Today, The Bitter Southerner turns 5 years old. We thank all of you who came along with us on this ride. Perhaps by now, at least, we have convinced the world that folks down here do indeed wear shoes.
Story by Chuck Reece | Header photo by Sarah Dorio
One benefit of joining The Bitter Southerner Family is admittance to a private, members-only Facebook group.
Currently, I refer to that little group as “the last sane place on Facebook.” It’s more than 1,000 of the smartest Southerners you ever knew, all asking each other, “What do y’all think about this?” Civil, troll-free conversations ensue. Plus, they all refer to each other as “cousins.”
A few weeks ago, a cousin named Lindsay from Darlington, South Carolina, wrote, “Chuck Reece, have you considered having some kind of a map on here so we can see where we're all at?” And there went about four hours of my weekend. That first map I finally made was a mess, but when it rendered on my screen, I gasped so loudly my wife asked me if I was OK.
“Damn,” I thought, “this Family is everywhere.”
Then, I thought back to that night in 2013 when our whole crew gathered in the backyard of my old house to launch The Bitter Southerner, the night we declared, “If you are a person who buys the states’ rights argument … or you fly the rebel flag in your front yard … or you still think women look really nice in hoop skirts, we politely suggest you find other amusements on the web. The Bitter Southerner is not for you. The Bitter Southerner is for the rest of us. It is about the South that the rest of us know: the one we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.”
It felt rather a bold thing to say, and we wondered if it would be greeted with silence. We also wondered if a truckload of Kluxers would pull up in my driveway. Now, five years later, this journalistic venture to document what we call “the real South” gets support from a community of people that stretches from Perth, Australia, to Edling, Germany, to Kilauea, Hawaii, even to the little town of Wasilla, Alaska. (I seem to recall hearing several years ago that if you live in Wasilla, you can see Russia from your house!) Those faraway spots don’t include the more than 800 cities and towns in the lower 48 where at least one Bitter Southerner Family Member lives. Every one of those towns is represented by a pin on the map below, and you click below the map to enter an interactive version where you can zoom down to a city by city level.
Last night, at about 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, The Bitter Southerner officially turned 5 years old. We have mustered a global community of people who are bitterly and stubbornly dedicated to creating a Better South.
Can you imagine how much change such a community could make in this region — or beyond? Do you wonder how much change its members have already created over the last five years? We imagine that, too. So, on our fifth birthday, we want to thank you. The Bitter Southerner might have been our idea, but none of this could have happened without all y’all.
Happy anniversary to you.
As our anniversary has approached, The Bitter Southerner Crew has been thinking a lot about our first year of existence. Those of you who have read us from the beginning might remember that for our first 52 weeks, we published only a weekly Tuesday feature story. Perhaps fewer of you know that every writer, photographer, and illustrator contributed that work with no financial reward. It was not until our first anniversary — and our first membership drive — that we began to pay the creators of our Tuesday feature stories.
Why did all those talented people decide to work for free? We’re still not entirely sure of the whys — except that maybe they believed a publication like The Bitter Southerner should exist, so they put their shoulders to the rock and helped us push it into being. So, herewith, a list of every contributor who helped make The Bitter Southerner a reality in its first year. Our gratitude to all of them knows no bounds.
Patterson Hood • Ray Glier • Charles McNair • Nelson d. Ross • George Chidi • Susan Rebecca White • Tracy Thompson • Peter Short • Jodi Rhoden • Dana Hazels Seith • Thomas Mullen • Robert Burke Warren • Wendell Brock • Mary Warner • Richard Murff • Sam Starnes • Nick Kaye • Amanda Greene • Fletcher Moore • Myke Johns • Stephanie Schlaifer • Silas House • Jim McGarrah • Brooke Hatfield • Blair Hobbs • Melissa Dickson • Kevin Cantwell • Kathleen Nalley • Philip Belcher
J.R. Ward II • Breck Prewitt • Brent Dey • Greg Scott • Maria Ives • Stacie Huckeba • Whitney Ott • Students of the Portfolio Center • Brett Falcon • Gregory Miller • Jaemin Riley • Artem Nazarov • Tamara Reynolds • Clair Butler • Renee Brock • Maude Schuyler Clay • Landon Clay • Steve Mann • Lawson Little • Troy Stains • Adam Forrester • Roger May • The photographers of #WeLoveATL • Rick Olivier • Zach Wolfe • Andrew Thomas Lee
The BS Crew has also talked about what we’ve learned as we’ve homed in on the kinds of stories our community wants to read. I’ve always said The Bitter Southerner could never, in a single story, change anyone’s view of the South, but I hoped our stories over time would present a cross-section of what our region is genuinely like in the 21st century.
