Southern Agenda

What’s Happening in the South

Going-ons in the region in June and July

Charleston, South Carolina

250 Years of Lowcountry Treasures

While a Tyrannosaurus rex greets visitors at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and an eleven-ton elephant guards the entry at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Charleston Museum welcomes guests in a decidedly Lowcountry fashion, with a forty-foot-long North Atlantic right whale skeleton dangling above the lobby. (The whale was captured in 1880 in Charleston Harbor, studied, and articulated by a nineteenth-century curator.) This year, the museum celebrates a major milestone with a two-part exhibit, America’s First Museum: 250 Years of Collecting, Preserving and Educating (the first part runs through June 4; the second opens June 17). “Charlestonians have always been very interested and invested in their history,” says museum director Carl Borick. “I think this museum, and the fact that it’s been around 250 years, underscores that importance of preservation to the community.” Founded in 1773 as the New World’s first official museum, the Charleston Museum initially collected the region’s natural splendors: fossils from a megalodon, a giant ground sloth, and a Pelagornis sandersi, the largest-ever flying bird, all native to the area in pre-historic eras. The anniversary exhibitions highlight some of the most powerful artifacts in the museum’s 2.4-million-object collection, including a pew made by enslaved people for a church in Edisto; a first edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America so delicate that curators carefully turn the page each week so no one image receives too much light; and a pink silk sack-back gown worn by the prominent eighteenth-century Charlestonian Eliza Lucas Pinckney, carefully preserved and displayed just once a decade.


Blues Cues

Long before Lynyrd Skynyrd and Aretha Franklin recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, W. C. Handy grew up in the late nineteenth century making music in the Shoals area along the Tennessee River. Northwest Alabama still celebrates its Father of the Blues with a museum at his birth site in Florence and a ten-day blowout, the W. C. Handy Music Festival (July 21–30). William Christopher Handy, who ultimately had to skip town to make music because his minister father called his guitar a tool of the devil, went on in 1912 to write “Memphis Blues,” regarded as the first blues song. “Our schoolchildren learn about him early. He’s beloved and well celebrated,” says Judy Hood, the wife of bassist David Hood, the last living member of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a.k.a. the Swampers. Judy, who chairs the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio foundation, says festivalgoers can expect small concerts and jams all over the area—on street corners, at the library, and in parks, bars, restaurants, churches, and stores. “Everywhere you turn, there’s music.”


Small-Town Revival

The once-booming Delta cotton crossroads of Wilson became a ghost town after the Depression hit and business after business shuttered. But in 2010, the entrepreneur Gaylon Lawrence Jr. had preservation in mind when he set to work on a makeover. The town, forty-five minutes north of Memphis, has since opened a slew of shops, the Wilson Cafe, and the Delta Academy school. This past spring, along came the sixteen-room Louis Hotel on the town square. Behind the front desk, which is made of compressed cotton encased in glass, hangs a Renaissance-style portrait of the hotel’s namesake, a Wilson resident’s late gregarious French bull-dog. “Louis was the town’s concierge, so he had to be front and center greeting people again,” says interior designer Jennifer Kleen of FODA Design, which led the project. A cozy bourbon bar awaits downstairs, and a rooftop terrace rises above. “I wanted to put people out in Wilson’s sky,” Kleen says. “The sunsets over the fields feel like they stretch on forever.”


Let It Flow

Rarely has a hole in the ground provided cause for such celebration, but the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir is no ordinary farm pond. Earlier this year, workers turned the first shovelful of dirt for the reservoir, a $3 billion project south of Lake Okeechobee that is the largest and most important piece of the federal government’s complex Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. The main reservoir will cover just over ten thousand acres, with a separate stormwater treatment area. Once complete (it should take about seven years to finish), the impoundment will capture polluted water from Lake O, filter it through constructed treatment wetlands, and then send the water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay. In conjunction with other projects that are underway, the reservoir will, its proponents hope, reduce the famously nasty algae-feeding discharges of polluted water by more than half and send an annual payload of 120 billion gallons of cleaned fresh water to South Florida. Think of this as bypass surgery for the Everglades, says Steve Davis, chief science officer for the Everglades Foundation. “This is a way to get that life-saving water south,” Davis explains. “This project doesn’t mean our work is done, but it is something to celebrate.”


