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THE ROAD TO UNFORGETTING Launch Playlist
Last Thursday, we officially launched The Road to Unforgetting in grand style at Citizen Vinyl, a vinyl-pressing plant/cafe/bar/record shop/epicenter of analog culture here in downtown Asheville. As I have mentioned before, one of my favorite things about the place is the daily playlist of vinyl records spun from turntables behind the bar, and the accompanying write-up posted on clipboards along the wall. So when I pitched the idea of doing an event there, I politely asked—nay, forcefully demanded!—that I be able to compose the playlist for the entire day, a wish the kind and long-suffering staff indulged. From CV’s vast record collection in the basement of the former Citizen-Times building (think: the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark),1 I composed a list of albums that all have Southern roots, and which, taken together, display some of the rich—and, frankly, pretty astonishing—diversity of the region’s musical culture. Some of these have directly inspired A Deeper South road trips in the past; others we have encountered along the road; still others I learned about in the process of composing this list. The Road, as original Detourist Bilbo Baggins once sang, “goes ever on and on” (a track not included on this list, alas).
The following selections were meant to be spun as complete records or single sides on site for the duration of the day, but for this list I have chosen a single song from each album. (There are also other albums which, for reasons of length, I was not able to include, but since that’s not really a problem here, I may add them in later on.) A Spotify playlist is embedded at the bottom of this post, or, if you can’t wait that long, can be found here.
The Allman Brothers Band, The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East
1971 was, according to a recent documentary film, the “year that changed everything.” (It certainly did for me: I was born that October.) That film revolves around the phenomenal run of music produced that year, beginning with Marvin Gaye’s brilliant What’s Going On? The otherwise excellent documentary does not mention an unlikely multi-racial, jazz-influenced, six-piece outfit from Macon, Georgia, whose recorded performances at The Fillmore on the Lower East Side that March and released as a double album that July are widely regarded as one of the greatest live rock-and-roll sets ever recorded. 1971 certainly changed everything for the Allman Brothers. A few months after the breakthrough live album was released, Duane Allman—who had started out as a session guitarist at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals—was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon. Barely a year later and just three blocks away, bassist Berry Oakley was also killed in the same manner. Duane and Berry are buried next to one another in Rose Hill Cemetery, a few yards from where Gregg was buried in 2017. At Fillmore East represents the band’s original lineup at the height of their prodigious powers.
Al Green, Greatest Hits
Forrest City, AR / Memphis, TN
Albert Leornes Green was born forty-seven miles east of Memphis in Forrest City, Arkansas, a town named for Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. At just nine years old, Green formed his first band, a gospel group called The Green Brothers. After his family relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, Green’s father kicked young Albert out of the group when he discovered his son had been listening to Jackie Wilson records.
Eventually, Green returned to Memphis, and from 1970 on began recording secular R&B music, with increasing success. In 1971 he recorded his most famous tune, “Let’s Stay Together,” a #1 single on the pop charts in 1972. A couple of years later, Green’s former girlfriend poured a pot of boiling grits on Green, and then committed suicide. Green was hospitalized with second-degree burns. He took the episode as a sign from God to change his life, and in 1976 he established the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis, where The Reverend Al Green still preaches regularly. “Here I Am,” as well as many of The Good Reverend’s hits, was recorded at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios at 1320 South Lauderdale Street in Memphis, in the same neighborhood as Stax Records and the birthplace of Aretha Franklin.
Big Star, Radio City
Founded by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell of Memphis, Big Star “remains one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll,” according to Jason Ankeny. Chilton was close friends with the photographer William Eggleston, who shot the image that adorns the cover of Radio City. Eggleston, also a native of Memphis, is one of the most well-known photographers from the South (or anywhere else, for that matter), and his work has been featured on rock album covers for decades. (Eggleston even released his own record, entitled Musik, a collection of improvisations on classical piano, in 2017, at age 78.) A division of STAX Records, the Ardent label on which Radio City appeared was beset by distribution issues, and as a result the album never found a huge audience. What listeners it—and the rest of the band’s records—did find tended to become attentive and even obsessive fans. The small distribution of the record contributed to the cult following behind Big Star, which includes REM’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills. The latter became a de facto member of the band in 2010, after Chilton died just before a planned Big Star gig at SXSW in Austin. The show ended up as an unplanned all-star tribute to Chilton.
