“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” by James Wright

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

(from the Poetry Foundation.)

In honor of James Wright, I drove through Martins Ferry as I headed west from Pittsburgh.

busy busy in Pittsburgh

I have been having the nicest visit in Pittsburgh with my friend Karen! (She is much better at taking pictures than I am, too, so that’s a boon here.) We’ve been seeing a lot! First of all, I got into town specifically to go see Matthew Ferrence read from his book Appalachia North at City Books. I am so excited about this book – my review is forthcoming at pagesofjulia, and hopefully a fuller version elsewhere as well.

Matt’s reading was truly special. He picked short pieces from his book to read – out of order – and rolled straight from one into the next seamlessly; and indeed they read seamlessly, too, so that he patchworked a fresh, new essay from the book as if designed for it. I was very impressed; this seems like an art form in itself, choosing selections to read, in a way that so neatly showed what his book is about. I am a fan all over again. Don’t miss this read, y’all. I’ll try and repost a link here to the review when it goes live.

From here Karen took me on a driving tour of Pittsburgh in the dusk, including up to Mount Washington, where we rode the incline down to the edge of the Monongahela River and back up again. My fear of heights was present but not prohibitive. It was a gorgeous view of the city!

Although we’ve just begun our tour, I feel warm already toward this city with its beautiful, old architecture and humble, working-class story. Rivers and hills and old brick: what’s not to love?

be still my heart in Muscle Shoals (part 2)

After leaving FAME I was really losing my mind, you guys. I had to go park and have some quiet time before I could move on, to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, and Barry Beckett started their careers as studio musicians at FAME, but left in 1969 to open their own studio, where they served as both owners and studio musicians; this is where they became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame as such). They were hailed as some of the finest studio musicians out there, with acts as big as the Rolling Stones coming into town to record in their studio. An anecdote from the documentary:

Paul Simon called Stax Records, said “Hey, man, I want those same Black players that played on ‘I’ll Take You There.'” They said, “That can happen, but these guys are mighty pale.”

(The joke here is that the four of them are white.)

I first learned about the Muscle Shoals Sound from a song.

Here, the tour was $15, and presented in a style much more suited to beginners: where Spencer at FAME is a sound engineer and apt to speak a bit over our non-professional heads (though happy to explicate where asked), the unnamed young man at Muscle Shoals Sound expected much less expertise. By this time, at my third stop of the day (and having some pre-study time put in, as a fan of these bands and having watched the documentary), Spencer’s style suited me a little better. But being in the place was, again, heady and nearly overwhelming. Here we talked a lot about the Swampers (nickname for the Rhythm Section, as immortalized in “Sweet Home Alabama” – go listen again and you’ll hear it), as well as Cher, the Stones, and Linda Ronstadt, among many others. I was amazed to hear we’d just missed David Hood, who’d been in recording just this week.

On my way into and out of town, I saw signs for places I’ve been hearing about in Truckers and Isbell songs for years: Russellville, Tuscumbia, Seven Mile Island; Lauderdale, Colbert, and Franklin counties. Wilson Dam, immortalized in a pair of Truckers songs by Cooley (“Uncle Frank“) and Isbell (“TVA“), respectively.

I’ve seen some birds, particularly around the dam: American white pelicans, great blue herons, Canada geese, a few Eastern bluebirds, and throughout the area, lots and lots of American robins.

I am now exhausted and reeling from this brush with greatness. How will I recover? I just feel so lucky that there’s such good music in the world, and that I get to know about it.

If I have not entirely killed my audience with these two gushy posts, let me leave you with a Jason Isbell Tiny Desk Concert that you will not regret.

You’re welcome.

be still my heart in Muscle Shoals (part 1)

Whew. What a place for me to visit. I can scarcely say in a little ol’ blog post what this all means to me, but the Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell are some of the most important artists to me in the world. And their world to a large extent begins in a little town called Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Muscle Shoals is also the nexus and birthplace of a huge amount of great music – seriously, if there’s music you love in the world, I’d bet money some of it originated in this little town. And the roots of so much good music. Again, I won’t attempt to tell you the whole story myself. You should check out an excellent documentary titled, yes, Muscle Shoals to get the scoop.

I knew that I had to visit on this trip, as a paying of respects.

I started my day at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which has not yet inducted any of my most personally held favorite Alabama musicians, but boy are there some good ones in there, though: Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris, Lionel Richie, Tammy Wynette, Percy Sledge, Sam Phillips, Nat King Cole, Rick Hall, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Hinton, Spooner Oldham, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section including David Hood (father to Patterson Hood, frontman of the Truckers). And so many more.

As a destination, the Hall of Fame is a bit run-down, but full of history and artifacts and lore. If you’re a fan of even a couple of these guys, I think it’s worth a visit. The $10 entry feels a hair steep, maybe, but I’m glad this place is here so I shrug and I pay it. I got some shots.

