The Slippery South
By John Brummett
Michael Schoenfeld, vice chancellor for media relations at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., opened his institution's four-day fellowship for 10 journalists from the South by saying the original idea had been to make Nashville's country music heritage the sole subject.
Schoenfeld said a general Southern theme was particularly needed with a presidential election looming in which the likely combatants to replace a Southerner would be Southerners. Those would be George W. Bush that is, if you count Texas as Southern, a controversial subject that inevitably awaited us and Al Gore, if you count him as genuinely Southern considering the formative years he spent in a Washington hotel and at St. Albans School for Boys.
One thing quickly becomes obvious in an examination of Southern culture. It is that you have to make assumptions. So, Shoenfeld said, we would consider not only the distinctive music of the region, and include blues as well as country, but extend our focus to these other supposed distinctions:
The point was to determine whether the South remained a nation within a nation, in spite of the homogeneous trends of the global economy, and examine the region's considerable influence on the rest of the country through entertainment, literature, politics and religion.
Three days into the conference, Schoenfeld sat in on a session conducted by Paul Corbin, vice president for music industry relations for TNN, the growing Nashville-based cable television network now owned by CBS and which emphasizes country music, the outdoors and NASCAR, the fastest-growing spectator sport in the country, and, of course, a Southern thing.
Schoenfeld remarked that the South is the only region of the country that could successfully export its entertainment culture to the rest of the nation, even internationally. He cited country music, TNN and NASCAR.
One wouldn't want to accuse him of regional chauvinism. The fact is that he's from New York. But could he possibly be right?
He is, of course, wrong. New York and Hollywood successfully export their entertainment cultures. And New York or L.A. has always controlled the Nashville recording industry, and now New York owns TNN. So if the South is an entertainment exporter, then New York and L.A. are the brokers.
On a smaller scale, Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion successfully exports some version of Minnesota culture. You might make the case that San Francisco exported a culture, a counterculture, in the '60s. Seattle has exported several things of late: technology, coffee houses, grunge. One could go on.
But Schoenfeld had a point. Keillor himself admits he got hooked on live radio listening to the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville, and for his tribute to country music, he serves as the honorary chairman of the fund-raising to build a new Country Music Hall of Fame in downtown Nashville.
And discounting arguments about where rock 'n' roll began (we know that it was within a 90-mile radius of Memphis, drawn from the black man's blues and adapted to rockabilly, and is Southern, too), we know of no widespread popular American music born in, produced in and marketed on a sustained basis from the Midwest, New England, the industrial Northeast or the Rocky Mountain states.
The most popular syndicated television show ever probably would not have emanated from anywhere but the American South. That show is Hee Haw.
But does any other region of the country study itself as thoroughly, as narcissistically, as introspectively, as the South studies itself?
"Well, maybe New England, to an extent," replied Larry Griffin, a Mississippi Delta native who heads the American and Southern Studies Program at Vanderbilt, and who conducted a session on Southern culture. "But they're more positive." Down here, we beat ourselves up.
What accounts for this peculiar Southern self-obsession? Are we different because we're different? Or are we different because we think so much about ourselves, if not of ourselves, and assume that everyone considers us to be different?
Walker Percy said it was simple. "We lost," he said to explain Southern distinctiveness.
We learned one thing in our studies: It's hard to get hold of the South, much less find any uniformity in its ways.
First there's the matter of what and where it is. The best explanation is that there's a true South and a "peripheral South," as one Vanderbilt professor dubbed it, and that the peripheral South might or might not include Texas, Florida and Atlanta, which are big enough and distinctive enough to transcend our best generalizations.
The real South, sometimes called the Deep South or the Black Belt because of the soil, is Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, rural Georgia and South Carolina. You could call it the poorest Southern region, except that South Carolina is thriving and Arkansas is about as poor as Mississippi and Alabama.
The "peripheral South" is North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma and, if you choose, Texas, Florida and Atlanta.
Does Oklahoma even belong? You can get a newsroom argument started on that one. Arkansas has its own identity problem. It has Deep South elements on the south and east, Texas elements on the south and west and Midwestern characteristics in the prosperous northwest corner.
