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'Oxford American Magazine' Highlights Southern Music

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Oxford American magazine's annual Southern music issue is out. It's a greatest hits version highlighting the publication's music writing over two decades and was guest-edited by singer and songwriter Brittany Howard. She's the lead vocalist and guitarist for Alabama Shakes and released her solo album "Jamie" last year. For Oxford American, Howard curated a soulful playlist that includes this song by Betty Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY SAY I'M DIFFERENT")

BETTY DAVIS: (Singing) They say I'm different 'cause I'm a piece of sugar cane, sweet to the core. That's why I got rhythm.

ELLIOTT: Brittany Howard joins us now from Nashville.

Welcome to the program.

BRITTANY HOWARD: Hey. Thank you for having me. I'm very happy to be here.

ELLIOTT: Well, your playlist includes some really strong R&B women. We just heard Betty Davis. There's Odetta, Irma Thomas, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone. What do these singers represent for you?

HOWARD: You know, first of all, I relate to them because they're Southern. And, you know, as I say in my little essay, the South just has a thing to it. It's really hard to describe, and actually, it's hard to put into words.

ELLIOTT: What is that thang (ph)?

HOWARD: The thing is generations and generations of people who were just working hard - you know what I'm saying? - hand to mouth, everybody taking care of each other in the household, spending lots of time outdoors. You know, I feel like in the South, the outdoors - it just seeps into you. You know, it's different from city life. Being outside, you can take a stroll, and the humidity and the birds have a song. And the leaves rustling have a song. Everything around you is just musical, and it gets into you. And the pace of life is just different, and the way people speak to you is just different.

ELLIOTT: Is there a song on the playlist that reveals that feeling, that thang?

HOWARD: I'd say maybe "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye" - Bettye Swann. Another one might be "To Mess Around" (ph) by Ray Charles. "Hit Or Miss" by Odetta is another one I might suggest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT OR MISS")

ODETTA: (Singing) Oh, can't you see? I got to be me. Ain't nobody just like this. I got to be me.

ELLIOTT: You write in your essay that there's no historian like the music that's created in the South. As guest editor, what were some of the pieces that stood out for you? I guess these were articles that had been written in Oxford American over 20 years or so.

HOWARD: You know, what really stood out to me was the beginning of the Outkast article - the writer talking about his grandma being a - the chicken factory.

ELLIOTT: Yeah.

HOWARD: I don't know why, but for some reason...

ELLIOTT: You're talking about Kiese Laymon's article.

HOWARD: That said - that just put me somewhere. It just put me in a place - instantly took me to the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEELZ OF STEEL")

OUTKAST: (Rapping) My soliloquy may be hard for some to swallow, but so is cod liver oil. You went behind my back like Bluto when he cut up Olive Oyl. Two things I hate - liars and thieves. They make my blood boil. Boa constricted, on my soul that they coil. Touched by the wheels of steel.

ELLIOTT: He talked about the stank on his grandma's hands and thinking about that when he first started listening to Outkast because she would come home so dirty from the chicken plant, right?

HOWARD: That's it. And she would dress up so nice to go to church. And that does remind me of my grandma - works hard, looks good, has a dignity. And also, I grew up not far from a chicken plant, so it does have a little stank on it.

ELLIOTT: You grew up in a little town in north Alabama, not far from Muscle Shoals. That had to seep into you a little bit.

HOWARD: That's right. And you know what's funny about growing up right down to - 40 minutes away from Muscle Shoals is that that's a place where we went catfishing, me and my dad. I never made the connection that so much music was made at Fame. I just didn't know the history of it until I was in my twenties.

ELLIOTT: So we can't let this interview continue without playing a little bit of your music. I want to play a song from your latest album, "Jamie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOAT HEAD")

HOWARD: (Singing) My daddy, he stayed. My grandmama's a maid. My mama was brave to take me outside 'cause Mama is white, and Daddy is Black.

ELLIOTT: That's a song called "Goat Head," and it's about your family and how you grew up in an interracial household.

HOWARD: You know, it's something I didn't think about a lot in my youth. Like, when I was a kid, I was just running around doing what everybody else was trying to do - trying to fit in, trying to find my friend group, trying to make sure I get the new pair of Sauconys, you know what I'm saying?

There was a part of my family history that no one wanted to talk about. And it wasn't until I was older, I guess, until I could digest this information of this cruelty in this - the way that my father and that side of my family was treated as second-class. It's not just about being poor. It was also about the color of their skin. And there was a lot of cruelty, I learned, in my own hometown.

