Behind the Scenes: The Birth of Oxford American’s Georgia Music Issue

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I’m probably biased, but rose-colored glasses are hardly necessary to see that the newly minted Georgia Music issue of the Oxford American is something special. The 176-page magazine offers a stunning representation of the breadth and depth of the state’s musical heritage past and present, delivered through top-notch writing and storytelling. Not that you’d expect anything less from the Oxford American, the award-winning quarterly with a stated mission to “feature the best in Southern writing while documenting the complexity and vitality of the American South.” Mission accomplished.

This is hardly the first time Georgia musicians have graced the Oxford American’s pages. “There was an amazing piece on Emmett Miller by Nick Tosches in the 90s that remains one of my favorite OA pieces ever,” enthuses Managing Editor Maxwell George, for whom this endeavor is clearly more than a job. R.E.M. once shared a cover in the days before the Music Issue shifted to a state-specific format in 2009, and George’s own new feature on Sharon Jones marks her second time in the quarterly. “I’ve been a fan of hers for some time but didn’t know her (Augusta) homecoming story,” he elaborates.

In the downtown Little Rock, AR headquarters of Oxford American magazine, Managing Editor Max George, Editor-In-Chief Eliza Borné and Assistant Editor Caitlyn Love review the 176 pages of Georgia Music labor.

In the downtown Little Rock, AR headquarters of Oxford American magazine, Managing Editor Max George, Editor-In-Chief Eliza Borné and Associate Editor Caitlin Love review the 176 pages of Georgia music labor.

Early in the nearly year-long planning process the OA team reached out to experts like musician/producer David Barbe, who quarterbacks the issue’s oral history of the Athens scene, and Dust-to-Digital label founder Lance Ledbetter, who wears multiple hats including author and interview subject. “We put ourselves out to the people of Georgia more than we have in the past,” explains George. “By no means are we creating a list of subjects and then trying to find writers —we look for people to bring us the stories they’re passionate about.” It’s a great formula for unearthing unexpected tales, such as Jonathan Bernstein’s fascinating profile of Ocilla’s Dave Prater, the “unknown” half of Sam & Dave. “That is not a story we would have even known to go after,” George readily acknowledges. He’s not even certain how Bernstein, a New York-based writer who works with Rolling Stone, knew to reach out to the OA.

On the other end of the spectrum is acclaimed author Kiese Laymon, whose rumination on OutKast is one of the issue’s centerpieces. “I had read (Laymon’s novel) Long Division about the time I was hired —I reached out to him as a lowly assistant to see if we could get his voice in the OA.” The Mississippi-born Laymon, some of whose earlier essays touch on the societal significance of hip-hop, said he’d always wanted to write about OutKast. Originally envisioned for a general interest issue, the piece got sidetracked amid competing deadlines. “When we found out we were doing Georgia, he was my first call,” says George.

Then there’s Peter Guralnick, go-to American music writer and OA veteran. “He said, ‘there’s no way, I’m finishing my Sam Phillips book,’ but something about Georgia gnawed at him,” according to George. “He came back, said ‘maybe I can write something really short about Blind Willie McTell because he means so much to me.’ Then he comes back with this long, involved draft about coming to the blues as a listener as a young kid. We gave him a blank check and he delivered.” Guralnick centers his story in part on McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” a classic later covered by the Allman Brothers —whose own history receives meaty coverage here from esteemed music journalist Amanda Petrusich.

OA Managing Editor with Patterson Hood, who contributed an essay on Vic Chesnutt to the issue. A live verson of the Drive-By Truckers’ “The Living Bubba,” Hood’s homage to the late Atlanta musician Gregory Dean Smalley, is included on the CD. (Photo by Matt White)

“It kind of sounds fanciful but when you see a good story it’s hard to ignore,” George offers regarding the piece on “original ATLien” MC Shy D. “This was guy rapping on a national scale coming out of Atlanta in the late 80s. OutKast and Goodie Mob grew up listening to him and he’s a harbinger of the Atlanta rap scene we know today, yet he’s not remembered. And now he’s a DJ at a sports bar in Ellenwood.” There were contractual squabbles and a jail stint in the interim —the OA doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of these compelling life stories, either.