Cat Power, Covers
A native of Atlanta, Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) is, like Alex Chilton and many others, a fan of William Eggleston. He makes a brief appearance in the video for “Lived in Bars,” from her 2006 Memphis Soul album, The Greatest. This album, released earlier this year, is Cat Power’s third album of cover songs. Her prior album, Wanderer, reflects her nomadic childhood but also echoes a question central to The Road to Unforgetting: where do we belong? As she told Creative Loafing in Atlanta in 2018, “The last line of the title song on the album is, ‘I’ll be wondering.’ W-O-N-D-E-R, not W-A-N-D-E-R. As a child moving around a lot, I was wondering, ‘Where is my place, and do I share a future with this stranger? Do I share a future with this parent? Do I share a future with my grandparents? With my sister?’ It’s not as easy as, ‘Oh, it's because I moved around a lot.’ It was as a child wondering, ‘Where's my place?’ As human beings, even if we never step foot out of our 1,000 per capita town, we have a wondering sensibility in our character.’ The track chosen here, “Pa Pa Power,” is a backroads sort of selection, as it is Cat Power’s cover of an obscure tune by an obscure band called Dead Man’s Bones, fronted by not-obscure actor Ryan Gosling.
Conway Twitty, Conway Twitty’s Greatest Hits
Friars Point, MS
Conway Twitty may epitomize the prodigiously hair-sprayed how-YOU-doin’ white male virility of 1970s and 80s Nashville more than anyone. But Twitty was born Harold Lloyd Jenkins in Friars Point, Mississippi, a majority Black hamlet on the banks of the River. When Twitty later found spectacular success as a country music mainstay, he bought a mansion in the suburb of Hendersonville (not far from where Johnny Cash lived on Old Hickory Lake). The life story of that piece of property is, in some ways, the story of Nashville’s country music subculture in microcosm. Conway turned the home into an entertainment complex he called Twitty City. After his death in 1993, the site became the home of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a televangelism network that continued Twitty’s fondness for gravity-defying hairstyles. In its latest incarnation, the site includes the Huckabee Theater, where former Arkansas Governor and current conservative television pundit Mike Huckabee records his television program or whatever it is.
D’Angelo’s famous—or notorious—video for his 2000 single, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)” created a major sensation, to say the least. Featuring nothing but the insanely six-packed artist buck naked, the video introduced D’Angelo to many viewers as something of a bombshell, but may have been the worst thing that ever happened to the Richmond, Virginia-born musician. D’Angelo became disillusioned with his identification as just a sexual object, and in the years following the album’s release, he descended into addiction and withdrew from the music scene. The disproportionate attention on the video for “Untitled” may have detracted from the sheer musical brilliance of Voodoo, which remains a revelatory masterpiece.
Dolly Parton, Jolene
Pittman Center, TN
What else can be said about Dolly Parton that has not been said already? Recorded in 1974, Jolene features two iconic Parton tunes—the title track, and “I Will Always Love You”—that have since become canonical in American popular music. Impressive as it is that both songs appeared on the same album, even more impressive is the fact that Dolly wrote both songs on the same night in 1972.
I know Dolly is revered as an icon, but I wasn’t fully aware of the range of her popularity until John and I stopped at a monument to her in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee. While we paused to pay homage, several different groups pulled up to the courthouse square to do the same. One was a family of Bears fans from Chicago. Another was a group from Japan. Two ladies came in custom t-shirts printed just for their pilgrimage, reading “DOLLY/REBA 2024.”
Eddie Hinton, Very Extremely Dangerous
Jacksonville, FL / Tuscaloosa, AL
I had never heard of Eddie Hinton until standing in the foyer of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on Jackson Highway in northwest Alabama in 2019. Just inside the door of the studio where so many classic records were made—including part of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers—the docent wanted to talk, but not about the Stones or Aretha or the Swampers or the Drive-By Truckers or anyone like that. He wanted to talk about Eddie Hinton. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, and raised in Tuscaloosa, Eddie was a session guitarist in Muscle Shoals from 1969 to 1971, and in 1978 he recorded his debut album Very Extremely Dangerous, at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Long out of print in vinyl this one is due for a revival. Hinton, a dead ringer for Otis Redding, flamed out early, dying of a heart attack at age 51.
Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball
Birmingham, AL (Woodbridge, VA; Greensboro, NC)
Like James Brown, Emmylou Harris can be rightly claimed by more than one Southern state (in her case, at least three). Born in Birmingham, raised in Greensboro, North Carolina and Woodbridge, Virginia, Harris is American music’s wayfaring troubadour, a frequent collaborator with other artists and a prolific songwriter who has generously lent her talents to others. Produced by Daniel Lanois and recorded partly in his Kingsway Studios in New Orleans, Wrecking Ball marked a turning point in Harris’ career. In an age when artists were reinventing themselves with abandon, Wrecking Ball did for Emmylou what Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and U2’s Achtung Baby (the latter two also produced by Lanois) did for those artists. Moody, atmospheric, even gothic, this record is unlike anything that had preceded it in her catalog. Its reach is wide, featuring covers of songs by Dylan, Hendrix, Neil Young, and Gillian Welch, whose “Orphan Girl,” gets the Emmylou treatment here.
Glen Campbell, Gentle on My Mind
Glen Campbell was born in Billstown, Arkansas in the southwest corner of the state, not far north of Hope, the hometown of William Jefferson Clinton. Johnny Cash was born on the opposite side of the state, closer to the Mississippi River in the Arkansas Delta in the small town of Dyess. Although both men were from the same state, they could not have been more different, at least as represented by two albums from the same period: Campbell’s Gentle on My Mind (1967) and Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison (1968). Both were recorded far away from Nashville, in California (although one was made in a prison, and the other in an LA recording studio). Where Cash’s live album was raw, gritty and even a little messy, Campbell's work was, like his home state’s future President, slick, polished, and smooth as a duck’s back. Where Cash could be unsettling, Campbell was the sentimental soother. An underrated guitar virtuoso, Campbell was always more at home in California, where he eventually settled, and lived until his death in Malibu in 2017. “Bowling Green” is Campbell’s string-heavy take on a Terry Slater and Jacqueline Ertel tune recorded earlier in 1967 by the Everly Brothers.
James Brown, In the Jungle Groove
The Godfather of Soul was born in Augusta, Georgia, but is also claimed by Barnwell, South Carolina, where he lived until his death in 2006. This album is a compilation of recordings from the 1960s and 70s when James Brown was at his grooviest. It was released in the 1980s, when James was going through a bit of a revival thanks to Rocky IV, and also because of hip hop’s collective debt to Brown and his legendary rhythm section, featuring bassist Bootsy Collins and “funky drummer” Clyde Stubblefield. The drum track from “Funky Drummer,” isolated and released on its own here, is one of the most sampled drum beats ever recorded.
Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison
No single figure has influenced the shape and sound of A Deeper South more than Johnny Cash. Our first tour began the day after Cash’s final concert in Atlanta in August 1997, and we have visited his boyhood home in Dyess multiple times. The story of Cash’s groundbreaking recordings at Folsom and San Quentin prisons is well known. Perhaps less well-known is the fact that Merle Haggard, in the can for robbery, was in the audience for one of Johnny’s early shows at San Quentin in 1958, and credits the episode as crucial in The Hag’s decision to join the prison band and ultimately become an entertainer himself. Listeners may debate which of the two records is better, but I include this one here mainly because of the presence of the great Luther Perkins, Johnny’s guitar player, who died just two months after this album was released.
Jon Batiste, WE ARE
Batiste became a household name as the musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but in Louisiana the Batiste name was news to no one. A musical dynasty in New Orleans, the Batistes have been major players in the scene for decades (Jon’s uncle Harold played keys on Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”.) When We Are appeared in 2021, it showed a side of Batiste—a classically-trained, phenomenally gifted, annd unconventional jazz pianist and composer—most of us had never seen. WE ARE is a nod to Batiste’s New Orleans roots, and the opening song features the band from St. Augustine High School, Batiste’s alma mater. Recorded mostly in 2020, it is both a timely and timeless record, rooted in the political and cultural conflicts of its day, and saturated throughout with improbable and transcendent joy.
Mahalia Jackson, Newport 1958
New Orleans, LA
“Ladies and Gentlemen, it is Sunday, and it is time for the world’s greatest gospel singer,” says the announcer introducing Mahalia Jackson to her audience in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1958. Just after midnight, it was only barely Sunday morning, and the vapors of Saturday night still hung in the air as she eased into it, with “Evening Prayer” followed by a few downtempo hymns. This landmark album includes recordings from Sunday morning, but also from the Thursday before, when Mahalia joined Duke Ellington’s band on stage, to multiple encores from the crowd. No one could outshine Mahalia on this night, nor indeed the entire festival—not The Duke, not even Chuck Berry, whose performance at Newport that year caused scandal among the jazz purists; The New York Times declared her the “star of Newport,” who dominated the legendary festival. “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” makes it clear why.
