Randy Newman: Southern Historian?

Randy Newman in 1972, featured on the cover of his album Sail Away.

By Colin Woodward

Last month, I saw Randy Newman perform with the Conway Symphony Orchestra at the University of Central Arkansas. I’ve always liked Randy Newman. If you know anything about music, chances are you can name at least one of his songs. I recall hearing  “I Love L.A.,” which came out around the time I first remember listening to music, back in the early 1980s.

In Conway, Newman didn’t mess around. He played his “best of,” which covered floods, bad love, the slave trade, genocide, communism, child murder, and kinky sex. The usual. What does it say about me that one of my heroes is a cranky, mumbly piano-player in his 70s that I’ve never met? Not sure. I like Americans who go against the grain. And besides, loving old men is the way entertainment goes these days. Our senior musicians endure, while our young athletes and others fade away.

Newman is known for his caustic, acerbic wit and a tendency to offend. The singer got flak for his 1977 hit “Short People,” which was written purely as a goof. Newman had no idea how vocal and bitter the short people lobby was. In Conway, Newman was in classic form. He made a joke about American Sniper and how dumb his sons were in comparison with his daughter. He also called Little Rock a “dump.” Was he kidding about Little Rock? You’re never sure with Newman.

Years ago, one moment endeared me to Newman. When he finally won an Oscar in 2002 for “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. (after losing on many other occasions), he told the crowd, “I don’t need your pity.” He then chastised the Academy Awards’ orchestra for trying to cut him off during his speech. He told them they were being “rude.” It was one of Newman’s best moments.

One reason I’ve liked Newman is not just because his songs are funny, but because history plays such a prominent role in his work. Newman was born in Los Angeles and has been there most of his life, but he lived in New Orleans for a while as a kid, and he has family with southern roots. His penchant for southern history is most pronounced on 1974’s Good Old Boys, a concept album about the South, with several songs about Louisiana and the bizarre governorship of Huey “Kingfish” Long in the 1920s and 1930s.

Newman hasn’t been afraid to tackle a subject as tricky or as touchy as race in America. Good Old Boys opens with “Rednecks,” a song inspired by the segregationist governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox. “Rednecks” is the only song I have ever heard by a mainstream singer than uses the word “nigger” (the only other one I can think of is John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World”).

We got no-neck oil men from Texas

Good ol’ boys from Tennessee

College men from LSU

Went in dumb, come out dumb, too

Hustling ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes

Getting drunk every weekend at a barbecue

They’re keeping the niggers down

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We’re keeping the niggers down

Newman, of course, is not promoting racism, but satirizing it. And in “Rednecks,” he skewers northern and southern racism, saying that northern blacks were “free to be put in a cage” in places like West and South Chicago, Harlem, Filmore in San Francisco, and Roxbury in Boston. Racism, Newman, makes clear, is an American problem, not just a southern one.

Needless to say, “Rednecks” did not make the Top 40. And Newman did not play it in Conway. Newman did, however, play several tunes from Good Old Boys, including the moving “Louisiana, 1927,” about the horrible Mississippi River flood of that year.

What is happening down here is that winds have changed

Clouds moved in from the north and it started to rain

Rained real hard and for a real long time

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The song might have seemed a novelty in 1974, but it became eerily current after Katrina hit in August 2005. Newman’s Good Old Boys made numerous references to depression era figures, but its better songs, such as “Back on My Feet Again” could’ve been about making it in the recession-plagued 1970s, or the early 2010s for that matter. In plumbing the depths of American history, Newman has unearthed the everyday.

Newman has sung about historical topics outside the South, too. His terrific 1999 album Bad Love is something of a history lesson. It opens with the line “let’s go back to yesterday/when a phone call cost a dime.”The Great Nations of Europe” examines the explorers who conquered North America and decimated the native populations. Heavy stuff, and not the type of material most songwriters would want to tackle. But, it’s the kind of song Randy Newman has liked to write throughout his entire career. He is the closest thing to an endowed professor of history that American pop music has produced.

The University of Central Arkansas, where Randy Newman took the stage last month.

In Conway, Newman joked about how “In Germany before the War” should have been a hit, though the song’s subject–a child killer living in Nazi Germany–was unfit for mass airplay. Hearing it last month made me a little uncomfortable. And yet, the song is not at all explicit. It is disturbing because of what it suggests.

On a lighter note, “Life Just Isn’t Fair,” about Karl Marx and the failures of communism to combat human nature, also graced Newman’s album Bad Love. “Life” was inspired by a trip to Newman’s school, where “froggish men, unpleasant to see” were alongside “all the young mommies.” The point: ugly, rich men can get the girl. And really, what better motivator is there for men to succeed?

Randy Newman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, even though his music rarely can be considered “rock.” More appropriately, I think he should be honored with a lifetime achievement award from the American Historical Association or the Southern Historical Association.

