As seasons change and the holiday rush begins in full force, Christmas carols seem to appear earlier and earlier each year. Once upon a time, Thanksgiving was considered the unofficial date when radio stations began to play holiday music. This year, I heard my first Christmas carol when picking up Halloween candy at the grocery store.
But, regardless of whether you love or avoid holiday music, many of the seasonal songs have been around for hundreds of years. Some have social or political messages and many have a colorful history.
Musician and Alabama Chanin friend Jake Fussell grew up in Columbus, Georgia, and was exposed to traditional roots music while accompanying his father, folklorist and writer Fred Fussell, on numerous documentary fieldwork trips throughout the South. Through these journeys, Jake became a guitar student of the late Georgia blueswoman, Precious Bryant, and honed his skills playing with local string bands.
I was introduced to Jake and his music years ago by Butch, Maggie’s dad. A late night conversation was followed with a mixed CD, and since then Jake’s music has been in constant rotation on the Alabama Chanin studio playlists. His sound captures a unique aspect of the Southern voice and history – so much so that Jake played my one and only fashion show in New York in 2005.
Jake currently serves as bandleader of The Yalobushwackers, the house band for Thacker Mountain Radio, Oxford, Mississippi’s weekly live-audience literary radio program. In recent years, he has appeared on Prairie Home Companion, toured, and recorded as sideman for several musical acts, most notably as guitarist for Memphis gospel singer Reverend John Wilkins. Jake is also working with our friends at Dust-to-Digital to curate an anthology of Mississippi blues and gospel field recordings made by noted folklorist William R. Ferris.
We are devout believers in Dust-to-Digital, April and Lance Ledbetter’s acclaimed record label. Their first release, Goodbye, Babylon, is a testament to the Dust-to-Digital mission of archiving, producing, and reproducing high-quality, cultural artifacts.
Lance spent several years researching and compiling the collection of 135 rare gospel songs, dating from 1902 to 1960, and 25 sermons, dating from 1926 to 1941. The stories and songs included in Goodbye, Babylon are filled with Southern and religious folklore. The collection is archived on six CDs, and features recordings from below the Mason-Dixon Line – everything from string bands and gospel quartets to sacred harp choirs and shouting preachers. You might recognize some of the artists, but most of the recordings are obscure treasures.
Belle Adair. Photo: Ashton Lance
Name: Matthew Green
Band: Belle Adair
Instrument(s) you play: Guitar and bass
Place of Birth/Hometown: Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Presently residing: Tuscumbia, Alabama
Ben Sollee recording in the Mosquito Hut. Prospect, Kentucky. 2013. Photo:PMJ
Ben Sollee spent a few days this past summer trying to capture the songs and sounds that influence his life and music. The makeshift recording studio, a small house nestled in a hollow near Prospect, Kentucky, provided the backdrop for the project, a covers record, including songs by Arthur Russell, Otis Redding, Paul Simon, Harry Belafonte, The Zombies, Howard Finster, Bill Monroe, Fiona Apple, Tom Waits, and Gillian Welch. Screened porches, hallways, decks, and living rooms lend their own particular character to the recordings, and the hollow’s voice can be heard throughout: bugs chirp, birds whistle, water flows, and the wind blows. More collaborators than background, the house and hollow provide the listener with a rich audial scenery and shape Sollee’s voice and cello as he seeks to capture his own versions of the songs that have shaped his development as a musician and songwriter.
The Mosquito Hut. Prospect, Kentucky. 2013. Photo: PMJ
Friend and native son Ben Tanner grew up in the Shoals. He graduated from Muscle Shoals High School, and after a few years living in Memphis, Tennessee, and Paris, France, returned to the area to work at FAME Studios with the hope of gaining some valuable experience. That stint was supposed to be a “brief stopover.” But, he says, “I found a really amazing and diverse community of musicians working here, so I’ve stayed.”
An accomplished musician and producer, Ben is also a founding partner in Single Lock Records, a new, local record label focused on helping musicians make better records without going broke. He spends much of his time playing keyboards as part of the Alabama Shakes, though he does play some guitar and bass. “Most things with strings I can pick on a little bit (excluding bowed instruments),” he says.
