fingers in their ears and their heads in the sand. And then there's, on the other side of this, young people who want desperately for the South to change and be progressive and be inviting. And I'm all for that. I, for one, when I talk about the South, I really take my time talking about it because I never want to abandon it because there's two sides to it. You know what I mean? I have, uh, been in European countries and they say, "Oh, Alabama, isn't that where the racists still are?" And it's like, "Well, buddy, the racists are still in America. Like, you know, Alabama is one spot." I had to educate them real quick. And I kind of accidentally unofficially became an ambassador for Alabama because I do love it so much. It's special and it's beautiful. So I'll never abandon it.
DJ: That's beautiful.
[“Short and Sweet”]
SAL: This episode was produced by me, Christian Leus, Danielle A. Jackson, and Eliza Borné, with Ryan Harris. Trey Pollard of Spacebomb does our theme music and sound design. Special thanks to Christine Stauder and, of course, Brittany Howard. This episode was made possible with support from UAMS. Sign up for our newsletter at oxfordamerican.org/newsletter for all the latest on the OA and Points South. And remember, promo code PODCAST gets you 15% off any purchase at OxfordAmericanGoods.org, including the new music issue, featuring Brittany Howard. Thank you for listening. We hope you've enjoyed the show.