As Americans, we are products of our history. And few songwriters understand that better than Randy Newman.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published through UVA Press.

Me and Johnny Cash, Part III: Dyess

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By Colin Woodward (note, this story was read on the show Tales from the South last month)


March 2014. I’m in Turrell, Arkansas, pumping gas and wearing women’s boots. It’s cold, and the cars are making slashing sounds as they drive through the mushy pavement of a Citgo station. But, I’ve never been happier to be at a Flash Market.

I left Little Rock the day before as it recovered from a late winter storm. Farther north, things were much worse.

I was doing research on Johnny Cash for an exhibit. My goal was to reach Dyess, a place I had never been before. It’s Graceland for Cash fanatics. The house had been restored by Arkansas State University, but was not yet open. I was going to get a sneak peak.


My first stop was Newport. Cash played there in the mid-50s, when he had no drummer and was willing to sing at any club, church, or high school gym that would have him. Unglamorous, maybe, but sometimes he shared the bill with Elvis.

I drove north to Newport along the “Rock and Roll Highway,” passing “rocking” towns such as Possum Grape, Nuckles, and Horseshoe. The snow storm had been over for a few days, but many of the roads hadn’t seen a plow. At some ramps, I was the plow—pushing my Toyota Corolla through piles of snow, making a crude path.

Sonny Burgess

At the Newport Rock and Roll Museum, I didn’t see much Cash. But I saw large images of Elvis and many pictures of Sonny Burgess, an Arkansas native and rockabilly legend, who knew Cash in the early days. I told Henry, the curator, I was working on a Johnny Cash exhibit. We got to talking about Sonny Burgess, when Henry asked if I wanted to talk to Sonny, who lived nearby.

I wasn’t prepared for interviewing one of the last survivors of the Sun Records scene, but Henry dialed Sonny’s number, and I talked with him. Sonny still plays with his band, the Legendary Pacers. He was very nice to me on the phone. I don’t think Sonny and Johnny Cash spent all that much time together, but it was fun to hear Sonny talk about Cash, Elvis, and Roy Orbison.

My next stop was Dyess. As I drove through the flat, white landscape of northeastern Arkansas, I thought about what it must have been like for Cash to play one night stands in the early days. Nashville musician Bobby Bare, Jr., once said playing in a band is more about being a truck driver than a musician. I began to understand.

More snow, more slush. Not many trees. Work trucks everywhere, fixing power lines.

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At Dyess, I took a right turn at the Johnny Cash sign, which brought me to the center of town, where the melted snow had made a lake of water, two inches deep. The old movie theatre—in the process of being restored—was held up by 2 x 4s. It looked like a bomb had hit it.

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At City Hall, I saw a high school picture of Johnny Cash from 1950. Cash is wearing a coat and tie, his hair slicked back. He’s decades from becoming The Man in Black. But you can see the darkness in his eyes, the seriousness and determination.

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To get to the Cash house, I had to head back the way I came, crossing two bridges. I took a left on 294: not a highway, but a gravel road, covered in snow. I hesitated for a minute, knowing that a plow had not yet touched 294. I wasn’t sure how far the Cash house was from the main road. And I didn’t know if I wanted to trudge a mile through snow in my women’s boots.

I had a choice: walk or keep on driving. So, I took the turn.
The mud and snow got deeper as I drove. With Outlaw Country playing on my radio, I slammed the car into low gear, hoping for traction, crawling toward the house.

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“I’ve Been Everywhere”

With mud splattering against the windshield, the car slid its way to the Cash house. As I pulled up, a Johnny Cash song came on the air. I swear. The song? “I’ve Been Everywhere.” I swear. That song coming on was a cosmic occurrence: this was meant to happen. My trip had gone from the historical to the mystical.

Johnny was looking out for me.

The landscape around the house was flat, white, and cold. Silent. A single tree was in the front yard. I took a lot of pictures, getting the house from every angle. The restoration was spectacular. The place—with its white paint and green trim—is a time machine. It looks like it is 1935 and has just been finished.

When I was done snapping pictures, I saw cars zipping along a main road not far ahead. I was relieved. I would not have to retrace my steps along the gravel road.

Mr. McCrory

As I headed out of town, I drove back past the McCrory country store. Out front, there were signs with Johnny Cash’s likeness advertising “souvenirs.”

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The front door of the store was sealed shut by an inch of ice. I knocked. No one answered.

A house was in the back, a small, run-down place, about the size of a trailer. I went to the door and knocked. A voice inside told me to come in.

An old man sat in a chair, watching television. It was Mr. McCrory. I told him that I had driven from Little Rock. We talked about Johnny Cash. About the store. He said he was 90 years old and had been born in Italy. He moved to Dyess later and served in World War II in Italy in the medical corps. Mr. McCrory remembered the fish markets in Naples and St. Peter’s cathedral.

I asked him if he wanted to be a doctor after the war. He said he didn’t have enough education, that he had only finished seventh grade.