“Playing and recording music is hard work, and I’m often very hard on myself, but I have brief, occasional moments where I’m consciously aware that I’m a part of making something beautiful that wasn’t there before. Those moments are ecstatic and rare, but they keep me going.”
The playlist below, curated by Ben Tanner, has a “weird South” theme, meaning, it’s Southern music that doesn’t exactly fit the mold of stereotypical “Southern.” He also worked on two tracks on this list with local bands, The Bear and Doc Dailey and Magnolia Devil.
Yesterday, we shared a post by contributor Phillip March Jones on self-taught musician, song writer, and artist Lonnie Holley. Holley’s second album, Keeping A Record of It, was just released by the Dust-to-Digital label in Atlanta, Georgia. Find more information on the Dust-to-Digital site.
Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music), 1986, Lonnie Holley, Salvaged phonograph top, phonograph record, animal skull 13 3/4 x 15 3/4 x 9 inches, Courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photo: Steve Pitkin
Lonnie Holley, at the age of 63, is finally getting his proverbial moment in the sun. The artist’s second album, Keeping A Record of It, was released today by Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital label, and he is currently touring the US with Deerhunter and Bill Callahan. Earlier this year Holley performed at the Whitney Museum of American Art during the Blues for Smoke exhibition, and a solo-exhibition of his visual work is scheduled to open at the James Fuentes Gallery on September 15 in New York. Holley’s life has not, however, always been this glamorous.
Lonnie Bradley Holley was born on February 10, 1950 in Birmingham, Alabama. From the age of 5, Holley worked various jobs, picking up trash at a drive-in movie theatre, washing dishes, and cooking. He lived in a whiskey house, on the state-fair grounds, and in several foster homes. His early life was chaotic and Holley was never afforded the pleasure of a real childhood.
Holley performing at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY. Photo: Matt Arnett
Those of us of a certain age remember the ubiquitous mix tape. We made them for our best girlfriends on their birthdays, for boys and girls we crushed on, and for our younger siblings, bringing them into the fold of “cool.” We received them much in the same way, personally curated with a clear directive: a road trip, an anti-algebra protest (for those of us not good with numbers), a condolence for a loss or break-up. We crafted the paper insert covers in collage cut from magazines or newspapers, or colored them over in crayon and markers. The mix tape might be one of the purest expressions of feeling a person can share. Melody plus lyrics plus artwork (or no artwork) demonstrated time spent consciously collecting something so essential to life: music.
Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, edited by Thurston Moore of the band Sonic Youth, is a look into the practice and craft of the mix tape, with essays from a long list of contributors including photographers, writers, poets, visual artists, designers, and many musicians, each recalling a specific mix tape that held, and still holds, meaning in their post-cassette lives. Today, many of us stream much of the music we listen to. The playlist has replaced the mix tape (or the mix CD). It’s hard to imagine that record companies protested the invention of the recordable cassette, which we bought in droves. They feared revenue loss and called it piracy. It’s amazing how that control has changed in the years since, how the battle to maintain control of the industry has weighed heavily in favor of the consumer (and pirate), and how musicians have taken up the battle to defend their own art, often breaking from traditional paths to establish their own labels or sign with smaller, independent labels, like Florence, Alabama’s Single Lock Records (where we first learned about this book).
The Local Playlist is a new feature on the Alabama Chanin Journal. There’s a rich musical history – and presence – in our community, which you’ve likely read about before. So, we thought, instead of just telling you how great the music is, we’d give you a chance to listen. We’ll share a new playlist every month, each from a different contributor, containing tracks from Shoals musicians and the musicians who influence and inspire them.
A few weeks ago we wrote about local singer/songwriter Louisa (Amber) Murray and her band, The Bear. Amber talked to us about songwriting, shared some inspiration that feeds her creative side, and now she’s sharing some of the music that inspires her to keep singing.
Thank you, Amber, for compiling this rainy day list of female singers for us to enjoy.