Muddy Waters, At Newport 1960
Sharkey or Issaquena County, MS
The 1960 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival was a bit of a turning point. Some jazz purists, led by Charlie Mingus and others, frustrated at the inclusion of non-jazz acts, broke off from the Newport Festival and started their own event across town. The Saturday night of the sixth edition of the festival was marked by rioting and violence that “turned the midtown area into a battlefield.” The next day, Langston Hughes, a member of the Newport Festival board, wrote a poem to mark the dreary occasion, called “Goodbye Newport Blues.” Hughes handed the manuscript of the poem to pianist Otis Spann during the blues program on the final Sunday afternoon. Some pundits thought Spann’s performance, backed by Muddy Waters and his band, delivered the “the farewell words” for the doomed festival. The feeling of despair and lament so essential to the blues tradition are as contemporary and living as they could be, palpably evident on the close of the B-side of the recording, which ends ominously with the announcer’s “Goodbye, Newport.” But the projected demise of the festival was premature. Muddy Waters (born McKinley Mogranfield in the Mississippi Delta) worked the mojo, and his recorded set from that year remains one of the earliest and finest live blues albums ever made. It is clear from Muddy’s performance of one of his signature tunes that Muddy had no intention of being a party to the demise of the now-legendary music festival.
Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
The Decemberists are based in Portland, Oregon, but they really come from Ruston, Louisiana, the homebase for Neutral Milk Hotel, an eclectic indie rock band whose influence on later groups is evident on this seminal record from 1998. Reclusive and enigmatic bandleader Jeff Mangum was once called “the Salinger of indie rock.” The band has been on indefinite hiatus since 2015, but this record, allegedly inspired by Mangum’s reading of The Diary of Anne Frank, is a late-millennium masterpiece of dark fun, simultaneously bizarre and catchy, with a contemplative sensibility. As Mangum sings on the title track, “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.”
Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, NC in 1933, Nina Simone became one of the most powerful voices in American music, and a central figure in the civil rights movement. She graduated valedictorian at Allen High in Asheville in 1950, and went on to attend the Juilliard School in New York.
Allen High School, a private boarding school for African-American girls, once occupied a building that is now home to the Asheville Convention and Visitors’ Bureau and the offices of the Asheville Symphony. The school opened on Halloween, 1887, with a total of 3 students. By the end of November, enrollment had grown by 100. By 1917, it was known as the Asheville Academy and Allen Industrial Home for Colored Girls, and was a fully-accredited four-year high school in 1924. (The original buildings from Simone’s time were demolished in the early 1950s, and the school’s surviving structures were built between 1952-56.) The East End of Asheville was once home to a thriving African-American community. But in the 1980s, urban renewal projects, including I-240 and the Charlotte St Extension, cut the neighborhood in two, and longtime African-American residents were dispersed to other parts of town. Allen High closed a decade later, in 1974.
Little Girl Blue–aka Jazz As Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club–was Simone’s debut record, released in February 1959. From her opening piano riffs on Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” it is clear that Simone was a major force, and all the powers that Simone would bring to later performances like “Mississippi Goddamn” are already present here.
Odetta, Odetta Sings Folk Songs
My mother tells me that she once heard Odetta sing at the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, and it was possibly the most invigorating musical experience of her life. Born in Birmingham on New Year’s Eve in 1930, Odetta became one of the most powerful voices of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. Hearing Odetta sing folk songs on an album like this one caused a young Robert Zimmerman to trade in his electric guitar for a Gibson flat-top acoustic guitar and memorize every song on the record. Not long after, he changed his name to Bob Dylan and followed in Odetta’s footsteps. In many ways a figure at the headwaters of the 1960s folk revival, Odetta later returned the favor, recording a whole album of Dylan covers like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which appears on this minimalist 1963 recording.
Otis Redding, The Dock of the Bay
A friend of mine in college had one CD in her collection: this one. On a road trip with some friends to Florida one spring, we must have listened to it from North Carolina to at least as far as southwest Georgia where Otis Redding was born in 1941. Redding and his family moved to Macon in his early years, while his hometown of Dawson, Georgia became emblematic of white supremacy and anti-Black racism through the 1960s. Three Black churches were burned around Dawson in 1962. By that time Redding was far away in Memphis recording his debut album for STAX/Volt Records. He would only release six in his lifetime. The Dock of the Bay appeared two months after Otis’ death in a plane crash in Lake Monona, Wisconsin, in late 1967. Just three days before, Redding had recorded the title song.
