For the few of us who work every day on The Bitter Southerner, our annual membership drives are always mad swirls of activity. But this year, it’s been a little bit different for us. After we came up with the #VoteBitter idea, theming this year’s drive to the nutty presidential-campaign year we’re all living through, one idea just kind of begat another — rather like all those begats in the book of Genesis.
Thus, we wound up with the idea of doing “campaign rallies.” Last night, we did the third and final of these rallies at Wild Heaven brewery in lovely Avondale Estates, Georgia (a fine place if you’ve never been there). On Wednesday night, we rallied up at 5&10, chef Hugh Acheson’s fine establishment in Athens, Georgia. The Friday before, we had a big crowd in Atlanta, thanks to the League of Extraordinary Hospitalitarians at the Ticonderoga Club.
Had we world enough and time, we would have rallied up in other cities around the South.
Truth is, we’re sorry we couldn’t do that, because we learned something at these three events, and we would very much have enjoyed the chance to relearn the lesson a few more times. The lesson was this:
You can by God count on your friends, and you have more of them than you think you do. And if you need help in this world, you shouldn’t be too prideful to ask them.
It wasn’t just folks like Nick Purdy of Wild Heaven, the fearless five at Ticonderoga and the good Chef Hugh stepped up to offer their places of business as rally sites. So many other people — artists and writers we’ve told stories about and people who have contributed their words and images to The Bitter Southerner over the years — offered their work as an enticement for people to join The Bitter Southerner family. Old friends turned up at the rallies, too. Not just our best friends from childhood, but also people whose work at one time or another had shaped our lives. Wednesday night in Athens, I realized mid-chat that I was talking simultaneously to members of two groups I’ve always contended are the two greatest unsung bands of the last three or so decades in the South — David Barbe of the punk-rock gods Mercyland and Dave Marr of the greatest country band you never heard, the Star Room Boys. (Look them up and listen; you’ll see what I mean.)
But the kicker was this: By going to these rallies, we repeatedly got to meet — in the flesh — people we had known only through social media. And the weird part, the good part, was discovering that our conversations with them were just like the ones we had with old friends. We didn’t have to go through the tell-me-your-name again stuff. We already had things to talk about. Common ground had already been established. And the common ground seemed to be this: We all cared, in our own ways, about making the South a better place — and telling the world the stories of what gets done in the process.
It made me realize that the work we do, in its own little way, unites folks around that idea — folks from different walks of life, different political persuasions, different anything, who share an important (if slightly amorphous) goal, which is to see our beloved South move forward and not backward.
But of course, we can’t keep doing it unless the people we’ve come to know like family actually join the Family. That’s why we go through this exercise once a year. The money, work and time that so many people share with us keep us going.
As of this writing, 1,030 people have joined The Bitter Southerner Family since last Tuesday. But the goal we need to meet is 1,750. That means we are going to extend our drive through Sunday. And we’ll end it with a very special piece in our Rise & Shine section come Sunday morning.
We have a ways to go, and over the next 48 hours, if you care enough about what we’re doing, we need you to sign up here. Like, right now. And if you’re among the 1,000-plus who have already joined up, send this link to everybody you know who might care enough to do the same.
That’s what we need to happen. Most of y’all are old friends now, and we aren’t ashamed to ask for your help.
Which brings us to another topic.
Because life is life, some bad news landed in the middle of our drive. On Tuesday, just as we published Jennifer Justus’ beautiful piece about Nashville’s immortal Ryman Auditorium, the news came about the death of a man we counted among the greatest songwriters who has walked that city’s streets: Guy Clark.
Talking to friends at the two rallies that followed his death, we couldn’t help but remember one of Guy’s songs, which begins like this:
It's like when you're making conversation
And you're trying not to scream
And you're trying not to tell 'em
You don't care what they mean
And you're really feeling fragile
And you really can't get home
And you really feel abandoned
But you want to be alone
Old friends, they shine like diamonds
Old friends, you can always call
Old friends, Lord, you can't buy 'em
You know it's old friends after all
As you could say about most of Guy Clark’s musical poetry, truer words have never been spoken.
But what surprised us was how people immediately came to The Bitter Southerner as a place to talk about how much the man’s work had meant to them. Not just the folks who wrote brief remembrances on our Facebook page, but the artists who reached out, too. Within two hours after the news broke of Guy’s death, we got this email from Holly Gleason, a close friend of Guy’s and a writer whose work we’ve followed for 30 years. She was in the middle of a drive to Cleveland. Her email said:
“Guy Clark just passed. I'm in a truck stop, trying to write about him. I knew him from childhood, am absolutely devastated. If you'd like my essay, let me know. If not, I understand. They tend to be personal and messy and true, and show pieces of the subject you'd not expect. Just let me know. Sad day. We won't see the likes of him again.”
Of course, we said yes, because “personal and messy and true” are right up The Bitter Southerner’s alley. That’s how we were able to share with you Holly’s moving tribute to Guy Clark in our Folklore Project yesterday morning. About the same time we were answering Holly’s email, a message came in from Caleb Caudle, the country singer from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, about whom Charles Aaron did a story for us earlier this year. The message contained nothing but song lyrics. We got back in touch with Caleb, who told us that the song just came to him after he heard about Guy’s passing. Before we knew it, Caleb had called a videographer friend, who shot a video of Caleb performing the song.