Mr. McCrory talked about “the boy” opening the store for me. It turned out “the boy” was his son, who must have been about 70 years old. “The boy” let me in.

Inside, the store was—shall we say—rustic. Cramped, cold, and dark. It was a combination of country store (complete with catsup bottles and canned goods), hardware (with tools everywhere), hunter’s shack (there was a tiny stove at the back), and Johnny Cash gift shop.

“The boy,” Gary McCrory, was Arkansas friendly. And he had the look of a true Arkansan: camo hat and jacket, work boats. Rugged. But he said he wasn’t going anywhere in the snow with his truck.
I talked about the Cash exhibit I was working on as water dripped from the roof. Gary said he used to play drums in a band. I told him about my interview with Sonny Burgess earlier in the day.

The pictures of Johnny Cash in the store were interesting, but they looked like they had been there for twenty years. I bought a photo of Cash with June and the music promoter Gene Williams, who’d gone to school with Cash.

As I left town, the sun was going down. The sky seemed on fire, and there was nothing between me and the March sunset: an orange ball meeting an expanse of icy blue and white.

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The next day was sunny and a little warmer. I drove from the Jonesboro to Osceola to do more research. I had a quarter-tank of fuel. As I headed toward Joiner, about 26 miles from Osceola, the gas light came on.

I clicked on the GPS for the nearest gas station. I hurled off the highway, bounding over pock-marked roads made worse by the recent storm.

The only vehicle I saw were service trucks. I drove hard toward wherever this gas station was supposed to be. As I approached my destination, I realized the station wasn’t there. The GPS had screwed me.


I punched another location into the GPS—a Citgo station, and not a close one. It would take me another ten minutes or so to get there. I felt like I didn’t have enough gas.

I panicked at the idea of being stranded on the road to Osceola. I rehearsed my pitch to the closest farmhouse wife. “Um, excuse me? Could you spare some gas to a Damn Yankee too lazy to gas up in Jonesboro?” I thought of other options. Surely, a service truck would give me a ride to a gas station, right?

I sped over the empty, bombed out roads. Eventually, I saw tractor trailers in the distance. Where there are tractor trailers, there are good roads. Where there are good roads, there is gas.

I pulled into the Flash Market, where I stood in my woman’s boots in the melted snow, pumping gas. They were wife’s winter boots. Brown things, not made for Turrell, Arkansas. Before we had left Massachusetts for Arkansas, I got rid of my New England boots. Surely I wouldn’t need them in Arkansas.

I was wrong. But those boots got me through the mud of Mississippi County. And Johnny Cash had been looking out for me.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is working on a book on Johnny Cash.

Bobby Bare, Jr.: “Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost)”


By Colin Woodward

Every now and then I like to write about my favorite solo artist and native southerner Bobby Bare, Jr. In September, I caught Bobby again at the White Water Tavern, where he has played twice in the last few months. He had never visited White Water until earlier this year. In September, as always, Bobby put on an entertaining show.

A few years ago, his life on the road was filmed for the documentary, Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost). The title comes from a song on his 2004 album At the End of Your Leash. It also serves as something of a warning for those who want to pursue a career in music.

I recently finished watching the movie for a second time. The documentary is a godsend for Bare fans, and it gives much insight into the life of a working musician. We see Bare hustling from gig to gig, dropping off a CD for a deejay (who isn’t even there to open the door to the front of the building), avoiding a pesky homeless person, and the anxiety of not sure some nights where you’ll be staying. Sometimes Bobby gets a few hundred dollars, another time as much as a thousand. But after a show, it’s back to the van, which Bobby shares with his underpaid backing players. At one point, Bobby is interviewed in a bar. He is  asked, “What’s your dream?” Bobby’s response: to make enough money so that people leave him alone.

His family is on the road

Amid the musical madness, Bobby, who has three children, juggles a home life. Early in the movie, we see him on stage, where he discusses his girlfriend going into labor. Why isn’t he home with his newborn child? He needs to keep gigging. The film understands the high-spirited nature of live music. But for Bobby and his band, there’s no glamor here, and not much money. Imagine the pressure of a job that provides you with no health benefits, retirement, or even job security.

Bobby lives gig to gig, but he was born into country music royalty. The movie opens with him singing with his father–who is in the Country Music Hall of Fame–at the Grand Ole Opry. Bobby might have become a Hank Williams, Jr., type. But he didn’t, thankfully. Bobby’s music has country flare, but it would leave most Opry types bewildered. And as much as Bobby tries to be a good father, his large family of touring musicians see him more often.