So, on the occasion of our fifth anniversary, here is a list of our greatest hits — the top 10 most widely read feature stories in the history of The Bitter Southerner.
Jenna Strucko was still a student at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies when she pitched us the idea for a story with a specific point — that the instrument most Southerners believe is purely a bluegrass tool, the banjo, isn’t even American, and that bluegrass has it thanks to enslaved Africans. Jenna wanted to explore what that meant, and she came through with a beautiful mix of audio and writing that told the story through the eyes of Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Jenna left North Carolina earlier this year and is now an expat Southerner, spreading our gospel in her new home, the United Arab Emirates.
Certain dive bars in certain places can become uncanny expressions of a city’s character. In Atlanta, that dive bar is the Clermont Lounge, the world’s most unusual strip club, where the average age of a dancer — at least when this story was published in 2013 — is 46.5. Seith and Nazarov had spent three years hanging at the Clermont and bet on The Bitter Southerner to help publish their work back when we had no money to pay them. Bless their hearts, in the best way possible. Today, a shiny new “boutique hotel” has replaced the flophouse on the floors above the lounge, but the Lounge is as dank, attractive, and perfectly Atlantan as ever.
The response to this story — originally published in April of 2014 — was overwhelming and gratifying. Looking back, perhaps that was because it demonstrated the power of change from within. This story is about four photographers — Tim Moxley, Aaron Coury, Keith Weaver, and Brandon Barr — who took up the Instagram hashtag #WeLoveATL and turned it into a way for people all over our home city to express their love for the place. More than four years ago, this story marveled at how, in only two years, the hashtag had attracted more than 50,000 photos. That number is now more than 906,000. At heart, this story is about how a few people who love where they live — and know why they love it — can change more people’s minds than a big ad agency with a big budget ever could.
To the crew at BSHQ, that this story leapt into our all-time top 10 only five weeks after its publication is … well … just stunning. And we don’t have a clue why. Perhaps Tim Turner, our managing editor, offered the best guess: “People like burgers,” he said. The story of how this piece found its way to the BS is itself quite a tale, but we were proud at last to have the chance to work with Pandolfi and Rosner. If you dive into the crowd of people who think and write deeply about the social implications of how and what we eat, you will doubtless run into those two, and we were overjoyed to have their work in our pages.
We first met Florida photographer Bill Yates when he walked into The Bitter Southerner’s office and unrolled the largest photographic contact sheet we had ever seen. Three feet high by about 10 feet long, the sheet contained hundreds of images Bill had shot in 1972 at Tampa’s Sweetheart Roller Skating. These images captured a pivotal moment, a period when the wave of hippie values was finally rolling over Southern youth — and before we knew it, Bill’s photos were attracting attention from media around the globe.
The genesis of this story came from Tamara’s almost obsessive fascination with an odd character from East Tennessee named Lazarus Lake, who 30 years ago started the most demanding footrace in the world — 100 miles through steep Appalachian terrain. The story of the race was weird. But the story of the man behind it was weirder still, because by the time it ended, we weren’t even sure if Lazarus Lake exists.
We knew we would stir the pot when we asked former Southern Living food editor Sheri Castle — one of the few people alive who could claim to have read every recipe published by that venerable magazine — to name the most essential dishes in the pantheon of Southern cuisine. We wanted something deeper than old-favorite historical recipes. We wanted to know which dishes spoke most clearly about who Southerners are today. As Sheri noted in her first sentence, “I have never written anything that is more likely to get me run off.” No one tried to drive her from her North Carolina home, but certainly, no story we’ve ever published has started more arguments.
