As Reginald D Hunter walks through a cotton field to the sound of Elvis singing I Wish I Was In Dixie you're left in no doubt you're in the American South. That's if the title of this BBC three parter, Reginald D Hunter's Songs of the South, is not a big enough clue.
With his open top car parked up by the bayou, Hunter sets out the premise neatly. Southern music IS American music and he's going to take us on a journey around it visiting Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee (though not Arkansas, Florida, or even Texas it seems).
Hunter himself was born in Albany, Georgia in 1969. It was officially post-segregation but was still bedevilled by racist attitudes and by the time he moved to the UK in the mid-nineties (aiming to become an actor but soon finding out he preferred, and was better at, stand up comedy) he'd come to hate the American South and all it stood for. So these programmes act as a sort of homecoming for Hunter as he revisits familiar places and goes to areas where once he'd fear to tread, all the while luxuriating in one of the finest musical backdrops the planet has to offer. Possibly the very finest.
He begins, we begin, in beautiful Appalachia. It's a land of moonshine, hillbillies, and banjos, and it's where the high lonesome sound trickles down from the mountains into the verdant valleys and where, to the sound of Arrested Development's Tennessee, Hunter looks beyond the inbred clichés of Deliverance to Dolly Parton's Tennessee mountain home and Smoky Mountain memories.
Sporting a natty pair of desert boots, Hunter visits a reconstruction of Parton's infamous childhood home. Witness tins of spam, june bugs, pin cushions, bottles of liniment, and one bedroom to house fourteen people. It's a Dollywood recreation now and aimed at both delighting and informing visitors of how tough things once were. Sometimes the new south looks like nothing more than a heritage theme park celebrating the old south. It's fun though and Hunter's "Dolly done good. Maybe Dolly wouldn't. Maybe Dollywood" line elicits a weak smile too.
A fifteen minute drive south to Gatlinburg allows for a quick blast of Flatt & Scruggs. It's a lively looking place even if the "KEEP CALM AND CARRY GUNS" t-shirts and 105% proof moonshine (you can start a car with it) suggest things may, on occasion, get a little too lively. Hunter only stays long enough to sip the moonshine and listen to George Jones 'White Lightning' and Johnny Cash's 'Long Black Veil' before he's on the road again. One small complaint about this show is that there's so much to pack in we don't really get to spend long enough in any single place.
The nature of road trips I guess. In Knoxville, a city with a very high murder rate and where Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse took his own life back in 2010, The Handsome Family are on hand for a quick lesson on the nature of Southern Gothic and the US tendency to be more comfortable with violence and death than sexuality and love. The murder balled Knoxville Girl sounds like something from the Nick Cave songbook, a man kills the woman he loves, offers no explanation, appears to feel little or no remorse, and goes to jail with barely any emotion. Charlie Louvin's penned a ballad here that echoes the bleakest sentiments of Albert Camus's existentialist classic The Outsider.
Nashville, with its rows of cowboy boot shops, seems, on the surface at least, far more sanitised. The home of the Grand Ole Opry took the rough edges off the hillbilly sound of Tennessee and blasted it out, with great success and at huge profit, across the whole of the country and on to a fair proportion of the world.
RDH is on the move again, he's not even stopping at Memphis (at least not yet). This time to the bluegrass state of Kentucky. Bill Monroe invented bluegrass music by fusing English, Irish, and Scottish folk styles with more local sounds. West Kentucky has four navigable rivers (Cumberland, Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio) coming together and as surely as the waters meet so do the musics. It's where folk meets blues and jazz from New Orleans. If hillbilly is mountain music it'd be no misnomer to call bluegrass river music.
As Del McCoury's take on Blue Moon of Kentucky fades into Nina Simone's Sinnerman (described, by Hunter, in one of his many great lines, as "like an ice cube in a drink), we're off to Paducah for a square dance. More mixing here as these square dances are said to be an offshoot, and combination, of Irish ceilidhs and German polka. 'Old time speed dating' Hunter calls it.
But some of the old time ways don't sit so easily with our modern sensibilities. Minstrelsy is regarded by many as the first American popular music. Massive racist stereotyping was the very backbone of its popularity. Witness Old Folks at Home (often better known as Swanee River) sung by a blacked up white man pretending to be an ex-slave who wishes he could become a slave again.
It's a beautiful piece of music with a truly sick, if not inconceivable, concept. Freed slaves often had no home, no healthcare, and no education. Some may've craved a return to the plantation no matter how unpleasant, dangerous, and morally wrong, that was. If that's not tricky enough the song, written by Stephen Foster (who also authored My Old Kentucky Home), contains a reference to 'darkies'. It's still performed today but with full acknowledgement of its uncomfortable back story, and now acts more as a history lesson than pure entertainment. It's justified on the basis that to confront a problem you have to acknowledge that problem and the best way to acknowledge it is through music. The former plantations have now been converted into golf courses and wedding locations and so too the music has undergone a form of gentrification.
