Fri December 31, 2010
Music Interviews

'Oxford American' Digs Into Alabama's Music

What do the Rev. Fred Lane, the Maddox Brothers & Rose, and Eddie Cole & His Gang have in common?

Give up? They're all from the state of Alabama -- the featured state in the Oxford American magazine's 12th annual Southern Music edition.

You'll find more than two dozen songs on the accompanying CD. Some of the artists are well-known outside the state; others are more obscure -- such as King Britt Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan.

Marc Smirnoff, the editor of the Oxford American, says he spent about a year researching all the genres in Alabama.

"You know, there's still people out there we missed, I'm sure, but what we found when we were done with it was that we had a wealth of great material,” he tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "Our definition -- I mean, we'll be a little loose with it -- but our basic definition was that our artist had to be born in Alabama."

One of the early tracks on the CD is "Matchbox" by Ralph "Soul" Jackson, an artist with an air of mystery.

"He's never released a full album, but he's been around since the '60s," says Smirnoff. "[His career has] consisted of putting out these fine, rare 45 records. They never did much commercially, but when you hear him he sounds like the soul man that people have claimed him to be."

Another song that's more in the vein of country music is "Stop Your Knocking."

"Curley Money, in some ways, is kind of one of a hundred, even though he has a distinct personality that comes out immediately. There's this honest drive to it, and you feel this energy," Smirnoff says. "Alabama is very rich in the hillbilly, old country sounds. For a lot of us that means a lot, because it's where you can find country music that is like soul music."

The song "Crazy Date" is colored by a rich, deep voice that rings cool. The artist was only 15 when he recorded it.

"It's very innocent -- you know, the song comes across as something you could hear in a David Lynch sock-hop," Smirnoff says. "The kids who wrote it were actually kind of innocent and thought the song was the equivalent of holding hands with a girl."

The CD isn't made up entirely of unknown singers: Dinah Washington and Odetta are two of the better-known artists found on the compilation.

"We pride ourselves in finding artists that aren't as well-known as we think they should be, we also like to ground every CD with a few big names, but we don't like to treat the big-named artists in the usual, expected, cliche manner," Smirnoff says. "People in the know, people with great ears, were treating Alabama as a place to aspire to." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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