The Southern Agenda

The Southern Agenda: February/March 2015

Goings-on in the South and beyond

Illustration: Tim Bower




  • They Write the Songs

    Nashville, Tennessee
    March 24–28

    Tons of bachelorette parties notwithstanding, Nashville is still a songwriters’ town. Behind the soulful tunes and slick chart toppers that earned Music City its nickname are hardworking crafts people who traffic in words, riffs, hooks, and bridges. Each spring, Tin Pan South brings together more than three hundred music makers for a five-night run of shows; last year, nearly a hundred musicians performed, including Holly Williams, Vince Gill, and the Shuggah Pies. Artists play at venues all over the city, including such Nashville landmarks as the Bluebird Cafe and the Station Inn. In addition to the live shows, some of the city’s best lyricists will discuss their songwriting processes and let audiences in on the backstories behind their favorite compositions. Some are marquee names; others are those lesser-known poets whose work helps keep Nashville on the radio. You’d have to sneak backstage at Ryman Auditorium for a better look at the inner workings of the city’s music scene.—

  • Alabama

    Bridge Building

    On March 7, 1965, some six hundred activists marched out of Selma, heading east to the state capital, Montgomery, to confront Governor George Wallace about voting rights. They didn’t make it. The police stopped them at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, beat them with nightsticks, and fired tear gas into the crowd. But the horrors of Bloody Sunday, as that day became known, helped spur the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the years of progress that have followed. (Read the reflections of march organizer John Lewis) On the fiftieth anniversary of the march, the city will honor the sacrifices of generations past at the Bridge Crossing Jubilee (March 5–9). The gathering begins with a reception and a street festival. On Sunday, following sermons from civil-rights leaders at local churches, a group of surviving marchers will reenact the walk across the bridge. It’s a short distance—just over a thousand feet—but each unimpeded step will remind onlookers how far we’ve all come.—

  • Arkansas

    The Big Picture

    You could fill a textbook on twentieth-century Southern art with the work on display at Greg Thompson Fine Art’s 20th Anniversary Exhibition (January 16–March 14), in North Little Rock. Every winter for the past six years, Thompson has opened up the considerable archives of his gallery for an anniversary retrospective, and this year, after two decades in business, he is hosting his most impressive show yet. The work of the late, great Theora Hamblett, a Mississippi farmer’s daughter who began painting in her late fifties, will be on display. So will that of Carroll Cloar, a folk surrealist from Earle, Arkansas, who rendered dreamlike visions of life in the midcentury rural South. If those names have your attention, add another show to your cultural calendar: the gallery’s subsequent Southern Landscape exhibit (March 20–May 9), where the work of another crop of accomplished regional artists—William Eggleston, William Dunlap, and Thomas Hart Ben-ton, to name a few—will hang on the walls, underscoring the Southern connection to place. At the gallery, unlike your local art museum, everything is for sale.—

  • Florida

    Get a Move On

    Miami is throwing a bloque party, and you’re invited. Calle Ocho (March 15) is a one-day eruption of Latin American food, music, and culture on Eighth Street, deep in Little Havana. After nearly forty years, the party is bigger and more exuberant than ever. Come for the food: arepas, tamales, empanadas, and some of the best Cuban sandwiches anywhere. Stay for the hip-hop, bachata, reggaeton, jazz, and merengue pumping from thirty stages that line the expansive festival’s twenty-one blocks. Or grab a hand-rolled cigar and a shot of rum and start dancing. Just watch out for the conga line—it’s been known to stretch a hundred thousand people long. (It’s in The Guinness Book of World Records.)—

  • Georgia

    O’Connor Convergence

    When the author Flannery O’Connor, born and raised in Savannah, needed a quiet place to reflect and write her sly and sometimes prickly observations on Southern life, she retreated to her family farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville. She spent her final years there, as well. The farm is now open to the public, and this spring, it will host a series of talks that explore the echoes of her legacy. The Andalusia Farm Lecture Series will bring a stream of authors, academics, and O’Connor fans to the back parlor of the main house each Sunday in February at 3:00 p.m. to discuss subjects that range from Southern foodways to true crime, seen through the lens of the author’s works. Each lecture will conclude with a light reception for the speaker and attendees. First up, Toni Morrison scholar Carolyn Denard delves deep into the work of the two powerhouse female writers.—

