The Southern Agenda

Southern Agenda: December 2016/January 2017

Goings-On in the South & Beyond

Illustration: Tim Bower

  • The Snowball Effect

    Washington, D.C.

    “I think we’re the only snowball fight in the world that has an official logo,” says Michael Lipin of the Washington D.C. Snowball Fight Association. The organization’s formal title and branding, however, are totally tongue-in-cheek, and the only thing you have to do to join the ranks is show up—no inside-the-Beltway red tape to negotiate. Every winter since 2009, Lipin and his co-conspirators have invited hundreds and sometimes thousands of revelers to a free-for-all battle in different D.C. locales; this year, Dupont Circle hosts the skirmish. The group has also inspired satellite contests in nearby Arlington. Because nobody can reliably predict when Mother Nature will supply the required five or six inches of snowfall, the organizers won’t be able to announce the date until just days beforehand. Stay in the loop on Facebook, and keep your gloves handy. When the storm inevitably comes—last January’s Snowzilla was one for the books, dumping twenty-eight inches on Washington—hundreds of whizzing snowballs won’t be the city’s only flurry of winter-weather activity. In 2015, Congress allowed sledders back on the most famous slope in the country—Capitol Hill—for the first time since the pastime was banned in 1876. A snow day is a government shutdown we can all get behind. —

  • Alabama

    Stitches in Time

    For the Great Depression generation, “getting creative” was less about the pursuit of art than about survival. But that didn’t mean there was no beauty to be found. Take quilter Ada Chitwood Jones, who in 1934 salvaged sock tops from the W. B. Davis hosiery factory in Fort Payne, Alabama, near her home in Fyffe, to piece together two of her most famous quilts. Today one of them belongs to the Smithsonian. The other will be on display as part of Sewn Together: Two Centuries of Alabama Quilts at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (January 28–April 16), along with nearly thirty other heritage quilts made in the Yellowhammer State, which, as the ladies of Gee’s Bend can tell you, has a rich quilting tradition. “From a young age, girls in Alabama were taught to sew, and quilts were an example of something useful they could make,” says the exhibit’s co-curator Ryan Blocker. “Not only are they utilitarian, they are beautiful works of art and a record of history.” The exhibition will display quilts in pairs—one example from the nineteenth century alongside a more modern version, showing how patterns and techniques such as piecing, appliqué, and hand stitching have evolved. But one element remains unchanged: the love sewn into every stitch. —

  • Arkansas

    Illustration: Tim Bower

    Splash Landing

    Nobody’s really sure why a group of trumpeter swans winters on a tiny oxbow lake in Arkansas each year. Native to the northwestern United States, Alaska, and Canada, the snow-white birds rarely migrate farther south than Ohio. “There has been a lot of speculation, but I think a family of them was flying south and ran into bad weather,” says wildlife photographer Larry Jernigan of the three swans that first appeared on Magness Lake, two miles from his home near Heber Springs, in 1993. “Three pulled into our nice-looking pond and stayed.” No matter why the swans stopped, their presence—in the Natural State and beyond—is something of a miracle. Early settlers prized the enormous birds (whose wingspan can reach ten feet) for meat and feathers, and trumpeters were nearly extinct by the early twentieth century. Aggressive conservation efforts helped their numbers begin to rebound around the same time those original wayward swans showed up in Arkansas. Nowadays, more than three hundred descend on Magness Lake in late November and stay through February. Strong family ties mean the same birds return year after year. And Jernigan thinks he knows the reason. “Visitors like to feed the swans corn,” he says. “That Southern hospitality keeps them coming back.” —

