A Few of Our Favorite Stories
from the Past Year
The Bitter Southerner throws quite a few words at you every week in our Tuesday longform feature stories. And we know the truth: Not everyone has time to read them all.
But as 2015 closes out, the BS Crew thought it might be nice — particularly during a week when many of you might have a little extra reading time — to look back at the year. So we listed every story we’d published this year in a spreadsheet and we asked our staff to rank their top 15. We averaged the rankings, and let the mathematics do its work. So today, we bring you a list of The Bitter Southerner staff’s favorite 15 stories of the year, presented in chronological order by publication date. And we bring you a few words of background about how each of the stories came to find a home at the BS.
Happy reading. And happy, happy new year. Let’s hope it’s a great one for everyone in The Bitter Southerner Family.
Photographs from the Do Good Fund Collection | Text by Chuck Reece
Published: January 13, 2015
The motive behind the work of Columbus, Georgia, nonprofit the Do Good Fund — to collect and present great Southern photographs not so much as art, but as teachers of our history — is one The Bitter Southerner can get behind. As Chuck Reece wrote in his text accompanying the Fund’s collected photographs, “The real aim, according to the Fund’s mission statement, ‘is to make these works broadly accessible’ so that they will spawn conversations among Southerners — so that we can understand our culture, our history and each other a little better. If the Do Good Fund continues on its current trajectory, it could wind up being the most important thing to happen to Southern photography since Walker Evans came to Alabama in 1936.” With the continuing leadership of the irrepressibly enthusiastic Alan Rothschild, the Do Good is deepening its collection and broadening its reach — not just to museums and galleries, but also to small-town schoolhouses and community centers.
Written & recorded by Jenna Strucko | Photos by Whitney Neal
Published: January 20, 2015
Jenna Strucko, who now works for Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, is part of a big group of young writers who have found a home for their work in the BS. We were so fortunate this year to find so many young voices telling stories with a level of expertise and artistry that belies their ages. Fresh off an internship with NPR Music, Jenna came to us with the idea of recounting the banjo’s history and its influence, but doing it primarily through the eyes of a particular group of musicians, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who have singlehandedly revived black string-band traditions that might otherwise have been lost among the many threads of the Southern-music tapestry. Jenna expertly wove together the written word and long, recorded excerpts of her interviews with the members of the Chocolate Drops, including Rhiannon Giddens, whose solo album recently wound up in our Top 25 Southern Albums of the Year. The influence of Africa lives in every nook and cranny of Southern culture, born in the traditions brought here more than a century ago by enslaved people. Undeserved gifts, if you will. And one of them is the bright, sprightly instrument that has enlivened Southern music for decades.
Written and Illustrated by Daniel Wallace
Published: March 2, 2015
How The Bitter Southerner wound up with an original story by the widely and justifiably lauded North Carolina author of “Big Fish,” Daniel Wallace, goes back to a February visit to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Chuck wound up at the Crunkleton, a damn good cocktail bar in town, with a gaggle of writers, cooks and other ne’er-do-wells. One of the writers there was Daniel. Late into an evening of conversation and drinking, Daniel said, “You know, I’ve got this story about the time I killed a chicken.” It’s almost impossible to describe this little gem. If you haven’t read it, you can see for yourself. We think it’s one of most charming and insightful pieces we’ve ever run.
Written by Tracy Thompson with research assistance by Seth Clark
Published: March 31, 2015
Arguably, The Bitter Southerner would never have existed if it weren’t for Tracy Thompson. The veteran journalist’s 2012 book, “The New Mind of the South,” had inestimable influence on our thinking as we planned the creation of this webozine, or whatever it is you’re reading right now. When Tracy found out about The Bitter Southerner, she stepped right up to offer her writing skills, for which we were immensely grateful. In “Dixie Is Dead,” we asked Tracy to take a hard look at the shifting demographics and concerns of Southerners and to try, once again, teach us something about how modern folks define their own regional identification. Tracy and Seth parsed reams of data, and made the case pretty clearly that “Dixie” — that mythical place inhabited by large groups of people with shared values right and wrong — just no longer exists. “Differing interpretations of our history divide us — and up to a point, that’s OK, as long as we don’t mistake myths for history," Tracy wrote. "‘Dixie’ is just such a myth. She was a myth 100 years ago, and she is most definitely a myth today. It’s time to take her out back and stick her in the ground.” People still argue with us today about this story. It’s an argument we will always enjoy having.
