By Becky Jane Newbold
Word spread quickly around the Square that a sample of the December Oxford American was on the street.
Music Editor Rick Clark, who spent the past year compiling music, obtaining rights and gathering information for a slice of Southern Music, Tennessee style, was delivering an early Christmas present.
Produced in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, the 15th annual Southern Music issue celebrates the “vast musical legacy of Tennessee,” Clark said.
The double CD featuring 50 tracks is complimentary with the magazine purchase. Few small town bookstores may carry the Oxford American periodical but Columbia’s The Old Curiosity Book Shop is proud to have it on the shelf.
“The Oxford American is a magazine that demands to be read. This isn’t something to casually thumb through while waiting to get your cholesterol checked. For instance, how can you pass up a piece titled ‘Cooking With Chris: Baked Possum’?” Proprietor James Lund asked. “As I expected, it was a well written, intelligently funny article on yet another aspect of southern life and there, as promised, on the last page, was a recipe for the
aforementioned Baked Possum, complete with sassafras root and steak sauce,” Lund continued.
Lund’s decision to offer the periodical merited a comment he holds dear. “One day, a gentleman came in the store and immediately noticed the Oxford American that was proudly displayed on my front counter. He reached for it and said ‘Oh, you carry the Oxford American! Now I know I’m in a REAL bookstore.’”
The rebirth of Columbia’s downtown square may have been a little slow in coming, but for the past several months, business has been active. And office space inhabited by folks like Clark helps.
Clark was joined downtown in sharing the pre-release by music legend and producer Norbert Putnam, also a Columbia resident. Putnam is featured along with artists such as Elvis Presley, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Big Star, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Chet Atkins, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, John Hartford, Big Maybelle and Connie Smith.
Clark spent some time with Validity in a Q&A session. Here is how our conversation went.
Validity – Explain to our readers why Tennessee music was chosen for the 15th annual southern music issue.
Rick – What better state than Tennessee? There is so much great music that has come from here, it was a natural choice.
Validity – Why did the Oxford American began celebrating southern music each year with a dedicated issue?
Rick – Marc Smirnoff, the magazine’s original editor and publisher, originated the idea of an annual music issue, with a CD enclosed, during the mid-90’s. Jim Dickinson, who was a great music producer and friend of mine proposed to Marc that I handle the music. As a result, I produced the first seven annual CDs…until I left the magazine in 2006.
One of my goals for the Oxford American magazine Southern Music CDs has been to create a journey that takes the listener through many different genres, time periods and artists in a way that is interesting and emotionally compelling. It’s my hope people will be pleasantly surprised by something new that will make them want to explore further. For years, some people have been saying albums are dead. I don’t believe that. People who love the Oxford American CDs see that as a celebration of the long form, listening experience.
In some ways, the music eclecticism of the Oxford American CDs isn’t far removed from what I experienced growing up listening to Top 40 radio in the 1960s. At that time, you might hear Frank Sinatra next to The
Supremes next to The Rolling Stones next to The Singing Nun! It was somewhat of a free for all. The Oxford American CDs feel like a musical free for all, but compilations are actually specifically chosen artists and tracks, intentionally sequenced for the best effect. Each song is given a chance to take turns from being the jewel setting to being the jewel and then being the setting. It’s all about framing things in a compelling fashion. I usually have several narratives connecting the song choices and artists. Hardcore fans of the Oxford American magazine music issues and CDs always surprise me with how much they pay attention to why I chose certain songs and placed them in the order they appear.
Validity – How long was the process to choose the selections?
Rick – I begin work on each CD over a year before the final date when the discs go to manufacturing, but I also constantly work on future issues by pulling songs into folders that inspire me. I have computer file folders full of song candidates and artist candidates for future issues.
Validity – Approximately how many names were on the list to choose from, OR maybe we should ask, how did you ever whittle down to a manageable list from the massive number of Tennessee artists?
Rick – I peruse thousands and thousands of songs over the year. Between the Oxford American magazine work and my work for film and TV, I might listen to over 1200 songs in a week. I might not listen all the way through those 1200 songs, but anyone who has spent a lot of time with me knows that music is constantly playing all day.
Validity – You are living in the rural middle Tennessee town of Columbia, rather than in downtown Nashville. Talk a little about life in Maury County and the affect it has on your work.
Rick – My sweetheart, Mary Ball, who is a lifelong resident of Columbia Tennessee, is what brought me to Maury County. We met seven years ago and I feel totally blessed to have her in my life. I was born in Memphis and have lived most of my life in Tennessee. I love and understand the South. Columbia is a very comfortable fit for me. The people are wonderful.
I’ve had a residence in Santa Monica, California for a number of years, because of my music supervision work. For a long time, I was traveling back and forth between there and Tennessee. Mary would spend a lot of time in Santa Monica with me and I would come here, but I increasingly spent less and less time there, because I was able to do most of my work here. The last six movies I’ve worked on I did at my office on the Square in Columbia. Four of them were from Los Angeles and two were from New York. I’ve worked in music for decades, so I’ve developed great relationships everywhere and, along with accessible internet here, I’ve been able to work without any real problems. I travel to LA whenever I need face time there.