From alternative to alt-country

Bobby established himself in the 1990s alternative scene before taking a turn into what is now called alt-country. His first two albums were the fruit of the still vibrant grunge scene. Since then, he has become more eclectic and introspective. Bobby couldn’t become part of the Nashville establishment, even had he wanted to. And yet, one could say he has done for Nashville what Kurt Cobain did for Seattle. BBJ’s music can be twangy, but it owes more to the Pixies, the Smiths, the Who, and My Morning Jacket than to what you’re likely to hear on Music Row. Still, Bobby says for all the bad music Nashville produces, it also makes some of the best music anywhere. And he can claim much of that good music as his own. Nashville is lucky to have him.

Approach with caution

The film rarely strays from showing Bobby at work, and because of this, he succeeds in remaining something of a cipher. He has a great sense of humor and is passionate about his music. But he’s the kind of guy that a fan would be cautious to approach. When one woman in Richmond has him sign her copy of A Storm, a Tree, she says, “I had never heard of you before tonight.” Bare responds without missing a beat, “I had never heard of you either.” When another fan congratulates Bare on refusing to sell out, Bobby claims, somewhat testily, he would, That is, if he could only find the right person to sell out to.

More than one person the film wonders why Bobby isn’t more famous than he is. Bobby is probably tired of hearing such talk. He knows the music industry doesn’t owe him anything. he could be much worse off. Sure, there are much better paid musicians, but there are many more who can’t earn a living at all from their songs.

Niche music

The music industry has changed dramatically from where it was twenty years ago. Don’t Follow Me could serve as both an inspiration for musicians who stay true to themselves or a cautionary tale in how pursuing your art will destroy any chance you might’ve had at a normal, stable life. The movie illustrates well the highs and lows of being a niche musician. One minute, you’re flanked by people in animal costumes, playing for young kids who have never heard of you. The next minute your invited to a house party where the host has everything you’ve ever recorded. And he had plenty of free booze.

Bobby admits that he is not cut-out for a 9-5 job. He doesn’t say it, but he’s an artist. Music may not be the only thing he could make a living at, but it certainly is the only thing he wants to do. And it’s clear that it’s the only thing he should do.

Play. Repeat.

I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Bobby’s albums. Hundreds of times, altogether. His music may never appeal to a wide audience, but it has an addictive quality. It hooks you. It’s rare for me to connect at a personal level with a rock musician. But I probably feel a lot like Hayes Carll, who was interviewed for the film and said he liked Bare’s music so much when he first heard it that he wanted to know everything about him.

Rock and Roll Halloween

If you like Bobby Bare, Jr., you may be somewhere in this film. I discovered Bobby’s music in Richmond back in October 2010. Much to my amazement, footage from that weekend was used in Don’t Follow Me. In Richmond, Bobby was in full rock star mode. He had an uncharacteristically heavy cough and looked like he hadn’t slept in days. The movie shows him downing lots of whiskey, and later, we see him “resting” on the ground outside the National Theatre. he was on the same bill that weekend with Drive-By Truckers. And Richmond was probably short of Jack Daniels come Monday.

Before that Halloween weekend, I didn’t know who Bobby was. Despite that, I could remember every song from the warmup set he played before the Truckers came on. The next day, I went to a record store and bought A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head. I loved it. Still do. In fact, it’s one of my favorite albums.

Leave them wanting more

Don’t Follow Me gives one of the best inside looks at a touring musician you’re likely to see. But as for the personal Bobby, we don’t learn all that much. We see things get rocky with his girlfriend, but when pressed to give us details, Bobby declines.

At another point, he says that the ever-changing nature of his backup band has kept him back professionally. But why? Why has he chosen to work with so many different musicians over the years? Is he difficult to work with, or does he like the freshness that comes with so many different players interpreting his music? I’d like to know more.

What is certain is that Bobby’s music is ingenious. And the next time he’s playing in town, I’ll be there.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

The Strange World of Bobby Bare, Jr.

Bobby Bare, Jr., tunes up his guitar at the White Water tavern in little Rock

By Colin Woodward

On Memorial Day weekend, Bobby Bare, Jr., played the White Water Tavern for the first time. I was surprised to hear it was his first show at this legendary Little Rock venue. In any case, I had a great time. The White Water’s stripped-down, deep-fried, no-backstage aesthetic suits Bobby very well. With him was the group Memphis Dawls–a female group from, you guessed it, Memphis–who are working on their first album.

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The Memphis Dawls

Bobby Bare, Jr. (born in 1966) is the son of country star Bobby Bare, who was elected to Country Music Hall of Fame last year. Bobby Bare, Sr., is 79, but he still tours. He’ll be at the Johnny Cash Music Festival this fall. And his son is similarly fond of the road.

Bobby, Jr., plays country-sounding tunes, sometimes. But his music defies easy categorization. Nashville is traditionally associated with the old school, Grand Ole Opry establishment. But it’s also home to many alt-country acts that–like Bare, Jr., Surfer Blood, and Diarrhea Planet–blend punk, country, alternative, and rock and roll.

