"Lexington Elephants." Photograph by Erik Tuttle. Instagram @dektol8
WIDENING THE FIELD
By Oxford American
We now turn the Notebook over to our summer interns, who leave us today. Thank you for all your hard work! May you never again see a straight quote without flinching.
During my time as the first business intern at the OA, I’ve spent many hours reading about, listening to, and promoting Southern music. I grew up under the influence of my father’s record collection. Whenever I came home from elementary school, I was serenaded by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Band, the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones—as an older (but still young) man, I felt an ongoing, quiet grief that I could not find contemporary bands that spoke to me the way these had. These bands defined an atmosphere of the South for me that filled my mind with an idealized image of the region. As a grown man, I realized I needed to discover a South of my own. The first job was to find my music.
Cage the Elephant from Bowling Green, Kentucky, offers a noteworthy callback to the British Invasion. As Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker in America helped inspire the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, British artists like the Stones and David Bowie inspired CTE. I was astounded to find that the cultural romance between the American South and Britain had continued to develop across the boundary between the 20th and 21st centuries, that, without our British counterparts, we might not even recognize the talent in our own backyard.
Along with CTE’s unique mash-up of influence and origin, the band does not feel bound by the labels others might thrust upon it. They confidently shift among genres like punk, soul, rock, blues, and alternative, while consistently offering the mournful allure we Southerners have come to prize in both our literature and music. CTE’s ties to the South seem subliminal at first listen, but as the band widens its field, the more in touch it seems with its roots. I can only hope the same for myself as I make my next transition.
In 2014, the Oxford American’s business staff created a video ad series called “Get Ispirato!” that partnerned with Fiat to offer viewers tiny car concerts with Southern musicians. Uncovering these gems on YouTube is how I found The Secret Sisters. Laura and Lydia Rogers are dark-haired and porcelain-skinned (like my sister and me); from their perfectly lined red lips they sing beguiling notes (unlike my sister and me). My sister and I could be The Secret Sisters—if only we could sing.
This unmet desire aside, Laura and Lydia, as I like to call them, match their vintage-inspired fashion with ballads belonging to the past. T Bone Burnett hits the nail on the head: “The Secret Sisters echo and promise better days.” With a spot on The Hunger Games soundtrack and an active touring season, the Secret Sisters are very much of the moment, even as their music whispers of nostalgia. Laura and Lydia have two albums under their belts (The Secret Sisters, 2010; Put Your Needle Down, 2014), and the sisters are successfully crowdfunding their next album, set to release November 4, 2016. November 4 is my birthday, another of the celestial signs suggesting I am the third Secret Sister. I preordered a signed CD in support because I can’t possibly accept their “Private House Show” hosted in my honor. (I will, however, accept invitations to any private house shows in the states of Arkansas or North Carolina or Tennessee.)
For others who can’t wait until November, I recommend attending the Jam in the Trees music festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina on August 27th. Lydia and Laura will share the Pisgah Brewing stage with the Wood Brothers, the Del McCoury Band, Junior Brown, and many more Americana and folk artists. Buy tickets for any of their upcoming shows here. I’m leaving my desk at the Oxford American today, but if you make it to Black Mountain, come find me. I’ll be the girl near the stage with the red lipstick, brunette pompadour, and vintage tea dress moonlighting as Linda Rogers.
—Elaine Ruth Boe
As you drive east through the hay grass of Kansas, there comes suddenly, with only a sad little rock-sign as warning, a change: a geographic curtain opens, and you pass out of the desert and into a country sieved and showered by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Turn south, another opening—this one unmarked. Here, too, you find the lushness that water sprouts in a landscape, but also nature’s magical-seeming ways of pooling it: swamps, springs, ponds, those flooded fields where egrets stand anchored and aloof. As with most borders, the contrast between the dry West and the wet Southeast is probably a miracle only to those who, like me, grew up on its wrong side. But just think: In the South, “wasting water” means to consume it excessively; in the West, as the water historian Marc Reisner notes, it means to not use it.
Which maybe helps explain why, when I drove from Colorado to Little Rock last June to begin my internship at the Oxford American, I found myself taken with a Southern literature interested not just in the hand-wringing of environmentalism, but the suggestiveness of water’s reflective body. Diane Roberts’s “The Blue Ether of Another World,” published in the OA’s Summer issue, is an elegy for a childhood spent backstroking through Florida’s springs, where mullet, herons, and manatees encircled her—a dreamy thing she describes as being “suspended between the elements inside a perfect globe of morning-glory blue.” (I still can’t uncouple manatees from mermaid folklore, even if, as Lauren Groff writes in “Daughters of the Springs,” “they don’t look much like Daryl Hannah.”) Roberts’s meditation reads with the world-enlarging quality of fiction. Yet it’s as real as the ag runoff polluting the South’s waterways. It is in water, Roberts observes, that “our present reproaches us.” What I hear her saying is: Water is our most vivid metaphor for the ways we muck up our own futures, as well as the past.
It seems to me water is not just cause for thought; it’s also a way of escaping it. The heat and humidity of a Southern summer, I’m finding, can make abstract thought an athletic event. Or, as Sam Anderson writes in his 2003 OA essay “Dixie Zen,” an “endurance experiment engineered by NASA.” Floating in a truck tire tube on a slow-moving river turns out to be the perfect palliative. Tubing is “fluvial Buddhism,” while other water sports demand vigilance—especially in the “Rorschach lakes” of Anderson’s Louisiana, a place that’s, somehow, twenty percent water. Like a good Buddhist, Anderson shares his watery path to enlightenment: “[tubing] asks you to submit humbly to the river, to meet it on its own terms and have a long talk with it in its native language, rather than just flitting around on top of it.”
I’ll be trying to have a talk with it, too, back West in the high desert. I only pray it rains.
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