Chitlin's (or chitterlings) are pork intestines, usually cooked with a breading and fried until crisp in bacon fat. They are one of the nearly extinct delicacies of American "soul food," cuisine that poor Southern Afro-Americans grew up eating in their own homes. Just as jazz is often said to be America's only indigenous music, chitlin's and soul food in general were created in the South by American Blacks and evolved entirely without any European influence.
The "Chitlin' Circuit," like "Tin Pan Alley" and "Motown" and other legendary music locations, is both a real and symbolic term for the on-and-off-again venues--shoebox-sized bars, clubs, cafes and increasingly in the 21st century, casinos-- that support traditional rhythm and blues in a tenuous but tenacious thread through America's mostly rural (or low-profile urban) Bible Belt.
Augmented by "headliner" concerts and open-air, summer music festivals catering to fans with coolers and lawn chairs, and further nourished and preserved by isolated radio stations and deejays, record stores, and a handful of humble but artistically-flourishing recording studios, the chitlin' circuit provides the heavily-black areas of the American South with contemporary rhythm and blues artists specializing in traditional (60's-style) soul music.
Back in October I alerted readers that I would be away for some time, touring the "remoter regions" of the chitlin' circuit. Due to time constraints, it turned out to be not so remote at all--unless you're a New Yorker, Californian or someone halfway round the globe.
One of the most enjoyable visits was with producer/songwriter/studio-head John Ward at Ecko Records in Memphis, where he operates out of space once used by legendary Southern Soul songwriters Homer Banks and Lester Snell. Ward was working on a Christmas sampler featuring selections from his stable of Ecko artists (O. B. Buchana, Sheba Potts-Wright, Lee "Shot" Williams, Sterling Williams, Ms. Jody, Chuck Roberson, etc.).
While (later in our travels) Malaco Records' principals were out to lunch--a lunch that dragged on too long, unfortunately, for us to wait around in their very record-business-like lobby--the Ecko people all appeared to be eating lunches at their desks.
Ward was a songwriter at Malaco in the late eighties when he and Ollie Nightingale came up with the Southern Soul masterpiece, "She's In A Midnight Mood In The Middle Of The Day." When Malaco declined to give Nightingale a contract, Ward decided to produce the record and Ecko Records was born.
Memphis is slowly but surely climbing on the Southern Soul bandwagon. I can remember how I used to audibly groan as I lost first the radio signals of the Southern Soul-sounding stations of the Jackson area and then those of the Indianola-Leland-Greenville corridor in north-central Mississippi.
In those days, as I approached from the south, all of the Memphis radio stations were playing "urban-smooth" or blues, not that special blend of blues and R&B (the Southern Soul sound that is so hard to describe to people who have never ventured through Mississippi), but the kind of blues I could hear anywhere and everywhere across the urban USA. There just wasn't much of interest--or much that was new--in the onetime capital of Stax and Hi R&B.
That has changed. While we were there, a local radio station was hosting a free--yes, free--concert featuring one or two-song sets by no less than thirteen cutting-edge Southern Soul acts, including Bobby Rush, David Brinston, Lebrado ("Missing You"), Joy ("Cuttin' Up Sideways") and a host of other new artists.
The venue, the CC Blues Club on Thomas Street, was one of the most forbidding yet glorious holes in the wall I'd ever seen, a large, rambling yellow and green structure surrounded by chain-link and razor wire in the middle of a riverside ghetto that made the poor neighborhoods of Jackson look gentrified. With a seating capacity of three hundred and free food as an extra bonus, the place somehow absorbed a thousand-plus record company types, artist hangers-on, dancers and fans in an overflow that reached into the parking lot, under small tents.
The kicker? This fantastic scene was happening on a weekly basis.
Yet the highlight of the trip was our long-anticipated return to WMPR in Jackson, sitting in with longtime Southern Soul mentor DJ Ragman for an afternoon set. Ragman looked regal--dressed well enough to go onstage and looking very fit--as we watched and listened to him dispense his special blend of Southern Soul and unflagging optimism throughout blues country.
We met the "boss," Mr. Evers--Charles, the brother of civil rights hero Medgar--who looked as healthy and ramrod-straight at 84 as most men thirty years younger. Both men--Ragman and Evers--defied the typical, high-carb, high-saturated-fat stereotype of Mississippi. Mr. Evers even has his meals cooked onsite by one of his staff.
The station had grown from a nondescript house indistinguishable from the surrounding residential area to a warehouse-like building with WMPR emblazoned across a large sign out front. Later in the evening, listening to the radio station over a boombox from the hotel, not far away, where your Daddy B. Nice had used to hole up in for days and weeks, recording the latest Southern Soul hits-- available virtually nowhere else in the world--I was blown away by the crystal-fine clarity of the station's sound.
As this site's readers and listeners know only too well, that quality of sound has been all too elusive over the Internet during the last year. The lack of Internet expertise remains the station's biggest flaw. And yet, I'm always afraid to complain too much for fear Charles will throw up his hands and eliminate the Internet streaming completely. It's obvious that the complaints frustrate the staff and deejays, but the technician capable of bringing WMPR our of the its "server wilderness" is yet to appear.
(1/12/07/Editor's Note: Online service has been great lately--and consistently so. Way to go, Staff at WMPR. DBN.)
