One of my favorite all-time magazines is back on the shelf with its annual music issue. I’ve shilled for this magazine before when came back to the shelves after it’s second time going under. Bear with me — it’s hard to keep my excitement tempered when it comes to this thing.
The Oxford American is a modern perspective on the American South. Each issue is themed, ranging from southern food to southern movies — the upcoming issue is on Southern art and architecture — and provides social, historical and critical commentary to various aspects of these themes. This summer brings their annual music issue. It comes with a free, full-length CD and wonderful, quirky articles on the artists, their relationship to the music industry, and how they are geographically and culturally grounded in their eras.
The magazine’s website states:
The last OXFORD AMERICAN Southern Music Issue we released, in 2003, won a National Magazine Award (beating out ROLLING STONE, among others) for “outstanding achievement” in a “single-topic issue.” The judges noted that “like the bluegrass artist who bends his notes in all the right places, THE OXFORD AMERICAN finds perfect pitch in its annual Southern Music issue.” We’re grateful for that attention. But our new 2005 Southern Music Issue, if we may be so bold, is even better.
I’d agree. Their last issue was almost exclusively unknown artists, with the exception of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield, that would be completely new names to non-music junkies. However, this issue features several well-known names and people whose connections to the music industry lay primarily in the background.
Take, for instance, this version of “Take Another Piece of My Heart” by Aretha Franklin’s older sister Erma, an accomplished singer in her own right. As the author of the accompanying article states, it is difficult to compare Erma’s voice with Janis Joplin’s, who made the song famous, without concluding that Joplin is a no-talent hack who “clumsily aped the black style and the debaser of work original to someone who was her better.” Ouch. But true.
And this song by Sammi Smith, the artist who beat out Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, and every other country music artist out there to make number one on the Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles list. Brilliant stuff.
And one of my favorites, having just come from Graceland, is this live version of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds,” sung to a Vegas audience weeks before the song was released as yet another tacky single which Elvis tried to use to boost his floundering credibility as an artist. As the OA website states,
You’ll probably love this performance since there’s nothing Las Vegas-schlocky about it; both Elvis and his band sound insanely red-hot. As Alan Light, former editor of SPIN, VIBE, and TRACKS, says in his perceptive companion piece, on this track Elvis “sang like a man with something to prove.”
But aside from the music, the best part of this annual music issue are the accompanying articles. The articles are written by people who clearly love music and the context in which this music is made. One in particular stands out to me, written by a young father travelling with his young son in Europe, listening to a Howard Tate song in preparation for writing this article. As he and his son listen to and share this song with one another, the author pontificates on Howard Tate’s short career, ended with drug abuse after the death of his young daughter in a house fire, and the sad situational irony of having acclaimed notoriety with a song titled “Where Did My Baby Go?”
Another article that was a special treat, as a lover of Johnny Cash, is the overview of the life of Cowboy Jack Clement, a man who wrote and produced many of the classic country songs we know and love, and his special relationships with many artists who reached legendary status because of Clement’s own artistry. In particular, I love hearing Johnny Cash sing backup for Clement on a song Clement wrote that Cash made famous. This version was recorded shortly before Johnny died last year.
All this is to say that this magazine is a gem, full of excellent creative and critical writing, and is deserving of our humble eyes after rising from the dead not once but twice. Trust me. It’s wonderful.
If you happen to take a look at the magazine at my insistence, drop me a line below and tell me what you think.