  • Kentucky

    State Sale

    Even a year and a half later, we still wish those missing cases of Pappy Van Winkle would turn up. But the famously scarce bourbon isn’t the only Kentucky-made product worth hunting for. From March 6 through 8, the Kentucky Arts Council will bring together more than two hundred of the Bluegrass State’s most interesting makers for Kentucky Crafted: The Market, a curated bazaar of regional art, crafts, and foodstuffs in Lexington. The first day is for retailers only, but the following two provide your chance to scoop up everything from hand-tooled rocking chairs from Louisville’s Christopher Krauskopf to Elizabeth Brown’s braided rugs woven with wool from Bluegrass flocks. Once your wallet has been predictably lightened, stick around for the live music, performed by a roster of locals who specialize in everything from old-fashioned folk to jazz and pop.—

  • Louisiana

    Crawfish, Rice, and Everything Nice

    Fresh crawfish are easy to come by in Eunice. This part of south-central Louisiana produces more mudbugs than anywhere else in the country. Locals suck ’em down almost every way you can imagine, but the true test of a cook in crustacean country is how well he or she can make crawfish étouffée. The basic elements of the dish are pretty straightforward: celery, onion, bell pepper, sometimes tomato. Butter, you bet. Crawfish, always. And a bed of white rice. But from there, all bets are off as cooks add a dash of this and a pinch of that to make the Cajun stew their own. On March 29, chefs and experienced amateurs will come armed with ingredients and secret recipes to the World Championship Crawfish Étouffée Cook-Off. Stop by to watch the show, and bring your appetite: Once the judges have taken samples, attendees can buy plates from any—or all—of the cooks on-site.—


  • Maryland

    All That Jazz

    When trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis takes the stage alongside his father, the well-known pianist Ellis Marsalis, Jr., at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival (February 13–16) in Rockville, he will be continuing a family tradition in the arts that began two generations ago. The Marsalis men are apt headliners for a festival that is devoted to the roots of the great American art form. The fest’s tagline, “Standing Up for Real Jazz,” says all you need to know about the 2015 lineup. Eschewing the experimental, organizers have instead booked traditionalist heirs to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole—performers such as vocalist Carmen Lundy, drummer Winard Harper, and the saxophone-centric Marcus Strickland Quartet. Nightly jam sessions, open to performers of any skill level, stick close to the improvisational spirit of classic jazz and begin—when else?—’round midnight.—

  • Mississippi

    Ready for its Close-Up

    The literary legacies of William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown, among others, have long established Oxford as fertile ground for writers. But during the Oxford Film Festival (February 26–March 1), a different set of storytellers will steal the spotlight. Filmmakers from all over the country will descend on the town for four packed days of programming with a particular focus on all things Mississippi. In fact, films about the Magnolia State will occupy their own category come judging time, alongside the usual divisions: full-length features, documentaries, and shorts. Whether you’re a serious cinephile or just in it for the popcorn and escapism, you can stop by the Lyric theater to catch movies that range from a documentary chronicling the life of the late Memphis music producer Jim Dickinson to James Franco’s take on the Faulkner classic The Sound and the Fury. We’re certain that the bard of Oxford wouldn’t mind if you slipped a flask in your pocket for the screening—law enforcement, on the other hand, might.—

  • North Carolina

    Slippery Slope

    Cabin fever does funny things to people. Some sleep all day. Some take up strange hobbies. And others hop into mobile outhouses and go careening down ski slopes. Seriously. At the Sapphire Valley Resort near Cashiers, ski-loving locals shake off winter’s blues toward the end of each season at the Sapphire Valley Outhouse Races (February 14). The custom-made outhouses in the running get dressed up as everything from tiki huts to train cars. But a few rules do apply: Each must be five feet tall and hit the slope equipped with toilet paper and a seat. And silly as the event can be, especially when the hard-to-steer outhouses begin wobbling off track, it does serious good. Proceeds from the race go toward scholarships that allow young skiers from the area to participate in the resort’s after-school programs.—