I often wonder if Charles Evers truly understands the phenomenon Southern Soul music has become. The Southern Soul aspect of the station, which has traditionally focused on the tried and true trio of Blues, Gospel and Community Service programs, is the bounty of WMPR's incomparable musical staff: Rag, Handyman, Outlaw, Uncle Bobo, Smooth, Queen Bee, Blues Boy and others over the last decade.
Mr. Evers himself still hosts a political talk show on most week nights. And it's hard to assess the delicate balance between gospel, talk and blues the station purveys, and how much and how firmly Mr. Evers influences the Southern Soul music the deejays have so carefully nurtured. My wife was fascinated with the yellowing sign, signed "Mr. Evers," on the wall above the deejay's chair forbidding the playing of any Carl Sims music--the result of a disastrous alcoholic-induced visit by Sims to the studio a few years ago. But one senses such strictures are rare.
It's obvious that the station is still the number-one source for shaping Southern Soul in the Delta. And yet, Mr. Evers' very health, vigor and vision made me uneasy later, as I mused over what will happen to the station when Charles Evers finally passes.
The following article was written by Walter Geiger under the title "Old Wrong To Be Righted At Blues Fest" in the Barnesville, Georgia "Herald Gazette" and is reprinted with his permission. The piece reaffirms my belief that some of the best writing gets done in little, isolated locales of this country.
Barnesville-Lamar County was a radically different place back in 1964 when, late at night, a group of musicians just about to rocket to worldwide fame stopped for gas and soft drinks at a station after doing a show in Griffin. One of the musicians left the truck stop without paying the three cent deposit on the bottle that was required at that time if a Coke was not consumed on the premises. The irate station owner called the law and the musicians were pulled over just down the road in Barnesville. They were traveling in a van and a station wagon. On the side of the van were emblazoned the words "The Otis Redding Show".
Redding had just released his only two-sided hit 45 recording. One side carried the single "That's How Strong My Love Is." On the other side of the vinyl was "Mr. Pitiful." At the time of the Griffin show, the two singles had just hit the Billboard Top 40. Three years later, Otis Redding was a superstar when he died in a plane crash with four members of his band The Bar Kays.
Following along behind the Redding entourage that night was the Otis Redding Fan Club. They were traveling in a 1964 Ford station wagon belonging to the father of Alan and Phil Walden. The Walden brothers launched Southern rock with their Capricorn Records label based in Macon and its star act The Allman Brothers. Alan Walden was in the station wagon that night-- the only white guy in the three vehicles--sleeping off a night of admitted heavy celebration. He was Redding's road manager and knew big things were to come.
"I awoke to the sound of the motors of 18 wheelers and quickly realized the fan club had made the mistake of stopping in a truck stop for a bite to eat. Most had returned to the car before I had awakened but, as I got my thoughts together, it became obvious to me all was not well," Walden said. The truck stop had refused to serve the fan club members and several truck drivers were attempting to block the station wagon in the parking lot.
"I jumped behind the wheel, slammed the car in reverse and floored it. Spinning backward, someone said the president of the club was still inside," Walden continued.
The road manager maneuvered the car close to the door and the fan club president made his way outside, spoiling for a fight.
"He weighed about 140 and I weighed about 100," Walden laughed. "I yelled for him to jump in the car. Tires squealing and dust and gravel flying, we roared back out onto the highway, leaving a small crowd of men shaking their fists into the air and yelling obscenities at us."
Thinking things were under control, Walden gave up the wheel and was readying himself to return to his nap when the fan club came upon the other two vehicles stopped in Barnesville. Otis Redding's brother, Rogers, had been arrested. His driver's license had expired the day before. "Since I was the only white guy, I got elected to get him out," Walden said.
He entered the office, explained who he was and why he was there and admitted he had been partying. "One guy was in uniform. The other guy had on his wife-beater shirt and looked like he just woke up. It was a good thing I had been honest (about partying) because I went to brace myself on the corner of the cop's desk and fell flat on the floor," Walden recalled.
After much hassle and abuse of Walden for traveling with blacks, a fine for Rogers Redding in the amount of $35--a lot of money in those days--was agreed upon. Walden had to borrow the money from the sax player and caught even more abuse.
The fine paid, the band and fan club returned to their cars for the ride to Macon. To their surprise, a patrol car pulled in front of the entourage and one to the rear, escorting them to the Lamar County line. "They drove about 10 or 15 mph giving us plenty of time to think about what was happening or, perhaps, waiting for one of us to make another mistake. Years later I saw the film 'Mississippi Burning'. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I thought about Barnesville," Walden said.
Since the inception of the Barnesville BBQ & Blues Festival three years ago, Carl Pruett of the Buckeye Band has invited Walden to the show. "He always declined. He was very polite and just said, 'Carl, I don't do Barnesville.' Finally, I asked him about it and he told me the story," Pruett reports.
This year, Walden will attend the event. It will be his first trip back to Barnesville since his bad experience 43 years ago. He plans to bring Rogers Redding with him. Both will officially be pardoned by Barnesville mayor Dewaine Bell, the first black man to hold that office. Barnesville will get a rare second chance to make a good first impression and an old wrong will be righted.
I think Otis would be proud.
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