Story by Chuck Reece | Photos by Kaylinn Gilstrap
Published: May 5, 2015
From Chuck: “For this story, I said pretty boldly that White Oak Pastures Farms in Bluffton, Georgia, was ‘America’s grandest experiment in the de-industrialization of agriculture.’ I’ll still stand by that claim all these months after I wrote it. But one of the things I enjoyed most about this story was getting to know Will Harris, his family, and his extended family of more than 100 folks from all over the world who turn White Oak Pastures into the remarkable organism it is. I think the story is ultimately about how someone has to adjust his view of the world over the course of a lifetime — both in response to things he can control, such as the way his land is farmed, and to things he can’t, such as a daughter coming out of the closet. I was proud of this one. Hanging out with the Harrises for three days was one of the greatest joys of my year. And by the way, I need to thank our friend Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers for writing a lyric that became the perfect three-word encapsulation of what’s at the heart of this story.”
Written by Charles McNair | Photos by Aaron Coury
Published: May 12, 2015
Novelist and journalist Charles McNair, originally from Dothan, Alabama, was one of the few writers who had faith enough in the idea of The Bitter Southerner, before the thing itself ever existed, to contribute his writing for one of our earliest stories. But as 2015 rolled around, Charles had fallen in love with an Colombian eye surgeon and was about to move to Bogota, where he lives today. Before he left, we wanted to get one more story from Charles. What he gave us was a story that’s still difficult to describe. Its setting is Atlanta’s famous Stone Mountain, once a gathering place for the Ku Klux Klan. “I am happy to have this space in The Bitter Southerner to pull a thorn out of my 61-year-old heart,” McNair wrote. “My daddy was a bigot. He grew up at the knees of bigots, in the age of bigots. He raised six kids as a bigot. He went to his grave, I truly believe, an unreconstructed bigot.” But on the last of his biennial solstice hikes up the old mountain, Charles saw a ghost, had a dream and found a new, pure heart in the old mountain. Rarely have we read a story that so inspired us with its bitter truth.
Story by Clay Skipper | Photos by Tamara Reynolds
Published: May 26, 2015
Clay Skipper was referred to us by Mississippi writer Wright Thompson, and Clay quickly earned his place in our aforementioned Society of Talented Young Writers, or whatever you want to call it. Clay kicked off 2014 for The Bitter Southerner with a beautiful piece on Monogah, West Virginia, the hometown of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, then immediately pitched us this story on Red Farmer, an 82-year-old member of NASCAR’s legendary Alabama Gang who is still hurling his racecars around Alabama dirt tracks. Chuck was driving home from Alabama one spring day, stopped for gas and discovered an email from Clay, with his draft of this story attached. The first line was brilliant: “In the noon sun of a bitterly cold January day at the Talladega Short Track, an 82-year-old race car driver worries about time.” Chuck called Clay to express his admiration for that opening line. Clay was driving. Chuck asked where he was headed. “New York,” Clay replied. “I’m moving there. That first story I wrote for you evidently got me a job at GQ.” Good for you, young man. You’ve got the stuff to make it.
