Songs of the South
There are a few truisms of Mississippi life: Green tomatoes are fried in cornmeal, not flour, thank you very much; tea is lip-smackingly sweet; William Faulkner quotes drip off lips like honey; and the ghosts are inescapable.
Expatriates flee to Yankee country, vowing to be done with that place that they love to revile and are reviled to love. But Mississippi's sense of place is much like a lover's voice, enticing its children home to make their peace. Repatriates laugh about having been implanted with a homing device that goes off at roughly age forty. The cycle is as much a part of life as the cicadas and the magnolia blooms. And it's made for some damned good stories.
Caroline Herring is the latest entrant into that pantheon known as Southern writers, with their themes of running, returning and redemption.
"In the land of the crazies/Gentlemen and ladies/I was born/I was born/Long gone the fish fry/Long gone the moon pie/Long gone/Long gone."
I first heard Herring play at the 2002 Mississippi Museum of Art's exhibit of photographs by Eudora Welty and Jack Kotz. Their striking images of everyday rural Southern life -- dew on the grass, rain glistening on the screen door, faces cut with lines of laughter and sorrow -- could just as easily have been taken in Colorado except that the landscape was much more lush. In the background, the diminutive Herring tried to connect with the well-to-do crowd that was mingling, sipping wine and nibbling cheese. Simply dressed, with only her acoustic guitar and backup band as adornment, she filled the place with her haunting voice. A perfect complement to the imagery.
Herring knows the Mississippi of those photographs, having grown up in the small agricultural community of Canton, Mississippi, where O Brother, Where Art Thou?, My Dog Skip and A Time to Kill were filmed. Through her American roots-gospel-folk-bluegrass music, she reflects on that childhood, covering a lot of ground in her debut CD, Twilight, from her ideal last supper (corn, okra, black-eyed peas and biscuits) to the complex issues of race relations.
"I think back on my childhood, and it was pretty normal except that it was completely segregated," says the 33-year-old Herring. "That was completely mad. My parents were generally supportive of us doing interesting things, though at the same time drawing boundaries that we didn't understand. I want to cherish those memories, but it makes me angry that that life was built on utter and complete segregation. It can't help but taint it a little. It's for real."
Herring's childhood was also one of privilege. Her father, Jim Herring, is the chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, and she attended the private Canton Academy, where she had the typical school music program experiences: playing in the band, serving as a student conductor, learning flute and piano. It wasn't until her dad bought her a guitar from the Canton pawnshop that she began to pick. And it wasn't until her mid-twenties that she started writing her own music and performing.
Although she has a country-tinged folk sound, Herring is quick to note that she never spent hours jamming on the front porch. Instead, she grew up listening to Joni Mitchell and R.E.M., as well as the traditional folk and bluegrass icons. And fifteen Emmylou Harris albums taught her everything she needed to know about country.
"I wasn't born in the sticks," she says. "I just love to sing the music. It's funny, because I don't really think of myself as folk or bluegrass. I may be, but after years of folklore work, I know I'm not folk. I'm the daughter of a lawyer and a librarian. Any hardcore bluegrass fan would turn their nose up at me in a second."
Nonetheless, it was with a bluegrass band, the Sincere Ramblers, that Herring got started singing and playing guitar and mandolin professionally. She joined the group upon moving to Oxford, Mississippi, to start a master's program in Southern studies. Before that, she had spent four years teaching in Jackson, including an enlightening year in a public school near Jackson State University, one of the nation's historically black colleges. "I was pretty ill-equipped," she says. "It was kind of radical for me personally to go into the heart of that area."
When she left Jackson for Oxford, Herring had no idea she'd be cutting her musical chops while furthering her academic life. By day, she organized William Faulkner conferences, studied all things Southern and worked on her thesis about the 1930s Mississippi chapter of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. She soon realized she wasn't "taking the program to discover anything exciting about the South, but to deal with the South as I knew it."