Bite Out of History

Next time you eat a sweet Georgia peach, thank a boll weevil. In 1915, the tiny beetles arrived in the state, slamming the cotton industry and opening a door for Georgia farmers to experiment with peach crops—and in time, earn the state’s moniker. The aptly named Belle of Georgia, with soft and striking white-and-red fruit, was one of the most popular commercial peaches until hardier, more shippable varieties took hold. But Belle still thrives in backyard gardens and at small farms, including at Southern Belle Farm in McDonough, which grows fourteen additional varieties across its eighteen acres. The farm’s u-pick peach season opens after Memorial Day and lasts until mid-July. “We keep the season short and sweet,” says chief operating officer Daniel Welliver, “with staggered peach varieties that come in right on top of each other so anyone can find their favorite and plan accordingly.”


Fast Lane

Although it marks its seventieth birthday this year, the Corvette is hardly slowing down. Since rolling off an assembly line in 1953, the iconic ride has been a steady hit, says Sharon Brawner, president of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, which is also home to the sole Corvette manufacturing plant. The car captivated World War II veterans, who had ogled sports cars in Europe but couldn’t find anything similar at home. It became an object of desire lauded by Hollywood stars, astronauts, and musicians. An anniversary exhibit opens on June 30, which Congress has designated as National Corvette Day, and includes all eight generations of the car, along with rarities like the only 1983 Corvette still in existence. (GM made only a few dozen ’Vettes that year because it was changing the design.) Visitors can tour the plant and take a spin on a 3.2-mile road course track. Along with speed, the car’s big appeal is nostalgia—some guests get a little choked up. “They’re tearful. It offers a special connection for folks,” says Brawner, whose father was a drag racer. She was with him when he bought his first Corvette. “He let me drive it off the showroom floor.”


Queen of the Night

A night-blooming plant that opens just once a year is worth toasting, according to generations of gardeners—especially in Louisiana and Mississippi—who have hosted watch parties for a cactus called the night blooming cereus. Slowly, after sunset in the summer, the pinkish leaves that surround the slender green bud unfurl, revealing long white petals. Native to Central and South American jungles, the cereus made its way through trade to the Deep South. Master horticulturist Felder Rushing recalls his great-grandmother’s plant, which came from Eudora Welty’s garden. “People had parties for it because that’s just what we did,” he says. “The porch was somewhere we could cool off, and that was a time to relax. As a kid, I was too fidgety and would rather catch lightning bugs.” But for those who do have the patience, some nurseries, such as Baton Rouge Succulent Co., sell it, or a friendly neighbor might just invite you over for a garden cocktail one special evening.


Spice Wars

As crab season kicks off, Marylanders instinctively take sides: Old Bay or J.O. For many, Old Bay is a state icon, a savory addition to everything from popcorn to doughnuts. Diehards even sport tattoos of the familiar yellow, blue, and red tin. Darrick Rosenberry isn’t one of those. “Blah, blah, blah. Everyone that knows uses J.O.,” says the third-generation ironworker from Denton. He learned about J.O. Number 2 spice blend from his grandmother, who ran a restaurant on Kent Island. Not so fast, says Chesapeake Bay commercial captain Phil Langley. He reaches for Old Bay when he steams crabs for the Waterman Heritage Tours he leads from St. Mary’s County, and explains that “it makes it more flavorful eating.” While the blends are secrets, it’s generally agreed that J.O. brings more salt and heat. Old Bay leans savory, with eighteen spices including pepper, cloves, and ginger. Both businesses have solid Baltimore pedigrees. Old Bay was founded in 1939 by Holocaust refugee Gustav Brunn, who arrived in the city carrying his spice grinder from Germany. Meanwhile, J. O. (James Ozzle) Strigle and his wife, Dot, founded their spice company in 1945, focusing on commercial clients. That might explain why an informal 2019 Baltimore Sun poll found that most city crab houses use J.O. But even Rosenberry concedes there’s a place for both blends: “If you have Old Bay on steamed corn, oh, oh, it’s amazing!”;


Hometown Hero

The two-room frame house near Tupelo where Elvis Presley was born in 1935, built with $180 of materials by Presley’s father, Vernon, is still standing. Seeing that birthplace museum, as well as the Assembly of God church where Presley first heard gospel music, is a no-brainer during the Tupelo Elvis Festival (June 7–10), which this year marks its twenty-fifth anniversary. Festivities begin with a Silver Jubilee Gala, where “fans come blinged out,” says Dalton Russell, a director at the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association. “They love to get bedazzled.” The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition ranks contestants on vocals, appearance, and stage presence—jumpsuits and sunglasses are well represented. Also-rans (and everyone else) may find comfort at Café 212, which serves Presley’s favorite sandwich—peanut butter, honey, and bananas with the option to add bacon—listed on the menu as the Blue Suede Grill.

