'Oxford American' Digs Deep Into The South Editor Marc Smirnoff talks to Guy Raz about his magazine's 11th annual Southern Music issue. Smirnoff discusses issues of race and sex in the music industry, and unearths some of the South's most hidden treasures.

'Oxford American' Digs Deep Into The South

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GUY RAZ, host:

Every year, the editors of Oxford American magazine search the South for music, old or new, blues, jazz, classical, psychedelic, pop, anything that grabs their attention.

(Soundbite of song, "Color Him Father")

Ms. LINDA MARTELL (Singer): (Singing) There's a man in my house he's so big and strong. He goes to work each day, and he stays all day long. Comes home each night, looking tired and beat.

RAZ: This song is called "Color Him Father" by Linda Martell. It's one of the tracks off the latest Oxford American compilation CD of Southern masters. And joining me to talk about it, from KUAR in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the editor of the magazine, Marc Smirnoff.

Welcome to the show.

Mr. MARC SMIRNOFF (Editor, Oxford American): Thank you.

RAZ: Tell us about this song we're hearing.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: It's from a 1970 album by Linda Martell called "Color Her Country.

(Soundbite of song, "Color Him Father")

Ms. MARTELL: (Singing) I think I'll color him father. I think I'll color him low. I'm gonna color him father. I think I'll color him low.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: And I think it's a lost masterpiece. Linda Martell is an African-American who recorded a few soul 45s before being signed up, for some reason, I don't know, to make this country album. And it is a revelation, I think. I'm astonished and disappointed that it's not better known in the country field. This track in particular is flawless.

RAZ: Marc Smirnoff, let's move on to a newer recording. This is from 2008, and it's called "Guess You Wouldn't Know Nothin' About That" by Wiley and the Checkmates.

(Soundbite of song, "Guess You Wouldn't Know Nothin' About That")

WILEY AND THE CHECKMATES (Music Group): (Singing) Seems like your plans have been headed south. You left a bad taste in my mouth. You've got no business spreading my business around to all them harlots you've got in town. Baby, ooh baby, baby, oh, baby. Guess you wouldn't know nothing about that.

RAZ: Now, this man, Herbert Wiley, is from Oxford, Mississippi, and you actually know him. What's surprising to me is that he is completely unknown outside of Oxford, Mississippi.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Yes. I hope that's starting to change. He is a phenomenon. If you ever have the opportunity to see him live, he will be somebody you never forget. He comes out in sequined suits and is a showman for whom those suits are almost an understatement. But I did know him before I knew that he was a musician. He used to be a shoe repair man. He had a really tiny store right off the Oxford square. We all just knew him as Mr. Wiley, the shoe repair man.

RAZ: And that was what everyone just thought he was.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Yeah. We had no idea that in the 1960s, he had been a soul singer for a band that I think never recorded, that he hung it up for literally 30 plus years. I still have to pinch myself that mild-mannered Mr. Wiley is also the superhero of Wiley and the Checkmates.

RAZ: Absolutely amazing story. I want to turn a corner here, actually a pretty extreme corner, to the 1960s and psychedelic pop. And this is a girl band that you put on here from the '60s called The Feminine Complex from Nashville. I want to hear that song.

(Soundbite of music)

THE FEMININE COMPLEX (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

RAZ: And I want to qualify something. They are actually described as a girl band. I mean, they were literally girls, five girls, out of a Nashville high school. Tell me about them.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: That's right. Yeah. They made one record, and unfortunately, none of the girls played on the album except for the singer, Mindy Dalton(ph), whose husky voice we just heard. Man, she just shivers my timbers every time I hear her.

RAZ: Unbelievable.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Yeah. She wrote all the songs, and she sang on the record. But they used country music studio musicians for the recording, as was the practice those days. That's what they did with The Monkees and et cetera.

But it's another one of those cases where you just kind of don't understand why they never made it big. I mean, you listen to that song, there's no reason why it shouldn't have been playing the AM radio of the day.

RAZ: Now, Marc Smirnoff, this year, the magazine has done something a bit different. Normally, you release one CD of Southern masters. This year, you've added a second one with music from just one state, and that state is Arkansas. And I guess - I guess the goal is to do that with a new state each year, but I wanted to ask: Why start with Arkansas?

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Well, it's our home state for one.