Story by Fletcher Moore | Photos by Artem Nazarov
Published: June 23, 2015
Not everyone who calls himself a writer is one. This much, we had always known. But one of the miracles of The Bitter Southerner’s existence is how we learned that people who do not call themselves writers but venture to write anyway often produce our best material. Such is the case with Fletcher Moore, who works primarily as a website designer for Georgia Tech. When we first opened up to submissions long ago, Fletcher sent us a monumental story called “The Many Battles of Atlanta,” based on his on-foot exploration of the troop movements in the Battle of Atlanta 150 years before and compared the problems Atlantans faced then with the problems they face now, in the very same spots. An editor for whom Chuck had worked long ago in New York called him after the story was published and asked, “How did you even come up with that story idea?” The honest answer was, “We didn’t. We couldn’t have.” This year, Fletch told us he wanted to explore the South for the BS on another route. So we sent him and photographer Artem Nazarov on an epic journey on the Amtrak Crescent train line from Washington, D.C., all the way to New Orleans. We knew we were rolling into the weird heart of the South when we saw Fletch’s first line: “I’m sitting in the kitchen of a man who says he’s died three times. Four, if you count an 85-year prison sentence he tells me he received at the age of 12.”
Published: June 30, 2015
Project curated by Brooke Hatfield, Kate Medley & Emily E. Wallace
The fact that three writers dreamed up this giant project and made it happen — with an assemblage of dozens of pieces of writing, paintings and illustrations inspired by the late writer Eudora Welty — is a testament to how many talented people roam the modern South. And evidently, they like to collaborate — particularly on topics that get to the heart of this region. “Why Welty?” they wrote. “For a lot of us who grew up in the South and liked words, Welty represented not only what we knew, capturing the characters and cadences of our region, but also the range of what was possible — telling honest stories about a place that continues to struggle and progress.” As The Bitter Southerner published this work, it was also printed in book form, and sales of the books went to benefit the Eudora Welty Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi. This big gang of writers and painters even went on a road trip, and we were fortunate to host them one summer evening at the Goat Farm Arts Center in Atlanta, where they mounted a show of the paintings and illustrations and hosted readings of the writers’ Welty-inspired pieces to a crowd of about 300. What a great bunch of stories. What a great night that was.
Story by Rachel Martin | Photos by Joe Buglewicz
Published: July 21, 2015
Rachel Martin called us after returning home to Nashville after eight years of graduate school. She told us she had found something odd. Everybody in town — and the whole nation, it seemed — had gone gaga over hot chicken, AKA ridiculously spicy fried chicken. But Rachel, in all her young years in Nashville, had neither eaten nor even heard of the dish. She wanted to find out how that happened. Her story taught us how Nashville’s signature dish had stayed hidden for decades in the city’s black communities — and then suddenly became a global obsession. One Nashvillian reader wrote: “Hot chicken aside, this piece really is a fantastic summation of Nashville history, a lot of it that I didn't know. Also a great summation of the way the city has systematically zoned and rezoned its African-American population out of the core downtown and East Nashville (both of which are where the black community has been historically based) for 100+ years.” Few things make you hungry and make you think all at the same time. This story does both.
Story by Lolis Eric Elie | Photos by Greg Dupree
Published: August 25, 2015
When the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levees in New Orleans was approaching, we knew The Bitter Southerner needed to commemorate the event, which forever altered the South’s only truly unique city and culture. We also knew who we wanted to write that commemoration — Lolis Eric Elie, a former columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and story editor for HBO’s great series, “Treme.” But we dared not ask because we knew Lolis was busy working in California, trying to develop a new TV series. Then, about six weeks before the anniversary, Lolis called us. “What are you guys doing for Katrina?” he asked. “Because I think I’ve got something.” We said yes, sight unseen. What we got from Lolis a couple of weeks later was truly one of the best pieces of writing we’d ever read, essentially a 2,000-word prose poem addressing a single issue: why the people of New Orleans came back to reclaim and remake their city. If you missed this earlier, please read it now, particularly if you keep a special place in your heart for the Crescent City and its people.
