"Because of the wealth of musical genres that come from Alabama, and the wealth of great artists within those genres, it is impossible to define Alabama music in a single blurb." —Marc Smirnoff, of The Oxford American
If you ask any music fan about the happenin' hotspots of the Deep South, you'll probably hear New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, Nashville, and the Mississippi Delta. Maybe they'd throw in some college town standouts like Athens, Chapel Hill, and Gainesville. The old cities and rural towns of Alabama would likely go unmentioned.
Released last month, The Oxford American's 12th Annual Southern Music Issue — replete with 176 pages and a 26-track disc — takes aim at Alabama exclusively. It's an enlightening read and a fun listen.
In his intro essay, Editor Marc Smirnoff writes, "I know that we have a reputation for finding and celebrating obscure artists, but our trick, really, is that we try to locate heart-breaking, soul-stirring, great music."
Some of the featured artists are already familiar, like Dinah Washington doing a Hank Williams tune, and folk singer Odetta covering Bob Dylan. Most of them are unknowns.
Each track on the disc corresponds with an essay telling the artist's story. There's plenty of juicy background from page to page, describing not only the circumstances leading up to the composition and recording of the tracks, but also the local issues and unusual realities surrounding the songwriters and musicians at the time.
On the jazz/swing side of soul is Ralph "Soul" Jackson's snappy boogie-woogie "Match Box."
Black Haze Express' "Pretty Soon" (from 1971), Mary Gresham's "Get on Back on the Right Track" (from 1972), and Sam Dees' "The World Don't Owe You Nothing" (1973) groove with the authentic and ease funkiness of any great Chess, Stax, or Motown release.
Two standout acts — Curley Money and His Rolling Ramblers and Hardrock Gunter and the Pebbles — cheerfully bridge classic swing and rock 'n' roll. Both tunes are fantastic dance ditties from the 1950s.
My favorites included the weird garage rock bands, as with Dothan-based teenage group the K-Pers (like "the capers," get it?), who practically go bubblegum pop on the fuzz-guitar-driven anti-Soviet 1968 rarity "The Red Invasion." Birmingham crooner Sammy Salvo's "A Mushroom Cloud" (from 1961) is another curious '60s tune with a Cold War reference, sounding like Bobby Darin doing Screaming Jay Hawkins. The Crazy Teens, from Tuscaloosa, keep their teenage hormones politely in check on the straight-ahead rocker "Crazy Date" (released in 1959).
I love the genuine hillbilly music here, too, like the live version of Jimmy Rodgers' classic "New Mule Skinner Blues" by Maddox Brothers & Rose, recorded live in 1948.
You probably can't get any more obscure than "99 1/2 Won't Do" from the mysterious country-blues singer/guitarist Dan Pickett. The magazine's large-sized photo of Pickett is a folded and torn color print, listed as "the first-time publication of the only known photo of Dan Pickett."
The Gosdin Brothers, Vern and Rex, harmonize between their teardrops on the polished "There Must Be a Someone (I Can Turn To)."
Other cool tunes included contemporary indie-pop from Phosphorescent (Auburn native Matthew Houck) and modern hip-hop from G-Side, who mix in a bit of metal with their synth-heavy grooves.
There are a few clunkers, too, like the corny, lo-fi New Wave of Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits' 1982 song "Gangland Wars." The song's lousy, but the story behind it and the band is amusing.
The Oxford American's Southern Music Issue has been digging deep since 1999. One wonders what musical gems they'll unearth next time.
For more info, visit oxfordamerican.org.