I’ve been a big fan of Bobby Bare, Jr.’s music since 2010, when I saw him open for Drive-By Truckers on Halloween weekend in Richmond, Virginia. During his set the National, Bare played a terrific new song he had written called “Rock and Roll Halloween.” Before seeing him in October 2010, I must say, I had never heard of Bare, who plays with a seemingly ever-changing lineup called the Young Criminals Starvation League (the only constant–at least the three times I’ve seen him–is his bass/lead/pedal steel guitarist).

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Yet another member of the Young Criminals Starvation League.

Since seeing him in Richmond, I’ve been hooked on his music, and I’ve had the good fortune to see him twice in Little Rock. Once, at a memorable show at Juanita’s, Bare got a very late start for a crowd that was only slightly larger than the number of musicians on stage. Despite what must have been a disappointing turnout, Bare put on a good show. My wife–who usually steers clear of whatever I listen to–enjoyed it quite a bit.

Bobby began his recording career with two solid late-90s alternative albums, Boo-tay and Brainwashed, which he issued under the band name Bare, Jr. On both of these records, Bare gives us a guitar-heavy, alternative rock album. His best work was to come, but on his first album’s first track, “Nothin Better to Do,” Bare shows his gift for melody and unexpected musical choices by inserting some mandolin playing. What you don’t find on his early records is much of a country influence. The exception is the funny, acoustic track “Why Do I Need a Job” on Brainwashed, where Bare says he is dating a stripper named Abilene who allows him to to play in his band and not work. “The hours are great/I’m never late,” Bare muses.

Brainwashed is in many ways the creature of a time when the CD reigned supreme. The liner notes, for example, which feature photographs of Bare in a chicken costume, are far more elaborate than any of his CD packages since then. And why not? In the late 90s, record companies were doing better than ever. Guy in a chicken suit? Sure. While Brainwashed is not a great album, it has lots of energy, and shows a musician who is having a lot of fun in the era when people would pay $18 for a new CD.

On his third album, Young Criminals Starvation League, Bare went in a very different direction from his first two albums. He also found his voice as a composer and musician. On Young Criminals, Bare turned the guitars way down, adopting a more “singer-songwriter” persona. The album benefits from its home-made, demo-like feel, with Bare’s booming voice carrying most of each song’s weight.

Although Young Criminals was recorded only a few years after Brainwashed, it sounds far less dated. The lyrics are also more inspired. Like his contemporary Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers, Bare–as he shows on Young Criminals–can write songs that are often funny and sad at the same time. Take, for example, “Flat Chested Girl from Maynardville.” The title alone is funny, but in it, Bare paints a convincing and moving portrait of a young woman who sits in her room most of the time, hoping somebody–anybody–will take notice of her. The girl, he tells us, sells all her CDs for weed and Ecstasy and laughs as she kicks her cat into a fan. At the end of the song, the girl from Maynardville falls prey to the kind of sexual frustration that becomes sexual abandon. “Please take anything!” she wails. Bare has no delusions about the despair of people growing up, especially those who do so in cultural wastelands like Maynardville and Chattanooga. Also impressive on Young Criminals is “Dig Down,” on which he chastises his musical predecessors–not for letting him down, but for being too good. Artists like Pete Townshend, the Beatles, Hendrix, Black Francis, and Chuck Berry, he complains, sucked all the juice out of popular music, leaving nothing for Bare’s generation but the rind.


A reviewer at amazon.com has called Bobby Bare the last of the great rock and roll star’s. I’m not sure about that, but Bobby certainly looks the part of the working musician. At the October 2010 show in Richmond, Bobby was husky, unshaven, and kept coughing like a three-pack-a-day smoker. I figured he could match bong hits with anyone in the audience and keep pace drinking beer with all of Drive-By Truckers. All the ingredients for an alt-country rock star. Bare can play and look grunge.

Yet, he is intensely professional. Yes, at the White Water, he drank onstage and his keyboardist jumped around like a three year old at the zoo. But Bobby was all business. He played many of his best songs, most of the best tunes off the new album (including the wonderful “I Don’t Want to Know”), and one of his father’s songs. He also knows how to make banter with the audience. I’ve always appreciated Bare’s sense of humor, which no doubt helps during long trips across the South. At the White Water show, he told the crowd that Chattanooga is an Indian word meaning “On the Way to Atlanta.”


For me, Bare’s best album is the wonderful A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head. The CD begins with the odd, catchy opening track “Your Goat’s On Fire,” which sounds reminiscent of the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” From there, things only get stranger, from the suicidal despair of “One of Us Has Got to Go” to the swinging chorus of “Rock and Roll Halloween,” where Bare describes a Halloween night in Atlanta where he saw pregnant nuns and brides, hooker nurses and cops, and “saw Elvis make out with Jesus in a yellow limousine.”

