I’m from Atlanta. I live in California. It’s not so much that those two facts contradict each other, but there’s no way for them to be weighted equally. One of the two facts has to be the dominant reality.
And, well, probably because of the four-plus years I’ve lived in California, a chunk of days and months and moments that comprises 15% of my life, because of the landslide of memories piled up on this end of the continent, I live in California is the dominant reality. I’m from Atlanta is true but abstract. But it can’t be true unless I draw from the well of Southerness I have stored inside of me.
One of the best ways to draw from that well is by using music. Music is Dorothy’s heel-click. It’s a pinch of Harry’s Floo Powder. It’s the rocket ship in which Calvin becomes Spaceman Spiff.
I’m sitting cross-legged in my bedroom in Berkeley on a warm night, leafing through my vinyl. The LPs occupy the middle shelf of my massive bookcase, so I scooch along the carpet as I scan the collection. The floor lamp is tilted at an intoxicated angle toward the bookcase, casting dramatic shadows up the wall to the vaulted ceiling. I flick each record from right to left, a mechanical motion that every record head has developed in order to speedily sift through vinyl stacks. My index and middle fingers alternate in tipping each upright record to the side, revealing the one behind. It’s a deft gesture that’s about dexterity, not strength. Each flick uses less energy than the softest pluck of a banjo.
I’ve got a lot of records that remind me of the South. The Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East drips with guitar solos that will make your toes curl. Roberta Flack’s First Take speaks directly to the potent fires of race and religion that may always define the South. But when I miss Atlanta, the only record I can possibly think of is True Story of Dixie by Abner Jay.
Abner’s story exposes the great range of contradictions the South allows to exist.
Those not from the South might not know of Abner and his work. Heck, few people do. This particular album needs to be seen and heard to be believed. The front cover features a low-res picture of Abner dressed in overalls, sitting on his 1972 Cadillac DeVille, banjo in hand, bass drum at his feet. The back cover was written in sharpie by a 7-year-old. “Abner Jay in Underground Atlanta,” it proclaims. “Abner Jay, the first of the Original Black Musicians. The only electric Six String Banjo you’ll ever hear. Abner says the originals are dead, and he is half dead…”
This is part of the joy of a physical album. The cover art itself, but also the why behind each detail the artist chose to include. I remember pulling this record from a crate at Wax ‘n Facts in Little 5 Points in 2012. I strode home quickly past the wraparound porches and princess towers of the Victorian homes of Inman Park. At my house — less than a mile from Dr. King’s final resting place — I tore open the record, lingering over the mysteriously goofy cover art. The crinkly plastic opened to reveal the story of this Southern troubadour: a black man singing “Dixie”; lowlifes and tall tales; and six-stringed banjos, probably one for each wife. Abner’s story exposes the great range of contradictions the South allows to exist.
But it’s still got that spark of energy, mellowed by the afternoon heat that begins just beyond the cool shade and deep rocking chairs of your front porch.
I feel disconnected from Atlanta, even when I go back. The city changes in leaps and bounds, new developments giving me whiplash each time I visit. But it’s still got that spark of energy, mellowed by the afternoon heat that begins just beyond the cool shade and deep rocking chairs of your front porch.
In honor of my roots, I pour myself a few fingers of one of my favorite bourbons, Basil Hayden’s. It’s on the lighter side and smooth as hell. The gentle spicing of the liquor warms my chest and draws me deeper into my armchair.
By now I’m too far down Wistful Lane to turn back soon. My night started with reflection and melancholy, and so I called on the blues. But the blues ain’t so simple. Maybe they sound that way to you; they sound that way to me sometimes. But tonight — tonight I’m seeing more than unrequited love in the blues. I’m seeing the pain of a whole people. These are the blues that howl through the trees at night and keep the babies up. And I haven’t even put the record on yet.
These are the blues that howl through the trees at night and keep the babies up.
When the needle hits, the damage is done. Abner’s voice crawls around my spine. His songs are haunting, like you’re hearing him from the next farmhouse over. But they’re also funny, thanks to Abner’s wit and his earnest narration of even the most implausible of escapades.
Now I’m back down to the personal level of the blues. The truth he exposes in his yarns makes me reflect on myself, and each verse in my song, each failed love feels more important and more tragic than it ever has before. I’m standing now, just sort of swaying around the room. You couldn’t even call it dancing, because really I’m just thinking about things so hard that my feet are doing whatever they want. I’m not drunk enough yet to process all this. Time for another splash of bourbon. Or two.
Abner weaves us in and out of different types of love. Songs about romance give way to songs about family. “Shortin ‘N’ Bread” and “She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain” might feel fit for a kid’s birthday party, but Abner’s melancholy crooning and strumming give the old ditties a shabby charm. The up-tempo rhythm of those two folk classics gets me moving at a healthy clip, clapping in time with the music.
I’m heating up as I rove around the room, the bourbon warming me from the inside. I strip off my jeans and corduroy shirt and crack the sliding glass door that leads out to the deck to feel the breeze on my skin. Side one ends but instead of silence, my ears are buzzing with booze. I walk over to my Crosley Autorama, move the needle, and flip the record. But replacing the needle lightly is no easy task because my hand is shaking. My gestures aren’t precise. I’m three sheets to the wind. I drop the needle from too high and it skids before it finds the groove.
Abner’s electric banjo and harmonica give the track such a country feel you can almost see weeds growing between the bars.
Side two starts with “St. James Infirmary Blues,” a song made famous by a fellow Southerner, Louis Armstrong. Abner’s electric banjo and harmonica give the track such a country feel you can almost see weeds growing between the bars. Abner draws out the word “blues” in his piercing falsetto for what feels like a full minute and every single damn hair on my body stands upright. I squeeze my eyes shut and teleport to a porch swing where I’m sitting next to Abner. I lick sweat from my upper lip. I’m breathing faster now, my lungs can’t seem to get enough oxygen.
The song ends and it physically hurts to hear his voice fade. I release a shuddering breath and rush back to the player, resetting the needle because I need to hear “St. James” again. I’m singing loudly along with Abner now, dipping down three octaves when he goes high. I’m buzzing with the wild energy of this song, but still drenched in the thoughts of failed love — his? mine? — he dredged up earlier.
As the song builds to its climax, I throw open my sliding door and run out onto the deck. I belt the last line of the song to moonlit Alcatraz Avenue below, “Saint James In-fir-ma-ry, bluuuuuuuuuuuues,” startling several crunchy granola Berkeleyites walking their terriers. Suddenly the motion-sensor light blazes on, spotlighting me on the deck.
I look down and realize I’m naked except for a fraying wifebeater. I don’t even run inside. Abner wouldn’t either.