Cy Brown approached us with this story idea when he was still studying in the Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The story began when his girlfriend bought him a puppy named Penny for Christmas. But what came along with Penny was a trip into the deepest reaches of the 14,000-year history of dogs in North America. Cy tells us Penny is still the Best Dog Ever.
After the 2016 presidential election, the mainstream media was full of stories about the need to “bridge the rural-urban divide.” We figured that would be a tough trick for them to pull off, because too many folks in the big media markets see trailers and immediately think “trash.” Into the breach stepped David Joy, one of the most celebrated young Southern novelists, with this piece of nonfiction — some genuine truth about his people, mountain folks, who are among the most misunderstood in our region.
When Rachel Martin came home to Nashville after eight years of grad school, she found everyone talking about a dish she’d never heard of or eaten in her youth: hot chicken. This deep, insightful story taught us how Nashville’s signature dish stayed hidden for decades in the city’s black communities — and then suddenly became a global obsession.
The last 12 months have brought The Bitter Southerner broader notice than we’ve ever had. The wonderful Shane Mitchell recently chalked up our second James Beard Foundation Journalism Award. (You know what they say … one time can be a fluke, but the second time, you gotta watch out.) Last September, Richard Faussett of The New York Times published a deep dive into the Southern magazine landscape, and The Bitter Southerner played a prominent role in that piece. Then, a couple of weeks ago, yours truly turned up in Time magazine’s special issue on the American South, in a list called “Meet the 31 People Who Are Changing the South.”
I won’t lie and say it ain’t fun to see yourself quoted in Time magazine, but in the case of The Bitter Southerner, I am not the one changing the South.
Y’all are. Our readers, and most particularly our Family Members, do the work. Let me give you just one example. Over a year ago, we began publishing a regular column about public education. All those columns have come from two Southern-born-and-bred education professors, Kent State University’s Todd Hawley and the College of Charleston’s Adam Jordan. In June, we got an email from Dr. Rebekah Cordova of the University of Florida. Inspired by Adam and Todd’s columns, she and a group of kindred spirits had decided to launch an annual conference that would bring together educators to talk about how to teach social justice in our classrooms.
They named their conference the All Y’all Social Justice Series. Todd and Adam attended and spoke. Last Thursday, you might have read their column on the conference, in which they wrote, “There were no excessive conference fees, no spectacular and expensive swag, no bells and whistles. There were only dedicated and brilliant professionals digging in and supporting, honoring, and loving teachers. This is what education can be when like-minded individuals dedicate themselves to supporting public education. We couldn’t be more proud to have been a part of the inaugural event and hope this is one that persists. We need this. All y’all need this.”
Now, there is a group of Southern teachers dedicated to helping all Southern children understand the need for justice in our region’s society.
Neither I nor anybody else on the BS crew had a damned thing to do with that. We aren’t changing the South. Y'all are. Our job has simply been to give such Southerners a voice and help them build a community where they can connect and exchange ideas about how to build a Better South.
The devotion of our readers and Family Members to our region, to each other, and to a more inclusive Southern future knocks us flat daily. We see it constantly, and to say it brings us fulfillment don’t even begin.
It’s clear that all y’all have become a force to be reckoned with. Every time over the last five years when I’ve bellyached about this problem or that with our publication, my dear wife has reminded me, “Honey, you’re changing the South.” I hem and I haw, but it does make me feel better every time; I become more likely to focus on the larger goals than on the little obstacles. And anyway, my colleagues and I know the truth: It ain’t us changing the South. It’s the thousands of people who call themselves “bitter Southerners.”
It’s y’all. And as long as you keep re-upping your memberships and buying our T-shirts and dishtowels and books, we will be here for you — to be an amplifier for your persistent and rising chorus of beautiful, twangy voices.
Happy anniversary to all y’all — every last one.