We are living in one of the most generative eras of Southern cultural production since Dolly went pop and Designing Women said “y’all” once a week on network television. From country music to digital and print media, we are trying to figure out the American South…again.
I say “again” because American popular culture has an ongoing, cyclical obsession with the U.S. South. “The South” is a stand-in for how the nation wants to see it itself at any point in time. Debating the morality of Southern cultures is one way that the nation reckons with empire and economics. We are not well versed in international or global cultures in this country. Therefore we do not have the vocabulary to talk about geo-politics “out there”. Instead we talk about the geo-politics “in here” — in the Appalachias, in Mississippi, in Texas. Extracting natural resources, controlling the “borders”, policing what it means to be a “real American” — we hash all of that out in our disdain of and attraction to the South.
The South does not stop existing when popular culture moves on. It is always engaged in its own Civil War over what the place means or who is even included in “The South”. Right now, The South is making sense of two phenomena that are shaping how the region sounds and how it talks about itself: people are coming “home” and they’re bringing their ideas about home with them to a place that has its own ideas about what that all means.
Reverse migration is often talked about in terms of Black Americans returning to their family’s Southern roots. But economic crises have also pulled at white Southerners across the country, calling them home to cheaper housing and built-in childcare. You can be forgiven for not noticing it because mainstream media usually only refers to these returners in non-racial terms like “young people” and “millennials”. A noteworthy proportion of those movers are Black but a more significant proportion of them are not.
Some returners are moving back to the South and others are a generation or two removed from a direct connection to the area. No matter the strength of their direct ties, new and returning Southerners are bringing a range of political and racial identities with them. As one white woman told me on Twitter, many of these Southerners wonder “if they can keep the parts of the South they love and leave the parts that made them leave”. That is not just the racism and classism but also ideas about gender norms and nuclear families and religion. These folks are one reason why North Carolina and Georgia are now “purple” states at election time.
Folks are moving back to a South that has a heightened significance in national politics and a cultural history it tries to map onto all this change.That is how you end up with a burgeoning Black country music landscape, a growing field of liberal, progressive and radical Southern media.
The country music changes are some of the most fascinating of the cultural shifts happening around the South. Superstar Maren Morris thanked the “Black women of country music” during her recent Country Music Awards acceptance speech. Rissi Palmer has so much content about Black, Indigenous and other marginalized country music artists that she has an entire podcast on Apple Music (Color Me Country). That podcast is in addition to the Queer and BIPOC-friendly Southern Craft Radio, also on Apple Music. Even mainstream white country artists feel comfortable enough to say the words “Black Lives Matter” and “racism”. That is a first in a genre that isn’t just conservative but that has aggressively cultivated fearful artists and a colorblind ideology to placate their skittish white rural listeners.
Even more interesting is the fringe country music, the music being produced outside the big corporate Nashville music machine. Marcus Dowling writes in Nashville Scene recently:
If you’re paying attention to radio spins, streaming numbers and industry hype, Black women making country and country-adjacent music — women like Palmer, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Kamara Thomas and Americana super-quartet Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell) — have likely been drawing your attention this year. The time is ripe for them to gain a kind of equity in the industry that wasn’t afforded to Black artists who came before. They’re far from the only ones well-prepared for an opportunity to break out into the mainstream. (“Meet the Black Female Artists Reshaping Country Music”)
Dowling goes on to introduce eight Black women country artists that are more alternative than big country radio prefers. They include: Brittney Spencer Adia Victoria, Reyna Roberts, Chapel Hart, Kären McCormick, DeLila Black, Ashlie Amber, and Tiera. They join other new Black country acts like The Ebony Hillbillies, Darius Ruker, The War & Treaty, Gary Clarke Jr, Yola, Jimmie Allen and (bi-racial) Kane Brown in a wickedly diverse group.
Love or hate the music, the expanded imagination of “country” reflects a desire among new and returning Southerners to account for the region’s shifting demographics and economics.
Those shifting demographics and economics are spelled out more directly in Southern media. Or, rather, in the fight for defining the South in media. A 2017 New York Times article highlighted the region’s growing, diversifying media landscape:
From the outside, the American South of 2017 may seem stuck in a one-note loop of grim historical disputation, with fights over the Confederate flag and monuments interrupted only by meteorological disaster. But Mr. Reece’s online magazine (“The Bitter Southerner”) is engaged in a broader re-examination of Southern identity that is playing out in a clutch of ambitious regional publications, some of them provocatively named — Garden & Gun, Scalawag — and all describing a multifaceted, multiracial future that seems to have already arrived, right alongside the incessant re-litigating of the past.
Scalawag is far and away the most radical of these publications. It is also helmed by the youngest and Blackest staff among those named in that New York Times piece. The magazine explicitly troubles the idea of a “new” South that can ever be disentangled from the slavery, apartheid, and planation economics that created the South. At the same time, Scalawag is similar to The Bitter Southerner in rejecting the mainstream culture’s romanticizing the region’s eventual “progression” into something other than, well, the South. These publications are for folks who return but, especially in the case of Scalawag, they are also for those Southerners who never left.
The Southerners who stayed did just as much to reshape the region’s political fortunes — as Stacey Abrams embodies — as new arrivals. Those are the Southerners who reckoned with the brutal conflict over public space and private pains and white racial violence and internal migration and national expropriation of the area’s wealth.
They stayed and made the conditions for a new country music, one that reconciles Nelly and Florida Geogria Line and Hootie and the Blowfish and Lil Nas X. Demographic and economic changes contour the directions of this new Southern culture but they do not unilaterally shape its trajectory. The changes in country music and conflicts between glossy odes to Southern elitism and gritty reporting on the South’s working class and poor mirror this tension.
That tension is about the South but it also about the nation. As is always the case when Southern culture has a spin in the national spotlight, the conflicts that make good culture are the conflicts off-loaded from other parts of the nation. This region warehouses our nation’s war with itself about citizenship, class, race, gender, immigration, history and future. The soundtrack is just a bonus.
If you are attuned to the Georgia run-offs and the work that so many organizations did to make a contested Georgia election a thing, you owe a small debt to the work that Southern publications have done over the past ten years. Garden & Gun has a wealthy new South customer keeping it afloat. Southern Living will never ever die as long as a single southern lady anywhere exists. Scalawag and Bitter Southerner are less flush precisely because they are so important to the changing socio-political realities of the South’s diverse population.
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