  • Oklahoma

    Horse Hobby

    If equestrian talk gets you champing at the bit, you’ll be among friends at the Oklahoma Horse Fair in Duncan (February 13–15). The three-day rodeo-meets-marketplace corrals cowboys, craftspeople, and horse buyers—and sellers—together at the Stephens County Fairground each year. It’s a three-pronged get-together: Visitors with money to burn and stables to fill can bid on trail and ranch horses, ponies, and mules at the auction, or peruse the inventory of more than eighty vendors who travel to the fair from all over the region, hawking wares from tack to blue jeans, hats, and boots. More experienced horsemen and horsewomen can compete in the scheduled riding and roping competitions. Stop by to watch, and plan to stick around until the dust settles. Because once the action really gets going, wild horses couldn’t…well, you know.—

  • South Carolina


    The Charleston Beer Exchange is one of the best-stocked craft beer shops in the Southeast. And when the passionate enthusiasts behind the business stock up for their once-a-year beer festival, you can bet they’re not buying kegs of Natural Light down at the Bi-Lo with the College of Charleston coeds. Presented in partnership with the local brewery Coast, Brewvival (February 28) boasts a diverse selection of suds that is likely to include a bourbon-tinged stout, or a persimmon saison, or a five-year-old barley wine. It’s hard to say what’s more impressive: the sheer number of beers on tap, or the fact that some of them are all but impossible to find outside the confines of the festival and a few devoted collectors’ private stashes. Either way, come thirsty, because you don’t have to be a beer geek to warm up with a pint—or two.—


  • Texas

    Hog Wild

    Organizers may call the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que (February 26–28) cook-off in Houston the pre-party to the country’s largest rodeo, but don’t go getting the wrong impression; the three-day, all-out barbecue throw-down is a full-blown, Texas-sized shindig. Each year more than 250 professional teams and regional chefs come to worship at this temple of smoke, competing in three main categories: chicken, ribs, and (of course) brisket. A berth in the contest and a tented cooking space are secured by invitation only, but to get onto the grounds the only requirement is fifteen bucks and an appreciation for good old-fashioned Lone Star barbecue. There’s a beer garden and a saloon with live music and two-stepping. To party with the pit masters, though—including an open bar, menu add-ons such as alligator legs, and more live music—you’ll want to snag a tent ticket, which are a lot harder to come by. Here’s a tip: If you don’t know somebody who knows somebody who can hook you up, Craigslist is a good place to start.—

  • Virginia

    Bring on Spring

    Daffodils will be unfolding soon, and dogwoods and redbuds are on the way, but most of the South is still slumbering under a gray blanket of late winter. If you’re as starved for green and blooms as we are right about now, get a fix at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond. Van Gogh, Manet, and Matisse: The Art of the Flower (March 21–June 21), co-organized with curators at the Dallas Museum of Art, will present the evolution of the nineteenth-century French floral still life, a genre that, like a resurrection fern, persisted—thrived,even—as the art world tumbled into the chaos of modernism. The exhibit displays almost seventy paintings, including works by those listed in the exhibition’s title as well as the likes of Eugène Delacroix and Gustave Courbet, plus canvases by lesser-known names such as Antoine Berjon and Simon Saint-Jean that are sure to scratch an itching green thumb.—

  • Washington, D.C.

    Treasure Hunt

    Washington is a city in love with the past, with its many imposing monuments and sprawling museums. But few folks in town have done as much to bring vintage artifacts straight to the people as the masterminds behind the D.C. Big Flea, a gigantic indoor flea market held six times a year. The Flea opens its doors on March 7 and 8, assembling hundreds of vendors and their reliably eclectic collections of furniture, jewelry, art, books, toys, clothing, and much more at the Dulles Expo Center. The market is large enough to keep a curious shopper busy for days, so allow plenty of time to roam the long, bustling aisles—and plenty of space in the car for hauling your finds home.—


  • West Virginia

    First String

    The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s schedule tends to run more toward Beethoven and Brahms than Bill Monroe. But on February 14, West Virginia bluegrass icon Tim O’Brien will take center stage. A hometown boy who has earned his fair share of national acclaim, including a Grammy and two Male Vocalist of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association, O’Brien deserves the spotlight. Tim O’Brien in Concert is a solo show at which the musician will cover the length of his prolific career, from his stint in the bluegrass quartet Hot Rize and continuing through his stretch as a solo artist. O’Brien’s repertoire includes traditional songs and original compositions—accompanied by the banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and guitar, all of which he commands with the skill of a true son of the mountains.—