RAZ: And I should mention you were based in Oxford, Mississippi at one point. You are now based in Arkansas.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: That's right. The second thing is I realized that I kind of enjoyed the challenge of finding out more about this state. You know, there were some big-name musicians who we knew going into this, people like Johnny Cash and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Al Greene all came from Arkansas.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: But we were very interested to find out whether the artists below those big names were as great as we thought they might be.

RAZ: What did you find that most surprised you when you were sort of trolling through, you know, the bowels of record stores in Arkansas and labels?

Mr. SMIRNOFF: You know, I suspected that the state would be rich in rockabilly and blues music. But what I did not expect was that there would be such a deep jazz scene. For example, Little Rock, Arkansas, has produced free jazz masters like Pharaoh Sanders and Walter Norris and Oliver Lake and on and on.

(Soundbite of song, "Gano")

RAZ: And we're listening to a song by the Oliver Lake Organ Trio. The song is called "Gano" from 2008. Tell me about Oliver Lake.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: He's actually from Mariana, Arkansas. And I think he cut his first record in 1971, and he's been prolific. He's got a very endurable reputation in jazz circles. You don't necessarily associate Arkansas with adventurous jazz playing, but quite frankly, we all should.

RAZ: You wrote about someone you describe as Arkansas' Buddy Holly. His name is Larry Donn, and this is him singing in 1963. It's - the song is called "I'll Never Forget You."

(Soundbite of song, "I'll Never Forget You")

Mr. LARRY DONN (Singer): (Singing) If I should see you, say on tomorrow, please don't be angry if I don't say hello. But I still love you, I belong to another. I've begged and I've pleaded, but still she won't let me go.

RAZ: Now, Marc Smirnoff, you wrote in those liner notes, and I'm paraphrasing, that if the Elvis lost tapes were ever discovered, this should be on it. How was it that he was just passed by for all these years?

Mr. SMIRNOFF: What you're saying was almost the exact reaction that I had when I heard this song. It was, like, so clearly a hit. And then I heard a few other Larry Donn songs, and they were also great. And even though, as you say, he is unknown in the USA - and, I must confess, in his home state of Arkansas - he can go to England where they love old rockabilly and Germany and Holland and elsewhere overseas and just pack them in.

So, what I concluded from that is that there's nothing wrong with Larry Donn, that when we enjoy his music, we're probably having a sane reaction. It's just that for whatever reason, you know, apparently in America, you have to have a certain kind of support system in place or just be lucky to be well-known, that it's not always whether you are talented or not.

RAZ: And he's still alive and still living in Arkansas.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Agnos(ph), Arkansas. That's right.

RAZ: And before we let you go, I want to ask you about one final piece of music on the Arkansas CD. It's by William Grant Still, and it's called "Suite for Violin and Piano, Third Movement."

(Soundbite of song, "Suite for Violin and Piano, Third Movement")

RAZ: You know, I heard this and instantly thought George Gershwin. And I must confess, I had not heard of William Grant Still.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Well, you know, he's considered to be the first major African-American classical composer. And he died in 1973. I think he was born in the late 1890s. He was born in Woodville, Mississippi. But at the age of three, he and his mother moved to Little Rock.

He has so many firsts. Like, he was the first black man to conduct an American symphony. He's the first black man to have an opera presented in New York City. He really is an American treasure.

RAZ: We hear about the great American composers of the 20th century. We hear about Copeland and Gershwin.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: And then there's this guy in Little Rock named William Grant Still who should be considered for that list, as well.

RAZ: Why wasn't he put on that list? Why?

Mr. SMIRNOFF: You know, I couldn't say for sure. I know that the first opera that he did called "Troubled Island," was panned by the press. People just didn't - this was like in 1949, maybe - and people just did not know how to respond to an opera by a black man: i.e., you know, it sort of assaulted their preconceptions.

But if you listen to him, you just enjoy him. There's no more to it than that.

(Soundbite of song, "Suite for Violin and Piano, Third Movement")

RAZ: That's the music of William Grant Still. Marc Smirnoff is the editor of the Oxford American magazine. The 11th annual music issue is on the newsstands now.

Marc, thanks for joining us.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: Thank you for your questions, Guy.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And you can hear full versions of some of the songs picked by the Oxford American plus a track we haven't played by a band called the True Gospel Wymics. That's all on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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