Photographs by Bill Yates | Text by Chuck Reece
Published: September 22, 2015
Bill Yates first walked into The Bitter Southerner’s office at the Goat Farm Arts Center carrying a giant portfolio and a large cardboard tube. From the tube, he pulled a giant contact sheet of sorts, maybe three feet high by about eight feet wide, containing hundreds of photographs shot over the summer of 1972 at a skating rink outside Tampa, Florida. A couple of us had instant shocking flashbacks to our high-school days in the rural South. Bill’s photographs captured the South at a pivotal moment of cultural change, and we were pleased to tell the story of how they almost never saw the light of day. And after we ran them, it seemed like the whole world became fascinated. Even The Guardian in London ran a piece about Bill’s flashback to the Sweetheart Rink. Publishing Bill’s remarkable work, and getting to spend time with the man himself, a great storyteller, was one of the highlights of our year.
Story by Asher Elbein | Photos by Wes Frazier
Published: October 13, 2015
Like the aforementioned Clay Skipper and Jenna Strucko, Asher Elbein is a full-fledged member of The Bitter Southerner’s Young Writers Who Surprised Us Club. In this, his third piece for The Bitter Southerner, Elbein, a University of Alabama graduate, told us stories of chicanery and outright racism in student politics, problems that have long plagued the Tuscaloosa campus. He also looked at the recent events that brought a talented young African-American man named Elliot Spillers to the student body presidency. As the entire nation works anew toward a more evolved understanding of race in our culture, Elbein’s piece posed a serious — and seriously relevant — question: What does it actually take to bring a Southern university into the 21st century on the issue of race?
Story by Sheri Castle | Photos by Kate Medley
Published: November 24, 2015
In late summer, we began to think about food-related stories we’d like to see as Thanksgiving approached. We had already offered Clair McLafferty’s definition of the Five Essential Southern Cocktails, so we wondered, could we pull off the same trick with Southern food? Could our region’s amazingly rich and varied cuisine be reduced to a few essential dishes? So Chuck called the only person we could think of who might have the knowledge to give it a whirl, Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, whose 2014 book, “The Edible South,” was a brilliant examination of how food shaped Southern identity throughout history. But Marcie told Chuck he had the wrong woman. “Call Sheri Castle,” she said. “Sheri’s the only woman alive who’s actually read every recipe ever published by Southern Living.” Sheri took the challenge, but ultimately had to expand her list to seven dishes, not the originally intended five. The first line of her story was, “I have never written anything that is more likely to get me run off.” Given the heat of the discussions that erupted in Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (not to mention this wonderfully thoughtful thread at Metafilter), it seemed Sheri had accurately figured out the gravity of what she’d taken on. “Cream cheese in poundcake!” they cried. “Apostasy!” Others asked, “Where the hell’s the fried chicken?” But those who took the time to read deeply into Sheri’s masterful and historically accurate reasoning saw what this piece was really all about. You can count on seeing Sheri’s work in 2016 in The Bitter Southerner. We’re going to continue our exploration of the real historical roots of what we cook down here. Plus, this is a briarpatch that’s really too much fun to get out of just yet.
Story by Cy Brown | Photos by Tamara Reynolds
Published: December 8, 2015
Cy Brown is another of our superlative young contributors. When we met him, he was still a college student, working as managing editor of The Red & Black, the independent student newspaper at the University of Georgia. At an R&B board of directors' meeting, Cy introduced himself to Chuck and pitched a story idea. We loved the idea; it was ambitious. But Chuck wasn’t sure the young writer had the chops to pull it off. When Cy delivered “A Carolina Dog” in 2014, Chuck was proven ridiculously wrong. Last month, Cy delivered his third piece for the BS, this one about P.E.T.S., a Tennessee trucking operation that takes the South’s overflow of stray dogs to new homes and owners up north. And Cy got a great assist from the photographs of Nashville’s Tamara Reynolds, one of our favorite Southern shooters.