Next I visited FAME Studio, the fabled beginning of the famous Muscle Shoals sound. Rick Hall and two partners opened FAME in 1959; by 1961 he was solo, and immediately making history. I took a $10 tour that was worth every penny and then some – don’t ask what I then spent in the gift shop on a book, an album, a couple of stickers and a t-shirt. Tour guide Spencer was entertaining and chock-full of names and stories; it was a lot to take in and I couldn’t stop grinning. I was star-struck just being in the same room where so many greats have recorded. Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Truckers, Isbell, Spooner Oldham, Band of Horses, Phish, Gregg Allman, Steven Tyler…

There’s more. But I’m going to break this post into two parts, lest I overwhelm you.

Montgomery’s richness

After Tuskegee, I hit Montgomery. The main goal here was civil rights monuments and memorials. My parents took me on a road trip the summer I turned ten – between fourth and fifth grades, then? – all over: my father’s notes say “Alabama, Appalachia, DC, Plymouth, Boston, Caper Hill July 4 reunion, VT etc., Port Gibson.” It was a full and rich outing, but perhaps too much for me to take in: I remember a small number of events/people very clearly and have forgotten much of it. But one of the lasting images I have is of the then newly-opened Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. It was designed by Maya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and improbably I recall knowing that detail at the time, too (we visited the latter memorial on the same trip, of course). I remember the flat marble table-top with its carved names and running water, and the water-wall with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words inscribed. It’s odd what we remember. Clearly, this place made an impression.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the memorial:

A circular black granite table records the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock. Water emerges from the table’s center and flows evenly across the top. On a curved black granite wall behind the table is engraved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known paraphrase of Amos 5:24 – We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

So I returned, nearly thirty years later. I left Hops in the van catty-corner to the memorial center. I started out outside, at the Lin-designed memorial I remembered: it seems smaller now, because I’m bigger, and the names are harder to read; there are chinks and chips in the lip of the table-top. But it’s the same, still there. I walked up a short walk to enter the memorial center, which I don’t remember at all, although surely we would have gone inside when I was small? My two-dollar entry fee was waived because I am a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, like my father before me (he remembers our fees waived back then, too), so I made a small donation instead.

The forty-one names that are inscribed on the memorial – forty-one men, women and children killed for their civil rights work, or simply for being Black – are given a bit more backstory inside, on plaques. There’s a short film (twenty minutes?), which is well worth watching, about those deaths and others, and the continuing need for movement. There’s the opportunity to sign one’s name to the Wall of Tolerance.

It is a somber place to visit. Some of the names were familiar (Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, MLK); some told familiar stories even if the names were not familiar (four girls killed at a Birmingham church bombing: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. three civil rights workers killed and buried in an earthen dam: James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner). A number of names and stories, of course, were new to me. And yet somehow not new: individual faces on a problem I’ve learned about before, since at least the summer I turned ten. It’s a problem we’re not done with yet. You can read all the names and brief stories here.

From the center, I wandered on through the neighborhood. Something else I did not recall from my last visit to Montgomery was how rich and densely-packed were the civil rights landmarks in this neighborhood. From the center (Hops and Foxy still waiting on that corner), I walked just a few blocks to the Freedom Riders Museum, in the former Greyhound bus station where Freedom Riders were attacked (closed, but with a very good stretch of educational signage outside that I’m most grateful for); Rosa Parks’s bus stop (on Court Square, once site of one of the largest slave markets in the South); Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church (now Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist); and the Alabama State Capitol (where the Selma to Montgomery march concluded). I was floored that all these major sites were packed so closely together. It was a heady little walk I took. I’ve made one photo gallery here for you of Montgomery’s richness (including additional historical markers, on practically every street corner, it seemed).

I’m left a little muddled in my impressions of this city, which was the first capitol of the Confederacy and the site of the start of the Civil War, as well as the birthplace of important parts of the civil rights movement. It’s a lot to take in.

I finished my day with a few artists: the graves of Hank and Audrey Williams, and the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, in a former residence (also closed, but I walked the grounds).

After a full day, Hops and I were grateful to crash out in this comfortable and comforting little space.

good night

art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi

I’d read about this little beach town/artist community, and knew I was interested, even before a mountain biker I met the other day recommended it to me. The first place I stopped when I rolled into town, however, was not an art sight.

Thus begins a new chapter: I’m going to be visiting a series of civil rights monuments in the next weeks, I think. I was glad to see this, even if the park was just pocket-sized.

Then I did a partial art walk, guided by a handout from the visitor’s center, and poked my head in a few shops.

I bought some beautiful postcards, but otherwise enjoyed the free version of Ocean Springs.

Moving right along, I visited Whole Foods in Mobile…

Goin’ Coastal pineapple IPA, Sweetwater Brewing

(I missed the Welcome-to-Alabama sign, y’all. The trials of travelin’ alone [Hops does not count in this instance because he doesn’t use cameras].)

And onward…