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Oxford American magazine celebrates the Year of Alabama Music

February 7, 2011 |  1:09 pm

Secret-Sisters1Like Narnia or some of Shakespeare's fantastical lands, Alabama is a place whose gateways and byroads are often not immediately visible. This is true of the landscape, whose thick forests give way to meandering prairies and watery deltas; and of the culture, which incorporates a deeply unsettling history and an equally powerful sense of defiant regional pride.

If you've never spent time in Bama, the state might come to mind only as the punchline in a redneck joke or the troubling moral of a fable about human dignity and civil rights. Otherwise, outsiders probably think of Southern cliches: college football, shack barbecue, music made exclusively on banjo-cluttered back porches or in smoky juke joints.

But let the stereotypes loosen their grip, and Alabama -- like any place you don't really know -- surprises. The first rocket to go to the moon was built in Huntsville. Gay Talese, the √©minence grise of New Yorkish writerly urbanity, learned his craft as a University of Alabama student, writing sports columns about the Crimson Tide. The impoverished agricultural Black Belt is, startlingly, home to one of the nation's most innovative architectural training programs. And an organic farming movement is gaining steam around Birmingham.

Music-wise, the state has a similar wide range, obscured from view by easy presumptions. That's what the editors of the Oxford American discovered putting together the esteemed magazine's annual Southern music issue, which focuses this year on this home state of Hank Williams and Dinah Washington -- and Sun Ra, Odetta, Wilson Pickett, the Louvin Brothers, the Drive by Truckers, most of the Temptations, Lionel Richie, Shelby Lynne, Allison Moorer, and on and on and on.

Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff read from a list that included most of those names during his introductory remarks at the concert celebrating the issue, which also kicked off Alabama's tourism board-sponsored Year of Alabama Music, held Sunday night in Birmingham's gorgeously ornate Alabama Theatre. Smirnoff nearly lost his breath pushing through all the names, pointing out that the list included new wave and avant-garde jazz and punk and psychedelic rock artists as well as the expected country, soul and blues.  

The show itself, a rambling affair that suffered from some technical glitches and a simmering mood of disarray, nonetheless represented Alabama well in its range and haphazard charm. The five artists featured varied in ways that might have occasionally puzzled the audience; it wasn't easy to settle in at this performance. But that suited a show representing a state undergoing serious cultural shifts -- a place where tradition and, often still, a complement of narrow-mindedness, holds on, but where daily life is all about adjusting to what's happening on your own road.

The roads this show went down included close-harmony gospel fused with 1960s pop; noisy post-punk with a bit of anthemic folk on the side; free-form jazz; and the kind of showbiz soul that has room for hard rock covers and Vegas-style horns. And at the after-party, hip-hop thick and viscous as honey pointed the way toward the state's next musical chapter.

The Secret Sisters opened the evening with a humbly presented but deeply resonant set that made clear why the duo is rapidly on the rise. Laura and Lydia Rogers, who perform Thursday at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, have T Bone Burnett as a mentor and have recently toured with Willie Nelson; it's easy to grasp why the sibling pair has enchanted aficionados of upgraded homespun sounds.

Laura, the more talkative of the two, has a keening wail that puts her in league with Americana favorites such as Gillian Welch. Lydia, who mostly rides sidecar, occasionally stepped forward to reveal a lustrous, slightly mysterious vocal tone. Announcing themselves as "women of faith" and peppering their set with gospel tunes alongside such chestnuts as "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain," the Secret Sisters offered music that was comforting but not pushy in its perspective, using that old weapon, harmony, to get its message across.

The Secret Sisters' well-modulated set was followed by something far more confounding: a brief appearance by the avant-garde saxophonist Arthur Doyle, who walked out alone, sat in a chair, and dived into some free-form honking and hard-to-decipher vocalizing that seemed, at times, like a wry joke on the audience. Without making much noise or moving beyond a very contained space, Doyle -- who once played with Milford Graves and Sun Ra and has been embraced by "out" music aficonados Thurston Moore and Byron Coley -- effectively shattered the reverential mood the Secret Sisters had set, his performance raising more questions than it answered. Eventually, Smirnoff stepped onstage and ended the brief set.

Next came the Sex Clark Five, a Huntsville quartet born during the fruitfully anarchistic heyday of college rock, reunited in its original form for the first time in decades. The band was plagued by a speaker that kept dropping out, but its members beamed with happiness while working through nearly two dozen tiny bursts of tuneful noise in 30 minutes. Pinging the crowd with puns ("and now a song by our acrostic guitarist!" shouted lead singer James Butler at one point) and jagged rhythms, the Sex Clark Five embodied that much-missed era in American indie music, long before the Internet's fame illusion took over, when bands just wanted to get really weird in the basement with their friends.

Ralph "Soul" Jackson, the night's headliner, was plenty eccentric as well, but for completely different reasons. Hailing from Phenix City, a border town so rife with vice that it was dubbed "The Wickedest City in America" by Look magazine in 1955, Jackson is a soul shouter who found regional success in the 1960s and developed his act into a warped mirror of Vegas showmanship worthy of a David Lynch movie.

Wearing an oversized powder-blue zoot suit and a wild geometric tie, Jackson led a band replete with a confused-looking horn section through a wild little trip. He invited a few fans onstage and had them simulate the carnal act; he tried to get the crowd to sing along during a lounge-ish cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love"; and he delivered a truly astounding version of "Rainy Night in Georgia," his pebbly vibrato infinitely expanding to fill the room. The Muscle Shoals soul shouter Mary Gresham emerged while Jackson took a break and showed off powerful pipes, but she couldn't steal the show from Jackson, an unhinged talent whom latter-day louches like Nick Cave can only hope to imitate.

The show finally concluded, and anyone still up for witnessing more of Alabama's sometimes baffling musical diversity made their way to the Bottletree Cafe, where the hip-hop crew G-Side was holding forth. G-Side represents one strong future for the state's scene: Internet-savvy and lyrically sharp, rappers Yung Clova and ST 2 Lettaz have built a worldwide audience via blog buzz and endorsements from indie bibles such as Pitchfork. At the Bottletree, the pair veritably glowed with confidence, interlocking their verses with laid-back precision. This musical Alabama has its traditional side -- G-Side's sound firmly connects to the syrupy Southern rap of stars such as the Clipse -- but it's also broken free, investing its pride of place in an international fund of ideas.

Alabama's Year of Music will continue with Oxford American-sponsored events around the state in spring, summer and fall. Meanwhile, young acts such as the Secret Sisters and G-Side (as well as chart-toppers the Civil Wars and Yelawolf) promise to extend the focus on this often-scorned home turf beyond one short period. As connections forged in cyberspace shape a new kind of mobile regionalism, Alabama is turning out to be a player. Hank Williams and Dinah Washington might have loved to be a part of that.

-- Ann Powers, writing from Birmingham, Ala.

Photo: Secret Sisters. Credit: Courtesy Secret Sisters

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