ELLIOTT: What was the little town?

HOWARD: I came from a little town called Athens, Ala.

ELLIOTT: Athens. OK.

HOWARD: Which I do cherish my hometown. There was a lot of cruelty there. I didn't - you know, I just didn't think it happened there. And also what my mother went through, too - having two little brown girls, going to the grocery store and grown women coming up to her and just saying whatever they wanted to about her. How could you do that? How could you bring these kids into the world like that? - you know, at the grocery store. Nobody stood up for my mom. And every time she would take us outside, you know, she had to prepare herself. And it gave me a lot of profoundly deep respect for my family.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PATCHES")

CLARENCE CARTER: I was born and raised down in Alabama on a farm way back up in the woods. I was so raggedy, folks used to call me Patches. Papa used to tease me about it. Course, deep down inside, he was hurt 'cause he'd done all he could. (Singing) My papa was a great old man.

ELLIOTT: One of the other things you wrote about in your essay was while you came from an interracial family, that meant that you had a really interesting exposure to different kinds of music.

HOWARD: I'd go over to my grandma's house, and her name is Ruby (ph). She's my mother's mother. We'd always cook. You know, that's something we would do as an activity. We would draw pictures and cook. And while we're doing that, we'd always listen to music - doo-wop from the '60s. And she loved Elvis, that old country music like Patsy Cline. And she would teach me songs from when she was in school and - that song "Catch A Falling Star And Put It In Your Pocket," (ph) "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" - stuff like that that at the time I thought was really silly. Now I just really appreciate it.

ELLIOTT: What about your other grandma?

HOWARD: My other grandma - her name is Helen (ph), and we all call her Mama Helen. We would get together, and we would sing whatever cassette tapes she had, girl - like Luther Vandross, whatever was in her car - just this kind of smooth, like, cool R&B, you know? We learned all of the classics there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE GOOD TIMES")

AL GREEN: (Singing) Don't look so sad. I know it's over.

ELLIOTT: Is that how the Reverend Al Green ended up on your playlist?

HOWARD: Yeah. Al Green was someone that my dad really liked. He introduced me to that. And he also introduced me to P-Funk music because my dad had a tow truck business when I was little. I would ride with him in the tow truck, unbeknownst to me, to repossess people's cars.

ELLIOTT: He was the repo man.

HOWARD: It was his job. You know, he was just trying to make a living - wasn't personal, you know? But on Fridays, we had a radio station that would play Funky Fridays. And we would listen to The Gap Band, Parliament-Funkadelic, you know, and George Clinton and "Flashlight" and all that stuff. And my dad - he - you know, he's just a goofy guy. So he would always make me laugh singing the songs. And he exposed me to all that kind of music. And I just love it, you know, to this day. I think it's just so great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLASHLIGHT")

PARLIAMENT-FUNKADELIC: (Singing) Flashlight. Oh, I will never dance.

ELLIOTT: One of the things you say is that you really benefited from the resilience of generations of people who taught their children and then taught you to believe that everything's going to be all right. And that spirit does seem to come through from the songs that you put on your playlist. Is there a song that really gives you that feeling that I can handle no matter what comes?

HOWARD: Maybe "Ain't Got No" - Nina Simone - "I Got Life" - think that's a good one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GOT NO, I GOT LIFE")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) I ain't got no home, ain't got no shoes, ain't got no money, ain't got no class.

ELLIOTT: Tell me what the song means to you.

HOWARD: Well, when I hear this song, I just think about the lowest of the low of the low times when - I mean, you know, I grew up - we had food, you know, and we had each other. But we - you know, we didn't have a lot. And when you think about it, this song is just saying, like, you know, there's a lot you still do have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GOT NO, I GOT LIFE")

SIMONE: (Singing) Nobody can take away. Got my hair, got my head, got my brains, got my ears, got my eyes, got my nose, got my mouth.

HOWARD: You know, it's kind of just saying, like, you still matter. You still have the same standing as everyone else in the world, and you have much more than you realize. And that's important to me because of where I come from, where my family comes from. It may sound cliche, but saying that your ancestors' wildest dreams is a true fact when it comes to my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GOT NO, I GOT LIFE")

SIMONE: (Singing) I've got life, and I'm going to keep it. I've got life, and nobody...

ELLIOTT: Singer and songwriter Brittany Howard - she's also guest editor of Oxford American magazine's Southern music issue.

Thanks so much for being on the show.

HOWARD: Well, thank you so much for having me. It's nice to meet you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.