Beyond that, practically every element of our discussion was subject to interpretation, challenge or dispute certainly to nuance.
Take politics, for example. You can hardly argue that the South hasn't gone Republican. But the president is a Southern Democrat. The new governors of South Carolina and Alabama, beacons of new Republican conservatism, are Democrats. Florida went for Bill Clinton in 1996.
Bumpers may be a special story-teller because he is Southern, that Northwestern higher education aside. And Clinton may relate easily to people because he is Southern, the stints at Washington, New Haven and Oxford aside.
But Al Gore can't tell a story or relate. He's not genuinely Southern, you might say. So let's look at Lamar Alexander, former Tennessee governor, product of the town where we convened, Nashville. Where did he misplace his Southern charm? Tell us a story you remember him telling. What was his most memorable speech?
Take race, for another example. It may be that the South's heritage is the tortured co-existence of black and white, and it may be that the issue of black and white still vexes the region. But that seems most true today of the Deep South and the Delta regions.
Today, one Atlanta-area public school has more than 20 nationalities in its student body, or so our Atlanta fellows informed us. Hispanics have moved heavily into poultry regions to take jobs, primarily Northwest Arkansas and rural Georgia. The South, you could say, is not black and white anymore.
Larry Griffin, the head of American and Southern studies who hails from the Mississippi Delta, said he was stuck in the past of black and white. But he said that was because of where he came from. Black and white is still the color scheme of the Delta. Other racial and ethnic groups aren't moving in. Folks are moving out. Griffin said he'd pretty much given up on the Delta's chances of economic revival. The remaining whites tend to be too stuck in the past, he said.
If the South is beginning to transcend black and white because of the influx of other colors, what are we to make of the civil rights movement, which had its epic conflicts in the '50s and '60s in the region? Little Rock's is not the only public school district in the South, or the nation, to have been rendered heavily black and poor by the flight of upscale whites.
Forrest Harris is director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the Black Church at American Baptist University in Nashville, where nonviolent protest, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a part of the curriculum. He had a ready reply. "What I say is thank God we've got the law."
He meant Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act. Racial division by class and attrition is one thing, and a bad thing. Racial discrimination by Jim Crow laws was a much worse thing, and the battles of the 1960s were worth it, he said, by making discrimination by governmental bodies illegal.
Even country music befuddled us. At the risk of an oversimplification that doesn't do justice to the powerful influences of Jimmie Rodgers or Texas swing, the conventional thinking is that Nashville's music stemmed from rural white folks' mountain music, best represented by the Carter Family and Roy Acuff, and is the poor white man's blues.
But some of the early fiddle-playing hillbilly groups were black, and the early recording executives intentionally excluded them. One of the most popular early performers on the Grand Ole Opry was DeFord Bailey, a harmonica whiz and black man.
And it is widely agreed that the richest country traditions were sustained most prominently in the '60s by Buck Owens and in the '70s by Merle Haggard, and Buck and Merle came from a nest of country musicians in and around Bakersfield, Calif.
Anyway, what is country music? A man at the Country Music Hall of Fame said he didn't try to define it and resisted encouragement to do so.
Jim Foglesong, who ran Capitol Records in Nashville for years and now teaches a course in music business at Vanderbilt, told us he'd tell us the same thing he told Faron Young, Porter Wagoner and the late Tammy Wynette that year they came in to complain that the Country Music Association had given an award to Olivia Newton John, of all people.
It was that country music is whatever the country radio stations play and that award-winning country music performers are whichever ones the members of the CMA vote for. Foglesong, who headed the CMA at the time, said he tried to appease the group by putting Wynette on the board. But she never came to a meeting.
So it is with Southern culture. The South and its culture are whatever we say they are. An Atlantan's South may not be the same as a Delta farmer's South. But one thing they have in common is an instinct to ponder their regional distinctiveness, probably with a curious mix of pride and insecurity.
Printed with permission of John Brummett of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. First published on Tuesday, August 3, 1999.
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.