  • Florida

    Illustration: Tim Bower

    Reality Star

    An independent spirit even by the art world’s standards, Frida Kahlo—known for her striking self-portraits—wasn’t a fan of labels. “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t,” she once said. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Her otherworldly imagery is the subject of a new exhibition in St. Petersburg, Frida Kahlo at the Dali (December 17–April 17). Fifteen of her paintings will appear at the Dali Museum alongside seven drawings and a large assemblage of personal photographs. Organizers planted the museum’s gardens with oleander, bougainvillea, and yucca—many of the same botanicals that Kahlo grew in Mexico City—to serve as an outdoor extension of the show. “She would go out every day to tend her flowers and plants,” says Hank Hine, the museum’s executive director. “Her garden was an essential part of her identity and life.” Visitors can also sign up for a journaling workshop (Kahlo was a lifelong diarist), or take part in a hands-on cooking class (she was renowned for throwing dinner parties) to re-create some of the artist’s favorite dishes, such as a pomegranate and cactus salad. With so much on offer, you don’t even have to own a paintbrush to walk away from this exhibit inspired. —

  • Georgia

    Keyed Up

    Ike Stubblefield is used to sharing the stage with world-class talent; in his fifty-year-long career, the Atlanta-based keyboard legend has backed the likes of Al Green, B. B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, and the Temptations. Today he jams with Widespread Panic and Derek Trucks. And on December 2, he’ll have more high-wattage company when two other Peach State players—Lloyd Buchanan, a native of LaGrange, Georgia, who tours with Alabama Shakes, and the Atlanta blues queen Lola Gulley—join him for a special showcase at Macon’s Douglass Theatre. When the artists aren’t hotdogging on the ivories during the Songwriter Series, they’ll be swapping stories about their shared passion—one that spans decades, gigs, and genres. “We can go from jazz to blues to gospel to funk,” Stubblefield says. “The keyboard is an amazing instrument.” —

  • Kentucky

    Bluegrass Revival

    In Kentucky, if you’re looking to fill in a blank limb on your family tree, check out a rare collection of bourbon bottles, or dive deep into the history behind some of the state’s most storied homes, the Filson Historical Society in Louisville is your one-stop research shop. The society has been archiving Bluegrass State history since 1884, so it’s understandable that by 2014, the group’s home—the Beaux-Arts-style Ferguson Mansion—was quite literally filled to the rafters. Two years and $12.4 million later, Kentucky’s oldest privately funded historical society has some much-needed elbow room. Completely gutted and expanded, the 111-year-old building and its carriage house reopened this fall with an enlarged footprint that includes a conservation lab, exhibition space, and lots of room for guests to pore over the records. Expect some things to stay the same, though, such as the society’s annual holiday reading of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” (December 12). Don’t be surprised if you leave with a hankering for fruitcake and whiskey, both of which figure prominently in the beloved tale. —

  • Louisiana

    Cause for Celebration

    Born in 1960 as the youngest of a crawdad trapper’s eight children, Al Berard grew up poor but found riches in the wealth of zydeco, Cajun, Creole, and blues music played near his Atchafalaya Basin home. He mastered the guitar by age eleven and went on to become one of the area’s most prominent multi-instrumentalists. His fiddle playing even earned him a Grammy nomination. When he died of an aneurysm, in 2014, his friends and family put together the Al Berard Music Festival, held this year on December 3 at the NUNU Arts and Culture Collective in Arnaudville, near Lafayette. “All the musicians who will perform knew my father or played music with him onstage,” Berard’s daughter and festival organizer Laura Huval says of the lineup, which includes zydeco and blues accordion player Major Handy and the Cajun supergroup the Traiteurs. Proceeds from the event support local student musicians. “It’s a beautiful gift to give an instrument to a kid,” Huval says. Her father would surely agree. —

  • Maryland

    Sugar and Spice

    Even if you’re no balletomane, you still know The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s nineteenth-century fantasy of a young girl’s world transformed into a vision of pirouetting sugarplums and rapier-wielding mice. In 1960, the traditional Christmas tale got a swinging update when the Washington, D.C.–born bandleader Duke Ellington recorded The Nutcracker Suite, an album that interpreted the ballet through the lens of jazz. This year, another D.C.-based composer, Paul Murtha, takes a crack at the classic, riffing on both versions to create A Swingin’ Nutcracker à la Ellington, which will hold its world premiere (December 8–11) with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Ditching the ballet corps, Murtha enlists Step Afrika! to modernize both acts with rhythmic step dancing (while in full Nutcracker costumes), ensuring nobody will be caught snoozing at this symphony performance. —