You simply can't tell the story of the music of the south without mentioning the historical crime that was slavery. Neither can you tell it without mentioning trains - and trains are far less problematic. Everyone likes trains, surely? Cue cow crushers, the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Johnny Cash's rail inspired rhythm section, and Hurray for the Riff Raff covering Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, a song not about trains but with the yearning, keening, sound of a distant locomotive cutting through the stillness of another lonely evening.
After a brief interview with Dom Flemons, ex-Carolina Chocolate Drops, at the Mount Airy Fiddler's Convention in North Carolina Hunter heads down to Alabama, a state as famous for its southern hospitality as it is for its history of murderous racism. It's where they eat their grits and it's where they love their guns. It's the south writ large.
Lynyrd Skynyrd's Freebird, The Allman Brothers and each year, in Cullman, the Rock the South festival that celebrates all things Southern Rock! Charlie Daniels is there (playing The Devil Went Down To Georgia you'd assume) and so too are Skynyrd where their deathless Sweet Home Alabama serves as something of an anthem not just for the state but for the whole of the south. Skynyrd aren't even from Alabama, they're from Jacksonville in Florida but their home state didn't scan, them's the breaks.
Skynyrd recorded at Muscle Shoals on the banks of the Tennessee river in Sheffield, Alabama but those studios have become much better known for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, and Bobbie Gentry - all produced by Rick Hall at a time when that state's notorious governor George Wallace was campaigning on a ticket of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever". Wallace would not have liked Hall working with Aretha and, surely, he'd have liked even less how life affirming and popular the results of those sessions were. One in the eye for the racists.
As Clarence Carter sings Patches Hunter takes the I-65 south to Birmingham for a chat to Paul Janeway about Otis Redding, in Talladega the Blind Boys of Alabama reflect on the Jim Crow laws, and the recently departed Sharon Jones performs the gospel spiritual Wade in the Water. This programme is bursting to the seams with marvellous, soulful music.
As we cross into Georgia we get Tony Joe White, the swamp fox, singing Rainy Night in Georgia (a song Brook Benton took to no.4 in the US charts) and, in Athens, GA, to the soundtrack of REM's Nightswimming, Hunter catches up with the B-52's Cindy Wilson for a chat about the rebellious, punk, nature of the college town. It, apparently, once set the world record for streaking (Cindy claims she was part of that) and it's where The Sex Pistols played their first ever US gig.
A brief chat with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills from REM precedes a visit to a soul food joint called Automatic for the People. It's not named after the album. The album is named after it. Ray Charles (born, like Hunter, in Albany) is even more closely associated with Georgia than REM. His 1960 version of the Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell standard Georgia on my Mind is now the official state song. He is to Georgia what Louis Armstrong is to Louisiana despite once being fined there for refusing to play to segregated audiences.
Atlanta is hot. Atlanta is massive. Atlanta is seen as the capital of the south (even if Nashville, Memphis, and Louisville all officially boast larger populations). Atlanta is something of a hip hop hub pioneering a low bass driven 808 sound through artists like TI, 2 Chainz, and, of course, OutKast. Speech from Arrested Development (representing a very different era of hip hop, and a very different sound) is on hand to shed some light on developments and Ludacris makes an impassioned and (in the wake of Trump, Charlottesville, and the rise of US Nazism) timely speech about letting hate go. It's a message Martin Luther King Jr would have endorsed fully. MLK was a son of Atlanta and his assassination (in Memphis, in 1968) was as much a low point in the struggle for civil rights as his message was a beacon for hope.
Just like genuine progress the Mississippi river rolls real slow. Huckleberry Finn scenes merge into those of steamboat casinos and soon we're in Memphis (see, we got there eventually). Bobby 'Blue' Bland and BB King soundtrack a ride along Beale Street. It's where the Memphis blues of Sleepy John Estes, Memphis Minnie, and Furry Lewis was born but the depression of the 30s hit hard and by the 1960s pretty much the whole street was boarded up. Now, echoing what's happened over in Tennessee with Dollywood, it's been repackaged as nostalgia and sold back to us. You could be cynical about this or you could, as Hunter does over the strains of Joni Mitchell's Furry Sings the Blues (about WC Handy), just accept that the music still sounds great and the food still tastes good.
Hunter passes over Sun Records (that just goes to show how much music history resides in Memphis) in favour of a visit to Stax and an interview with Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd. Knock on Wood was written in the same motel Martin Luther King was murdered in. In the riots that followed many buildings in Memphis were torched but the arsonists knew Stax weren't the enemy. When they reached the Stax buildings they walked on by. Cue, of course, Dionne Warwick.