The magazine’s staff took a different approach to organizing this edition, as well. Oftentimes the music articles are sequenced to synchronize with the accompanying CD, but Georgia doesn’t parse out so simply. “Our non-music issues start with ‘Points South’ — shorter dispatches and profiles —followed by the longer features. This time we didn’t find ourselves with short and long pieces so the front of book/ back of book dichotomy didn’t really work. We didn’t want to alter the lengths these stories deserved, just to fit a format.” Instead, the table of contents revolves around conceptual groupings like Innovation, Scenes, Legends and Visionaries. Serving as something of a capstone is Wyatt Williams’s tale of Dust-to-Digital’s attempt to compile the definitive anthology of early Georgia music. “We hope that over time, the architecture of the issue makes a lot of sense,” says George, fully aware that his vision of a reader devouring the quarterly in cover-to-cover order is likely to go unfulfilled. “There’s an Easter egg in there,” he adds coyly.

”We’re not trying to be comprehensive; we’d never claim that,” George insists regarding the OA’s aspirations. Nitpickers could find a couple of gaps —the impact of progressive metal behemoths Mastodon, for instance. Genre-hopping post-punk standard-bearers Deerhunter are also absent, although their frontman makes an unlikely contribution to the 25-track companion CD. “’I Want the Lord to Do Something for Me’ came to us through Lance Ledbetter, the gospel expert, and he got it through Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, who found it at a flea market. The sleeve of the record is very minimal in its info —it’s definitely self-released.” With a bit of research George and Ledbetter were able to track down the daughter of Evangelist Hattie Finney, the lead singer on this 45. “She connected to her mother through the music that meant so much to her. I humbly asked if we could put her music alongside James Brown and Otis Redding to represent Georgia, and she was really generous.”

That’s why any claim to completeness would be folly. There’s probably another Straight Street Holiness Church Choir —like rarity lurking out there. Or some forgotten demo from one of the scruffy Cabbagetown bands recalled in these pages. “There’s no way you plan for it, but if you put it out there….” suggests George, who’s still tickled he was able to fit Henry Mancini onto a Georgia Music compilation, via a recently unearthed demo with Savannah’s Johnny Mercer of a heretofore unknown version of “Moon River” before the duo handed it off to Audrey Hepburn. Such are the joys of following Georgia ’s never-ending musical threads to unexpected treasures.

“I hope the spirit of collaboration comes through in this issue,” says George, who made a pair of discovery trips to the state during the process. “Every story comes from a completely different place, a different mind. And we’ve never had a resource like (Georgia Tourism’s Director of Music Marketing & Development) Lisa Love on the ground in the state we were working on.” George reports that the Oxford American’s circulation more than doubles for its music annual editions. Given the omnivorous appeal of the Georgia Music Issue that’s hardly surprising. One need not be a music lover or historian to devour these stories —but for music fans they’re indispensible.

Purchase the Georgia Music issue of Oxford American here.

Oxford American magazine, Georgia Tourism and Discover DeKalb will host a Georgia Music Issue Launch Party on Mon., Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur featuring Bruce Hampton and The Madrid Express, Jake Xerxes Fussell, Robert Lee Coleman and the Night Owls, Waiting for UFOs (featuring Bill Taft, Brian Halloran and Will Fratesi) and Art Rosenbaum.  On Wed. Dec. 9, a free Oxford American Georgia Music Issue reading featuring OA staff and Athens-based contributors will be held at Avid Bookshop in Athens at 6:30 p.m. followed by a 9 p.m. Launch Party at Georgia Theatre featuring Elf Power, The Historical Mercyland Abstract, Danny Hutchens and the Old Hoss Radbourne Experience, Shade and Ruby the Rabbitfoot. Tickets, $10, are available for Eddie’s Attic here and Georgia Theatre here.

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