  • Mississippi

    Folk Heart

    Nearly twenty years after his death, the late folk artist William (Willie) White is finally being given some love in his home state, with a new exhibition at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi: Willie White: Visionary Artist (through January 21). The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, White left home as a young man for a riverboat job. He eventually settled in New Orleans and worked as a barber, a janitor, and a waiter until one day he stumbled upon a group of artists displaying their works in Jackson Square. Inspired, he began using felt-tip markers to create bold but balanced compositions on poster board, often of prehistoric creatures and plants. “He hung his work from a clothesline on his front porch on Dryades Street and sold it for two dollars apiece,” says the museum’s executive director, Kevin O’Brien. Since then, White’s colorful works have come up in the world, having occupied coveted real estate on the walls of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and now the Ohr-O’Keefe—illustrating just how magic markers can be. —

  • North Carolina

    What’s On Tap

    Used to be, January was one of the few months when tourists weren’t pouring into Asheville. So much for that. The tenth annual Winter Warmer Festival will bring nearly two thousand beer enthusiasts to the mountain city on January 21. Forty-some Tar Heel State breweries, including Asheville’s Hi-Wire, Durham’s Fullsteam, and Farmville’s Duck-Rabbit, will set up temporary shop inside the U.S. Cellular Center, serving four-ounce samples by the souvenir glassful. (And nonalcoholic beverages for the designated drivers.) “Some breweries bring their favorites, and others see it as an opportunity to test the market,” says organizer Lauronda Morrow. “We don’t limit them.” Try as many as you like, but be sure to stop and refuel: Last year, chef Joe Scully of Chestnut and Corner Kitchen catered a complimentary buffet. In the dead of winter, what more can you ask for than all-you-can-drink local beer and a warm hearty meal? —

  • Oklahoma

    Quick on the Draw

    Ghostly Hoofbeats. Skeleton Trail. Death Rides the Night. Sure, the book titles grab your attention. But the dramatic covers are what really helped sell the pulp paperbacks that sparked the imaginations of many a midcentury wannabe cowboy. The scrappy artists who painted them rarely received the acclaim they deserved. “Sometimes, these artists only knew the titles of the books,” says Karen Spilman of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, in Oklahoma City. “Sometimes they got two or three paragraphs. They’d have to formulate what they wanted those covers to look like and then sit down and paint them—just like a fine artist would.” To give the underrepresented painters their due, Spilman organized The Artistry of the Western Paperback, an exhibit showcasing thirty-six outstanding covers that runs from January 21 to May 14. Some will be shown in their original form as books, others blown up to poster size, allowing visitors to fully appreciate the skill and attention to detail. This is one time when it’s perfectly fine to judge a book by its cover.  —

  • South Carolina

    Deck the Halls

    Buying a ready-made holiday wreath is convenient. But when two of Charleston’s most sought-after florists offer to share their time, talents, and pruning shears to teach you how to create your own showstopping door decor, how can you say no? The brainchild of Heather Barrie of Gathering and Anne Dabney of Stems, the Charleston Flower Workshop holds a series of hands-on seminars throughout the year, including two special wreath-making sessions on December 3. Sign up for a morning or afternoon class and observe how Barrie and Dabney use camellia leaves, boxwood, pine, cypress boughs, and bunches of juniper and holly berries harvested from nearby Wadmalaw Island, and then follow their lead. The lessons are held in a venue as gorgeous as all the greenery—the historic circa-1820 Aiken-Rhett House. A tip for making your handiwork last: “Once the wreath is hanging on your front door,” Barrie says, “spritz daily with a bottle of water to keep it looking fresh.” —