In Dockery Farms Seasick Steve talks about Charley Patton and over in Clarksdale, Mississippi ('the gold button in the cotton belt' - at least until the depression) we visit 'the' crossroads, where legend has it Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in a Faustian pact to become a great blues musician. Mississippi remains the poorest state of the union and is often a byword for poverty. It's insulting and clichéd to say that in poor areas richness can be measured in the quality of life, or the music and art produced because of those conditions, and it would be pat to do so even if the area gave birth to musical giants of the stature of Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. Hunter takes a different, possibly controversial, angle and suggests that it wasn't black people who invented the blues. He claims it was white people who invented the (conditions for) the blues and the black folks simply had no choice but to play 'em.
Po' Monkey's juke joint, outside of Merigold, could act as a poster for rural hand-to-mouth living. It's one of the last juke joints in the delta and speaks of different times. The days of moonshine, barrel houses, and cotton picking. Po' Monkey himself is a resilient old trooper but it's hard to see his place not succumbing to sterilisation eventually and going the same way as Dollywood or Beale Street.
If you want to encapsulate southern gothic into just four minutes and fifteen seconds how about Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Jo. Its near ubiquity (including once regular airings on TOTP2) has done nothing to weaken the impact of the song. Suicide, depression, bereavement, and frogs being dropped down young girl's back cosy up with such banalities of everyday Mississippi life as 'balin' hay', wiping your feet at the back door, and eating apple pie. The mysteries hinted at in the song are still yet to be fully revealed. Five years after the song was recorded the Tallahatchie Bridge itself collapsed.
It's been rebuilt and stands to this today. Something that can't be said, or done, for Emmett Till. Till was a 14 year old boy from Chicago who was beaten to death (and thrown in the very same Tallahatchie river where the fictional Billie Joe met his end) for whistling at a white woman in a grocery store. After a sham trial by an all white jury the murderers were exonerated. They later went on to admit their guilt but, protected by the double jeopardy law, kept their liberty. Bob Dylan documented the whole thing in the Death of Emmett Till.
R.L Burnside's Jumper on the Line dealt with nothing more important than hangovers and being dumped. Hunter meets Burnside's grandson Cedric who when asked what's the difference between the delta blues and the hill country blues says the latter deals in "heavy truths with just a few words".
Nobody would describe Nina Simone as a hill country blues artist but her Mississippi Goddam certainly fits that criteria, a powerful, and sorrowful, indictment of the terrible things done when one group of people decide they have superiority over another. It ranks alongside Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit as one of the most eerie testaments to the historical horrors of racism, slavery, and lynching ever written.
"I'm tired of living but I'm scared of dying" sang Paul Robeson in Show Boat and, sure enough, Hunter rocks up, like the Cotton Blossom in the Kern and Hammerstein musical, in Natchez. From there it's a short trip along the Mississippi river to Louisiana which, of course, gives us an excuse to enjoy a blast of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Born on the Bayou. Creedence hailed from the Bay Area in California but their music was shot through with the soul of the south.
Coming into Louisiana from the north means Hunter first meets up with Creole folks playing zydeco music. In Louisiana parlance Cajuns are white French speakers and Creoles are black French speakers. Zydeco is a mangled translation of snap bean but it's not beans that are in Hunter's head but beads (of sweat) on it. It's so hot when he visits Louisiana even the locals are dripping with sweat!
Gators lurk in the bayou, Polk Salad Annie pipes up, it must be voodoo time and who better to guide us through the ceremony than the Night Tripper himself. Dr John. Mac Rebennack. Walking on gilded splinters with his satchel of gris-gris. The only correct place to end a musical tour of the deep south is, surely, New Orleans and full marks to Hunter and his team for doing just this.
The city of Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and James Booker gave so much to the world of music. Rebennack tells Hunter that Jelly Roll Morton always said NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) had a 'latin tinge' and that's because, in reality, it's more part of the Caribbean than it is part of the US. From Satchmo's 'What a Wonderful World' to Longhair's 'Big Chief' NOLA really is, as Hunter says, "the most un-American American city and America is better for it".
Soul queen Irma Thomas tries to unpick the city's thick musical gumbo but soon realises the best way to do this is just to get straight to the music. She takes to Allen Toussaint's It's Raining with gusto and Toussaint, himself, is also around to play Southern Nights. Both these songs idealise and celebrate the south and for all its problems, idiosyncrasies, and bloody history it genuinely is a wonderful place.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 causing nearly 2,000 deaths and forcing mass evacuations of the city (a quarter of the population has yet to, and in most cases probably never will, return) it destroyed buildings, lives, and infrastructure but the spirit of New Orleans remained as strong as ever. The last music we hear in the series is the Soul Rebels brass band funking out to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
It's a sweet way to end a sweet show. Reginald D Hunter was an amiable host with an easy, inquiring manner and was as interested to hear what the man and woman on the street had to say as he was Michael Stipe, Dr John, or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fantastic though he was, the real stars of the show were this collection of Southern states and the weird and wonderful forms of music that emanated here but soon went on take over America and the world. At a time when the image of the US, thanks to a bloviating orange psychopath, is at an all time low it's a gentle, and welcome, reminder of the great art that's come out of this country. Darn' tootin'.