The distance from Columbia to Nashville doesn’t take any more time than a typical Los Angeles commute, only the countryside here is a lot prettier to look at than what I see on the LA I-10 or the I-405 freeways.
Columbia is also perfectly poised to become a center for the arts. There are a number of people in the music, film and tech industries checking out our fair city and what the downtown offers, to include amazingly affordable space you can’t find in Williamson or Davidson counties, and yet you are still close enough for a short commute. One thing that surprises people in the creative industries who are checking out the downtown concerns the fact that it is zoned residential and commercial. You can live and work in a very cool situation downtown.
By the way, Roger Hodge, the Oxford American’s editor-in-chief, and publisher Ray Whittenberg are regular guests to Columbia and they are charmed by the town, especially its Courthouse Square.
I should add: The Oxford American magazine is fortunate to have Roger Hodge as its Editor-in-Chief. He was editor for Harper’s magazine for years and his vision and integrity have a lot to do with why the Oxford American continues to do so well. The rest of the editorial staff is devoted to making it the best. It’s a real labor of love. As a result, the magazine has a very devoted readership and a large number of readers give gift subscriptions to family and friends every year.
Validity – Norbert Putnam, a Maury County resident, is one of the highlights in the southern music issue. Tell us about the decision to include him and/or the impact he has had on southern music.
Rick – There isn’t much Norbert hasn’t done. He’s a music legend, a fine producer and musician, and he lives
right here in Columbia! Not too many people can claim to have played on the very first Muscle Shoals hits or a huge amount of classic Nashville pop and rock records from Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” to over 150 Elvis Presley tracks. He was also part of the opening act for The Beatles at their very first show in America. If that isn’t enough, he produced Jimmy Buffett and Dan Fogelberg’s biggest records. His first production was Joan Baez’ version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”! One of his gifts is his ability to tell great stories about his life exploits, which have taken him all over the world. He has a soon to be released memoir called Music Lessons, and he was gracious enough to let us pull an excerpt from it about his years working with Elvis. Since the Oxford American magazine is celebrating Tennessee, it was a perfect fit. We are very excited Norbert is in the issue.
Validity – We have to ask, because we are not familiar: “Carl the Raping Goat Saves Christmas”? Really? This sounds like the most hilarious song ever or the worst. Which is it? 🙂
Rick – It is a really funny short story by Lucy Alibar, the award winning screenwriter for the film Beasts Of The Southern Wild; one of the best movies to come out the last couple of years.
Validity – The Fisk Jubilee Singers are included on the first CD. Tell us about this selection.
Rick – The Fisk Jubilee Singers are a Nashville institution. I discovered an unreleased recording of them performing at Johnny Cash’s memorial service. It seemed to operate on the CD on several emotional and conceptual levels.
Validity – Speak to the impact of Dolly Parton on Tennessee music.
Rick – So much has been written about Dolly, but her appeal for me goes beyond her obvious musical talents. Wonderful singers, artists and songwriters are everywhere, especially around Nashville, but Dolly impressed me the first time I met her with her seemingly fearless approach to life. She is a fine example of someone who is so in tune with herself that whatever she’s attracted to she’ll make it her own. A perfect case in point is the song “Travelin’ Prayer,” which she does on our CD. You would never know it was a Billy Joel song, because Dolly so successfully inhabits every note.
Validity – Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Emmylou, the list is impressive. What is it about Tennessee that brings out the best in musicians and their music?
Rick – That’s a hard one to answer, because it is the result of many things. Clearly there are many great homegrown talents like Dolly Parton, Isaac Hayes, Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins or Bessie Smith, but I think a combination of the smash of Appalachian and Delta cultures and pre-corporate regional radio, record stores and indie labels did much to get the music out there, which in turn touched thousands of people all over the world, many who would become artists themselves and make their pilgrimages here, too. The rub of secular and religious and the culture in general made Tennessee and the South in general a perfect birthing ground for some of the most influential music in the world of the last century. That’s a big statement, but I believe it’s true.
“Rick Clark is one of the most amazing people I know. He is a journalist, a musician, a musicologist, a day
dream believer. He has written books that should be required reading in every music industry studies class in America. He has spoken with the most important characters in world music and written passionately about it. He is a friend, a colleague and a Maury County treasure. He is also highly respected by my dog Sofie.” Norbert Putnam stated.
Becky Jane Newbold thrives on new experiences and is always on the lookout for new stories to tell. Whether she is riding her motorcycle, photographing wildlife attracted to her garden, creating original works of art or enjoying home-cooked meals with her family, Becky Jane’s passion is staying current with fresh, innovative ideas. Raised in the newspaper industry, she is committed to truth in media.