It’s musicians like Bare who show that alt-country acts–including Jason and the Scorchers, Drive-By Truckers, The Blasters, and Bottle Rockets–did as much to save country as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the other grunge groups did to save rock. And really, it’s guys like Bare who most carry on the rock and roll spirit, while some of the best 90s grunge acts have either disbanded, died, or faded out. When Bobby isn’t engaging in extremely black comedy (as on “One of Us Has Got to Go,” about a tragic love triangle), he is unapologetically goofy. “Monk at the Disco” (from Young Criminals), speaks of a monk who says a prayer for the skinny girl with curly hair, who “forgot to put on her underwear.” The monk later has a drink spilled on his robe after somebody had tried to sell him cocaine. “Monk at the Disco” is the type of song–I am confident in saying–that only is hatched in the brain of Bobby Bare, Jr. I am not the kind of person who remembers lyrics easily, but Bare’s stick with me.

Slick Willie: Bobby Bare fan.

Bobby Bare, Jr., was making records with his dad around the age most of us are getting their first at-bats in Little League. You can hear him on the 1973 tune “Daddy What If,” which may be the first song ever sung with vocals by a tadpole. Eventually, though, Bobby Jr.’s voice would drop. And if he seems to live in his own surrealistic southern comic world, his father sang some pretty goofy songs, too, such as “Drop Kick Me Jesus,” which apparently is Bill Clinton’s favorite song. “Drop kick me Jesus, through the goalposts of life,” goes the chorus. It’s that kind of attitude toward Jesus that directs Bobby Bare, Jr.’s work.

After listening to and enjoying Young Criminals Starvation League, I moved on to his 2004 album, At the End of Your Leash. Leash features one of Bare’s best songs, “Visit Me in Music City,” about the Nashville scene, but overall, the album features good early and later songs. The middle (“Your Favorite Hat,” “Don’t Follow Me,” “Let’s Rock and Roll”) is less inspired and feature Bare with a female singer who is so high-pitched that it sounds like Bare is singing with Elmo from Sesame Street (I can very easily picture Bare, Jr., on Sesame Street singing with Elmo, actually).


On his 2006 album The Longest Meow, Bare recorded all the tracks in an eleven hour session. The record isn’t as personal sounding as Young Criminals Starvation League or A Storm, A Tree. But the fact that it was quickly recorded gives it a “live” feel that is more ragged and energized than most albums you’ll hear. The Longest Meow has excellent moments–“Gun Show” is one of the record’s highlights. It really gets cooking toward the end with “Snuggling World Championships,” “Can I Borrow Your Cape” and “Stop Crying.” The Longest Meow was a move forward for Bare. It again showed his ability to blend–as have great classic rock groups like the Who and Led Zeppelin–shades of light and dark in his songs, not just lyrically, but also musically. The more gentle, acoustic numbers contrast well with the hard rock numbers.

Throughout his career, Bare has shown his ability to combine country, rock, folk, grunge, and rockabilly into one bizarre stew. Recently, Bare was featured in a documentary, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost, which covers his tour for A Storm, a Tree. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

The Best of the Drive-By Truckers’ Albums: A List

Music fans love lists. Don’t believe me? Watch High Fidelity. And in honor of that tradition, I’m listing my favorite Drive-By Truckers albums.

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Drive-By Truckers in Little Rock, May 2013.

By Colin Woodward

The Truckers hail from northern Alabama. The band’s founding members, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been playing together for decades. The two are around 50 years old now, but they show no signs of slowing down. The band has always made southern culture a centerpiece of their song-writing. And many of their songs explicitly address the South’s troubled past, no more so than on their double album Southern Rock Opera, which covers everything from George Wallace to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Bear Bryant. The Truckers could be called postmodern, I guess, but Cooley and Patterson at times also seem like something out of the nineteenth century. They have old souls, and that’s one reason why I like them.

Anyway, here’s my list of my favorite Truckers albums.

1. Brighter than Creation is Dark (2008). Not only is this my favorite Truckers album, I also think it’s their best. It was the first album the band put out after the departure of guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jason Isbell. Brighter is something like the Truckers’ “White Album,” a double album’s worth of material that spans various styles, from hard rock to country. It shows all the players at the top of their game. Perhaps more than any other Truckers album, I like the Cooley-Hood songs about equally. I’d give the edge to Cooley, but that’s because even though I love Patterson, Cooley is the man.


The album opens with the beautiful and haunting “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife.” On its own terms, the song is perhaps the prettiest Hood has ever written. But, it being a Truckers song, there’s a dark undercurrent. The song was written after the brutal home invasion killing of the Harvey family from Richmond, Va. (a town that has treated the Truckers well). The song talks about heaven, but doesn’t explicitly talk about the crime. That’s interesting, because the Truckers catalog is full of murder ballads. But apparently when it came to a real murder, Hood approached the material indirectly.

