I love little towns with histories: quirky, literary, musical, genteel, revolutionary. Dockery Farms in Cleveland, Mississippi, is the plantation where Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Patton, and all the blues guys worked. At night they’d play on the porch of a little juke joint. The music that came out of there is incredible. My dad was three when his family moved to Dyess, Arkansas, a colony created for poor families during the Depression. When I was 12, my dad took us for a visit. I couldn’t believe he’d grown up there. I’ve said no to almost all the Johnny Cash projects that have come across my plate, but when Arkansas State University bought the house and told me they wanted to restore it, I said, yeah, I’ll get involved.
The best towns come with great storytellers who have a deep sense of place and time. In Merigold, Mississippi, I met Lee McCarty, a renowned ceramics maker now in his nineties who knew William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. “Eudora was a lovely person,” Lee told me. “Bill was lovely.” When Lee first got interested in pottery, Faulkner had a big clay pit behind his house, and he said, “Oh, Lee, just take whatever you want.” And that’s where Lee first got clay.
Of course, a proper Southern town has to have great food. I look for a place with good corn bread and sweet iced tea—if they do those well, you’re on the right track. The corn bread can’t have too much baking soda, and if the tea’s not brewed, it’s disgusting.
And it should have good music. In Muscle Shoals, Alabama, everyone from Aretha to Wilson Pickett recorded at Fame studios. Right across the river you’ve got Florence, which has one of those beautiful 19th-century main streets. John Paul White, from the Civil Wars, lives there, as does Ben Tanner, of the Alabama Shakes. It’s a musical hotbed, just an awesome place. Plus you’ve got Billy Reid’s store—he’s the hippest men’s clothing designer there is.
The Memphis-born singer-songwriter’s latest album, The River & the Thread—out January 14—was inspired by a series of road trips she took through the American South.
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