But by night, she co-founded the old-timey weekly radio show Thacker Mountain Radio, which brought together two great Southern traditions: music and literature. For two years, she and the Sincere Ramblers were the house band for the show, which has been called a "Southern-fried version of Prairie Home Companion." The show created opportunities to perform with bluegrass legend Peter Rowan, as well as with Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and others. Six years later, the show still beams out of the basement of Oxford's Square Books, a used-book store with stature equal to that of Denver's Tattered Cover in literary circles.
"The radio show is a whole education unto itself," Herring says. "We started it hoping just to do music, but then we approached the bookstore, and they said, 'If you'll devote half the show to writers, you can have it here.' It was a great training ground for all of us. We got to see all these talented people come in and watch them perform and then be able to sing with them at the end of the show."
And when she graduated, those same people helped her make her way in Austin, Texas, where she moved to pursue a doctoral degree in American studies. Soon Herring's Austin-based Thacker cohorts had her playing in all the right venues, in front of the city's music elite. She also began writing what would become Twilight.
"When I moved to Austin and didn't have any critical voices, I just started writing," Herring says. "I've always been a closet poet, but it just started coming to me."
Peter Rowan led her to Billy and Bryn Bright of the Two High String Band. After one gig together, they called Herring and asked if she needed a band. They've been a threesome ever since. In October 2001, they released Twilight after Denby Auble, a biophysicist turned record-label owner, chose Herring to be the debut act on his debut imprint, Blue Corn Music. "What really struck me was the construction of her songs," he told Texas Music magazine. "They're extremely well crafted -- simple poetically, but very compelling. They're not cliche."
Slaves pull the sack across/The weight of my albatross/In my hands/In my hands/Standing in the water/My dress soiled and seen/Goodnight cottonlandia/Get your ghosts off of me.
As I drove out of Mississippi, Twilight was in the CD player, which wasn't odd: There was a fifty-fifty chance that either Herring's or Norah Jones's voice would fill the red rental car. When I left Vicksburg, the Mississippi River came into view, and Herring's song "Learning to Drive" started playing. It was one of those frozen-in-time moments as she began to recall her own exodus: "But now she's all packed up in parceled pillars/She's driving a U-Haul across the Mississippi River/Lanterns on the levee and a fist full of cotton/Old times there will not be forgotten."
My memory is indelibly stamped with that moment. Although a rural-Colorado native, I'd been marked by the South and knew of what Herring sang. I knew, for instance, that the "Mississippi snow" in Twilight's first track was a reference to cotton fields, because I've driven through them.
Herring is immensely popular in Austin clubs, even winning the Best New Artist award at the Austin Music Awards, held at least year's South By Southwest festival. But Texans, too, have a frame of reference for her imagery. The real test will be whether Herring can connect with audiences who only know the South through, say, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Who don't understand Mississippi snow or women who wear their crosses like tattoos. Audiences like those at Boulder's Redfish New Orleans Brewhouse, which makes its fried green tomatoes with flour.
"I think sometimes people think the songs can be a little quaint," Herring says, "but I think they enjoy the songs. I'm really just trying to make my way as an artist. Folk musicians often get pegged into a middle-aged white arena. So it's great when someone with three piercings in their nose comes to see you. I'm not trying to be pinned to just writing about race relations or my life as a little girl. I just want to write good music."
She excised some of her ghosts on Twilight and is stretching out a bit with her new CD, Wellspring, which is slated for an August release. The album "rocks a little bit more than the last one" and focuses less on her Mississippi childhood. "Some of it's more string-band-sounding, some more folksy than ever. I guess it's a little more diverse," Herring says. "My album is part folk and part electric. I'm real tempted to go both directions, depending on my mood."
Her music isn't the only thing evolving. She left Texas and now calls Washington, D.C., home; her husband has a fellowship at George Mason University. "Austin was a great training ground, and I miss it a lot," she says. "Texas was a wonderful free and open place for me to be a new me outside of my home. But at the same time, there are a lot of writers there who get settled. Maybe constant moving will keep me from getting lazy."
At least until her homing device goes off.
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