R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant
Fun fact: I was living in Germany in 1995—two years before our first tour—when I had my first opportunity to see R.E.M. perform live, at the Festhalle in Frankfurt. Opening for them was an up-and-coming outfit from Oxfordshire called Radiohead. I still have the tickets from that show; they are unpunched with the stubs still attached, because the show never happened. Two weeks before the scheduled show, drummer Bill Berry suffered a cerebral aneurysm that forced his retirement from the group.
During a period when I lived overseas and knew almost no one, R.E.M.’s music became a connection to my home, and in some ways probably planted seeds for the tours across the South that began a couple of years after I relocated. I really became interested in R.E.M. during Monster, and unlike my peers in high school who were clued into the group and to Radio Free Georgia in the 1980s, I was and am a slow learner. Going back to R.E.M.’s earlier work that I missed or stupidly ignored is a kind of musical reprise of whole swaths of my country’s, city’s and family’s history that I also ignored or passed by, and only later went back to listen to for the first time. There are so many potential candidates for this list but the first side from Life’s Rich Pageant is among the strongest in the group’s impressive catalog.
Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
Albany, GA / Greenville, FL
From the opening shout of this album, you know that something is going to be different. Ray Charles—born in Albany, Georgia in 1930—took popular country standards, ran them through the Genius Blender, and produced one of the most singular and brilliant interpretations of American country music ever made. The album gave the sense that there was nothing that Ray Charles could not do, no song he could not make into a Ray Charles song. In an age when white artists like Elvis Presley and British blues bands were taking Black music and making it palatable to white audiences, Ray Charles went in the other direction, taking what was, and still is, largely considered white people’s music, and rearticulating it from within the Black musical languages of blues and jazz. The arc that goes from Hank Williams to Ray Charles through Hank’s song “Hey, Good Looking” is itself a miniature story of the nation itself, and a powerful statement about the idea of tradition as a living reality, of taking a fixed text and reworking and remixing it, giving something old a new, and different, life.
Roberta Flack, First Take
Black Mountain, NC
You can be forgiven for thinking that Roberta Flack is all about slow-dance numbers like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” It’s certainly about all I knew of her work for most of my life. Which is why First Take comes as such as a revelation. Flack was born in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and lived there until age nine, a fact that is now commemorated by a new mural dedicated to her on Broadway Avenue in her hometown. There is plenty of the kind of material here that would become associated with her (“The First Time” appears here), but she also insinuates other musical directions from the first swanky upright bass notes on “Compared to What.”
The Temptations, Live at the Copa
Alabama and Texas
Although they are primarily associated with Detroit-based Motown Records, at one period during their long and illustrious history, four of the five members of The Temptations were from Alabama. After the contentious departure of David Ruffin (Whynot, MS) in 1968, he was replaced by Dennis Edwards (Fairfield, AL). The remaining members were all from the South: Eddie Kendricks (Union Springs, AL), Melvin Franklin (Montgomery), Paul Williams (Ensley, AL), and Otis Williams (Texarkana, TX). This era—from Cloud Nine to Puzzle People and Psychedelic Shack—coincided, perhaps not coincidentally, with The Temps’ funkiest and most political phase. This set, from the legendary Copacabana Club in New York, may lack the psychedelic pop of those albums, but it is a powerful statement.
Vic Chesnutt, West of Rome
The first photographs I took on our very first Southern tour in 1997 were of a CSX freight train approaching a level crossing near Zebulon, Georgia. I may have thought it paradoxically interesting at the time simply because the sight of a train was not common in my hometown of Atlanta, a city that owes its existence entirely to trains. Not far from the site of those first images, Vic Chesnutt was raised by his adoptive parents. Left paralyzed from the neck down by an alcohol-induced car crash when he was 18, Chesnutt spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He moved to Athens not long after that, and by the late 1980s was a prolific member of Athens’ thriving music scene, appearing regularly at the 40 Watt, where he attracted the notice of Michael Stipe, who nurtured Chesnutt’s early music career. His singular voice was simultaneously confident and frail, his persona a rock anti-hero who exuded both brilliance and vulnerability, sweetness and seriousness. Spare, elemental, idiosyncratic, Chesnutt’s second album, West of Rome, is utterly devoid of dazzling technique or artifice. It is Chesnutt’s profound humanity laid bare, in the face of the ever-present specters of death lurking just off-stage.
And now, the playlist:
I don’t think it is actually like that.