  • Tennessee

    Out with a Twang

    Just getting onstage at the Mother Church of Country Music is a career-topping honor for plenty of bands, but Old Crow Medicine Show long ago passed that milepost with more than a dozen performances at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. “We think of them as something like our house band,” says the historic hall’s Lisaann Dupont. And each December 31, the banjo-picking, guitar-strumming, fiddle-playing, foot-stomping band comes home—along with some two thousand friends—for an one-of-a-kind New Year’s Eve show under the stained glass. Ryman regulars and fans from all over the country pack the well-worn wooden pews to be part of the midnight magic. And although the show isn’t the raucous, everything-goes revelry you’ll find outside on Broadway (thankfully), it’s not exactly subdued. When the clock strikes twelve, the band plays “Auld Lang Syne,” and then “it’s pandemonium for a few minutes,” Dupont says. “It’s the kind of communal experience that doesn’t happen when you’re in a plastic seat at an arena.” —

  • Texas

    The Stars at Night…

    Rural life has plenty of pluses—room to roam, fresh air, the sometimes-helpful excuse of spotty cell-phone service. One of the nicest benefits of spending time far from city lights is the ability to enjoy the heavens in all of their starry glory. After all, 80 percent of Americans can’t see the Milky Way where they live, and many can barely make out the Big Dipper—light pollution masks their shine. Folks in Texas are working to change that, thanks to a partnership with the International Dark Sky Association, which aims to safeguard the wide-open night skies over the state. Westcave Preserve, a seventy-five-acre sanctuary in the Hill Country, is one of the state’s easiest-to-access dark-sky sites. Although it’s just thirty-one miles west of Austin, the area is distant enough from the city’s glow to offer spectacular celestial views. Held monthly—register now for the December 3 or January 21 dates—Westcave’s Star Parties invite guests to peer through high-powered telescopes manned by a team of experts. “In the winter sky, we’re looking into the outskirts of the galaxy and beyond into deep space,” says Michael Brewster, who runs the preserve’s astronomy program. Turns out, calling it the Lone Star State might be selling Texas short. —

  • Virginia

    Dinner Date

    Sunday supper is a revered tradition below the Mason-Dixon, but that’s not why the chefs Andrew Manning, Patrick Phelan, and Megan Fitzroy Phelan chose the day of rest for their twice-a-month pop-ups. “It’s the only day everybody has off,” Patrick says. The chefs spend it cooking six-plus courses at the Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond as part of their Longoven Dinner Series. “Sometimes, nobody’s slept for twenty-four hours by dinnertime,” he says. Sleep deprivation hasn’t hurt the creative menus, though, which this time of year are full of such seasonal ingredients as venison, cabbages, root vegetables, and preserves—along with a few spur-of-the-moment surprises. “One winter,” Patrick says, “my friend had a field of broccoli plants that went to seed, so we did a dish of just broccoli flowers and roasted broccoli.” The group serves only thirty-six diners per meal, and now that word is out, seats aren’t always easy to come by. Sign up for the pop-up’s e-mail list to stay on top of the schedule. But if you can’t make it to a dinner this winter, Longoven will most likely go brick-and-mortar in 2017. —

  • West Virginia

    Wild Things

    Jenks Farmer might have devoted his life to cultivating romantic gardens, but at the end of the day, he’s still a realist. “This whole naturalistic garden thing is so trendy right now, but it can be a lot more work than people realize,” the horticulturist says. That just-unkempt-enough stand of woodland azaleas doesn’t happen overnight, you know. So at the West Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association’s Winter Symposium in Charleston (January 27), Farmer will break down the nitty-gritty of constructing and maintaining a wild-inspired garden. The lily farmer from Beech Island, South Carolina, landscapes for clients across the South, and he’s currently loving such natives as Echeandia for its tiny, lantern-like flowers; frog fruit as ground cover; and, of course, crinum lily bulbs, which will be ready to hit the ground come late winter. “My own little farm is an experiment station,” Farmer says. “We demonstrate that in our climate, we can have beautiful, romantic interactive gardens that don’t take all of the fertilizer and water.” And you can, too—with a little help from the aptly named Farmer. —