North Carolina

Take it Cheesy

Just outside Raleigh, the folks in Cary love pimento cheese so much that they sculpt masterpieces with the treasured Southern spread. At the fifth annual Pimento Cheese Festival (June 10), catch past winner Hannah Acuff Skillestad creating three-dimensional works made entirely of pimento cheese—in the past she’s sculpted the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and the town square fountain, which took home the top prize in 2019. The festival began as a way to expand on the town’s popular food truck rodeos and hit a note of nostalgia, says program specialist Ryan O’Quinn. “A lot of places are starting to rediscover some of the traditions and the good things from the past they may have forgotten,” he says. “Pimento cheese falls right into that category.” Vendors serve up goodies such as fried pimento ravioli and pimento cheese and candied jalapeño ice cream.


Sound and Color

The forty-four photographs in Nashville’s Frist Art Museum’s Guitar Town: Picturing Performance Today exhibition look like they could bring down the house. Take photographer Angelina Castillo’s dynamic shot of pedal steel guitarist Luke Schneider, which uses six exposures to reverberate Schneider’s colorful likeness. “We chose photographers whose work goes beyond journalism and documentation,” says Frist curator Mark Scala. “They re-create the experience of music playing. It’s like synesthesia: being able to see music or hear colors.” On display through August—and running in conjunction with Storied Strings, an exhibition that tracks the guitar throughout art history—Guitar Town spotlights the mix of genres and venues in the city, including Ascend Amphitheater hosting Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, and the Basement, with the Ivory Coast musicians Peter One and Jess Sah Bi. Scan the QR code beside each work and listen as the photos sing to life.


Paw Patrol

Visitors to Houston’s Memorial Park can now walk freely over the six-lane highway that bisects it, thanks to an expansive new land bridge and a hundred-acre prairie conceived by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. The project is part of a visionary master plan for the city’s largest urban park, with the goals of reconnecting the divided land, providing safe passage for pedestrians and wildlife, and restoring ancient ecologies through native Gulf Coast prairie grass and tree plantings. Every day, more than fifty-five thousand cars speed through the tunnels located roughly forty feet below, although the layered plants, soil, and hardscape soften the sound to a whisper. “The project was calibrated to engage the senses,” says Thomas Woltz, owner at Nelson Byrd Woltz. Just before the bridge opened, Woltz visited the site on a quiet morning. “I looked down and saw footprints from animals that were using the land bridge to safely cross traffic, as if it had always been there,” he says. “It hit me with a thrill, the complexity of connectivity that this project created, standing there amid the scampering paw prints.”


Seat Swap

When the historic hamlet of Abingdon opened its Barter Theatre in 1933 during the Great Depression, patrons could either pay thirty-five cents or “barter” the equivalent amount of produce or livestock to see a show. Legend has it that the playwrights Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder were compensated for their work at Barter with Virginia ham, and Gregory Peck went door to door borrowing furniture for a set. This year, the theater marks its ninetieth birthday back in its own space after putting on shows during the pandemic at a drive-in theater. “There is something in our DNA, both as a theater and as a region, that is at its best when it’s having to go up against hard things,” says Katy Brown, Barter’s producing artistic director. The theater will set up an audio booth for guests to record their favorite memories, and in keeping with tradition, for several shows, patrons can either pay the ticket price or bring food donations that support Feeding Southwest Virginia, a local pantry.

West Virginia

Flight Patterns

Cerulean warblers and golden-winged warblers weigh a nickel and a dime put together. That’s all,” says Jane Capozzelli, an avian biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Despite their size, the two birds—along with a dozen other warbler species—make the journey from wintering grounds in Central and South America each spring, and Capozzelli rolls out the red carpet. She heads a state and federal program that encourages landowners to manage their properties in ways friendly to the threatened warblers. Owners benefit too; the young forest that golden-winged warblers need makes for perfect deer-hunting plots, and the cerulean warbler habitat of old-growth forest with giant trees and thick underbrush can coexist with sustainable timber harvest. Once they arrive in early to mid-spring, the birds select nesting spots and stick around for the summer. Before they head south sometime in August, fledglings in tow, keep an eye out for golden-wings in the Greenbrier Valley, and an ear tuned for the trilling song of ceruleans all over the state.