Brighter’s next track is a classic example of counterpoint. Hood’s “Two Daughters'” is acoustic and gentle. Cooley’s “Two Dimes Down” begins with a filthy, Stones-like blast of electric guitar. The first two songs on the album set the tone for the entire record–a mix of light and dark, acoustic and electric, sad and funny. In addition to Cooley and Hood, Shonna Tucker, then the band’s bassist, adds a few good songs. It must have been hard for Shonna to be in band with so much testosterone and songwriting talent. Now, she is on tour with her band Eye Candy.

Patterson Hood adds what I think is his best song about the middle class struggle in America, “The Righteous Path,” which speaks of having “a brand new car that drinks a bunch of gas . . . a house in a neighborhood that’s fading fast/Got a dog and cat that don’t fight too much, I got a few hundred channels to keep me in touch.” It’s an uptempo salute to those who have a too much debt, a whole lot of fear, and a boat that ain’t seen the water in years.

Mike Cooley’s “Bob” is the goofiest song on the album, but in many ways the most touching, too, as it talks about a small town lone wolf, who is more content to drinks beers and play with his dog than find a mate. The lyrics are in the third person, but in a strange way, it might be the most autobiographical tune that the enigmatic, taciturn Cooley has ever written.

2. The Dirty South (2004). Last I checked, this was the Truckers’ best-selling album. It was the second album with Jason Isbell, who was much younger than the other members of the band, but could hold his own as a drinker (for a while anyway), songwriter, and guitar player. After getting sober, he has become a successful solo artist. At the time of Dirty South, he and the rest of the band could do no wrong.

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Patterson Hood contributes one of his most moving songs, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” about his uncle, who, it turns out, was more of a father to Patterson than his real father was. The rest of Patterson’s songs are not at all sentimental. “Putting People on the Moon” is one of the bleakest songs I’ve ever heard. The lyrics speak of unemployment, drug-dealing, cancer, and bankruptcy, themes made all the more unsettling because of the song’s pounding tempo and raw, grungy arrangement.

The songs by Patterson and Isbell are good. But the songs Cooley wrote for this album are, quite simply, astounding. The lightest of them is “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” about the heyday of Sun Records in Memphis. The album, however, opens with the terrific and badass “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” about an Alabama bootlegger during the Great Depression.

Cooley’s other songs are equally good. “Cottonseed” is a companion piece to “Devil” in that it also talks about a criminal, a man who boats he has “put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cotton seed.” Cooley wisely chose to record the song with just him and his acoustic guitar. The song is roughly six minutes long, but the lyrics are so good you don’t want it to end.

The last of Cooley’s songs on the album is “Daddy’s Cup,” about a race car driver and the relationship with his father. It’s one of those songs I wish the Truckers would do live. The song is not as stripped down as “Cottonseed,” but it mostly consists of Cooley and his guitar. But this time, the song is fast-paced, like racing. I always have thought that someone could make a great animated film from this song. The lyrics evoke strong images.

Dirty South doesn’t tackle southern history the way Southern Rock Opera does, but it contains an interesting take on the legend of Buford Pusser, the Tennessee sheriff, who was the inspiration for the movie Walking Tall. Hood talks about Pusser from the viewpoint of the criminals, saying the Pusser was just another crooked lawman shutting down the operations of hardworking businessmen. Maybe someone could make a movie about what Patterson calls the “other side of the story.”

3. Southern Rock Opera (2001). Few bands are as cool as Drive-By Truckers. But their breakthrough album was one of those things that are the bane of the punk generation: a rock opera. SRO, however, was the album on which the Truckers gelled. It was the first one to feature fiery, demented Wes Freed artwork, which complimented the band’s aesthetic quite well. The album has strong elements of punk and grunge. And so it’s more a concept album in the way the Who might have done it rather than say, the Moody Blues.D2CD01

Even in the band’s catalog, SRO remains unusual. It’s the only one that spans two discs. The only one that contains no acoustic guitar. It was an album that took on many topics: the South, history, racism, the battle between Neil Young and Skynyrd. It’s an angry, raw statement. Patterson has said that he thought Cooley wrote the two best songs on the album, though I’m not sure which.

Patterson has admitted that it was an album on which he could geek-out some. He read up on his Alabama history for songs about George Wallace and Bear Bryant. “The Three Alabama Icons” contains so much verbiage that it was recorded as a spoken-word song.

SRO concludes with “Angels and Fuselage” about the plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zandt and other members of his band. I saw thew band do  “Angels and Fuselage” in Richmond as a closer to the band’s 2010 Halloween weekend show. One-by-one, the band members left the stage as the drummer kept the beat–symbolic of those who disappeared during the plane crash. It was a dramatic end to a terrific show.

4. The Big To-Do (2010). I’ve always found this to be the band’s most underrated record. It contains perhaps Cooley’s best rocker, “Birthday Boy,” one of the greatest songs ever written about a strip club. The Truckers played down the southern history angle on this record. And it doesn’t have the best songs the band ever recorded. But it is one of the band’s best achievements in sound and production. The songs explode. Cooley’s guitar is on fire. Truckers fans might not talk much about tunes like “Santa Fe,” but it’s the type of perfect throwaway songs that bands make when they are at their peak.