So, on Sunday morning, that song will get its debut in our Rise & Shine section, as we begin the final day of this drive. Stay tuned. It’s a good’un, as the ones that arrive unimpeded from the heavens usually are.
To me, it just brought home something I’ve believed for while: that The Bitter Southerner is, in a way, more like a place than just a publication. It’s kind of like home base, a spot where people gather when it’s time to mourn the lives of people whose work expresses the spirit that girds every Southerner together — or when it’s time to talk about who the next great ones will be, regardless of the field of endeavor they’re plowing.
Having a spot like that, I think, would feel important to me, even if I had not been part of the group that created this thing.
Regardless of whether we reach our goal for this drive, we have to thank everyone who offered their work and time up for our cause. We must say thank you to:
- Eric and Lori Wright of Me Speak Design (whom I finally got to meet at our Athens rally) for giving us a beautiful, hand-hammered ladle to offer our readers. Abby Murano, you’re gonna enjoy that in your kitchen.
- The photographer Roger May, who offered to print five images from his amazing series about Appalachia, which we shared with you back in 2014.
- The Ryman Auditorium, which gave us two tickets to its upcoming Dylanfest show, which will feature the likes of Emmylou Harris and Jason Isbell performing the songs of Bob Dylan.
- Atelier Luxembourg’s Muriel Luxemburger, who gave us one of her lovely tasselled, leather purses.
- The amazing singer Ruby Velle, of Atlanta’s great Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics, who offered a signed vinyl copy of the band’s “It’s About Time” album.
- The Austin songwriter and painter Jon Dee Graham, who gave us two prints of paintings from his delightfully thoughtful bear series, plus two signed copies of his recent live album, “Do Not Forget.”
- Chef Steven Satterfield of Atlanta’s brilliant Miller Union, who offered a $100 gift card to his restaurant.
- Judith Winfrey of PeachDish, the meal-kit company that brings folks fresh, sustainably raised Southern food to people all over the country, offered “as many four-serving meal kits as you can use.”
- Chef Hugh Acheson (again!) for a $100 gift card to his Empire State South restaurant in Atlanta and a copy of his cookbook, “The Broad Fork.”
- The writer Margaret Eby, who gave us signed copies of her brilliant “South Toward Home.”
- One of our favorite food writers, Kat Kinsman, who offered us a signed copy (to be delivered in November) of her upcoming book, which isn’t about food: “Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves.” Kat told us, “If folks can wait that long, I will sign one in blood.” On Twitter last night, she broadened that offer. This’ll be interesting.
- The photographer Sean Dunn, who offered a print of his brilliant photograph of guitar-maker Scott Baxendale’s workbench.
- Jennifer Justus, for signed copies of her awesome cookbook, “Nashville Eats.”
- The photographer Kate Medley, for a signed print of her beautiful “Seedbank” photograph.
- The University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South, which offered a full year’s subscription to its wonderful journal, “Southern Cultures.” We thank all our friends at the Center, which is led by the mack daddy of Southern-culture scholars, the great Bill Ferris.
- Will and Jenni Harris, their whole family and everybody else at White Oak Pastures Farms in Bluffton, Georgia, who offered us a secret discount code for 15 percent off every order. We gave that code to folks who watched us on Periscope this week, and now we give it to y’all: BITTER. Use it immediately at the farm’s website.
- The dean of cocktail writers, David Wondrich, who wrote so brilliantly for us about the history of African-American bartenders in the South, for a signed copy of the new and updated edition of his landmark history of cocktails in America (with recipes), “Imbibe.”
- The great designers of Methane Studios and Lucky Hand Press for beautiful screenprints and other goodies.
But most of all, we must thank the 1,030 of you who have already joined The Bitter Southerner Family since last Tuesday. We love every one of you. We couldn’t be here without you. And we hope you’ll help us find, over the next three days, about 720 more folks who ought to be part of this family. The numbers are pretty straightforward. As of this writing, about 10 p.m. on Thursday night, there are 22,604 people who subscribe to the twice weekly emails we send you to let you know about our new stories. Stack that figure against the number of people who have joined since last Tuesday, and the percentage is only about 4.5 percent.
Imagine what Ira Glass could do with that during a public-radio membership drive! He’d tell you that our basic membership is $25 a year, or about 7 cents a day. He’d find some stranger in a Starbucks and ask him, “Isn’t The Bitter Southerner worth 7 cents a day to you?”
That’s what Ira would do, and I guess I just did it, too. So, please go out and find anyone with whom you have ever discussed one of our stories, and ask them the same question. As far as I’m concerned, especially after the last 10 days, every one of you feels like like an old friend to us. As such, we are unashamed to ask for your help. You shine like diamonds.
Stay tuned for the Sunday debut of Caleb Caudle’s new song for Guy Clark. We’ll let you know on Monday how things turn out — and what comes next.
May 19, 2016