5. English Oceans (2014). The band went back to basics here. This is the first album to feature only songs by Cooley and Hood. Not much southern history here, and not much country twang. But there’s much more energy than the band’s previous effort, Go-Go Boots. Apparently, Cooley emerged from a long period of writer’s block before writing the songs on this record. Most of them are good. Cooley’s best on the album is “Primer Coat,” which covers the classic country topic of small town life. But Patterson’s songs, on the whole, are better. His memorial to Craig Lieske on “Grand Canyon” is the closest thing the Truckers have ever come to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”

6. Gangstabilly (1998). This was the first Truckers album, and it’s surprisingly good, given what the band would do later. The album blends elements of hard rock and country acoustic. The barnburner is “Buttholeville,” which apparently got the band in trouble in the early days, because it was seen as a swipe at club owners. It’s filthy and funny, like a good southern rock song should be. But the funniest song is “Steve McQueen,” about one of Patterson’s movie heroes. Cooley was still finding his way as writer, but he was capable of his typical smartassery on “Panties in Your Purse.”

7. Decoration Day (2003). This is usually considered one of the Truckers’ best albums, but I’ve never connected with it the way other fans have. Jason Isbell contributes the best song, “Outfit,” which tells of a father warning his son to not ever sing with a fake English accent; call home on your sister’s birthday; and remember that southern men tell better jokes. My favorite song, though, is “Sinkhole,” one of the band’s many murder ballads. When I saw the band in early 2013, they did a lot of songs from this album.I think it foreshadowed the band’s back to its roots approach that would be found on English Oceans.

8. American Band (2015). Amid the most contentious political campaign in recent memory, the Truckers released their most political album since Southern Rock Opera. American Band was an effort to address the ongoing racial divide in the United States, with songs about Trayvon Martin (“What It Means”) and other unpleasant moments in our history. The choice of a photo of the U.S. flag on the cover rather than the usual Wes Freed artwork sums up the album’s intentions.

The band’s heart is in the right place, but is it a great album? Unfortunately, no. The Truckers sound better when looking at the villains in southern history–as examined on the George Wallace-inspired cuts of Southern Rock Opera or the Dixie Mafia characters of Dirty South–than the victims. The album has its moments and stands up to repeated listens, but the energy heard on the band’s previous record English Oceans, not to mention earlier albums, is lacking. Patterson’s songs, especially, feel flat.

8. Pizza Deliverance (1999). An album very similar in style to Gangstabilly. Again, it blends rock and country. It’s funny, too. But the band clearly needed to make a big leap to go from being good to great–a leap that Southern Rock Opera provided.

9. Go-Go Boots. Looking back on this album after a few years, one can see that it was a transition record. Shonna Tucker was on the way out as the band’s bass player and third songwriter. Diehard Truckers fans don’t usually give her much credit, but I always liked her way of balancing the albums with a much-needed female perspective.

The fire one can see at just about every live performance is lacking. As a songwriter, Cooley was out of gas (temporarily), and the music wasn’t inspired.

10. A Blessing and a Curse (2006). Watch the documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending and you’ll see Jason Isbell strumming a guitar listlessly during the Blessing sessions. As the record was being put in the can, Isbell’s marriage to Shonna Tucker was dissolving. Isbell would soon be going solo. His two songs on the album are the worst he did with the Truckers. But, in his defense, no one else in the band was doing great work either. Some good moments here, but I don’t think I’ve heard the band ever do a song from this album live despite having seen them perform four times.

Colin Woodward is a historian, archivist, and sometime music critic. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

Me and Johnny Cash, Part II: My Trip to Kingsland, Arkansas

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By Colin Woodward

On the day of my birthday in late August, I visited Kingsland, Arkansas, in Cleveland County, about an hour south of Little Rock. Kingsland is the birthplace of Johnny Cash. Cash was born there in February of 1932, but the place doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. It’s a very small town of about 450 people. One house had chickens running loose in the front yard. There was a water tower advertising the town name. A couple churches. A city hall that was about the size of a large garage. Many of the roads are gravel, and you can drive through Kingsland before finishing a Johnny Cash song on the radio.

It was a hot and sunny day, and I was there to take pictures of where Cash spent the first few years of his life (the family moved to Dyess, not far from Memphis, in 1935). The town borders a major road, but there was only one place, a truck stop, called the One-Stop, to get a Coke or anything to eat. There was a pretty good size school, though. And if the One-Stop didn’t have fine dining, it was quite a hang-out for the locals, who were friendly and helpful.

The actual location of the house where Cash was born is unknown to me. The house certainly isn’t there anymore, and hasn’t been there for a long time. All I know is that the house was near where the railroad tracks, which still run through the town, meet the Saline River.

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I was trying to find the Cash marker that was put up in 1976. Despite the fact that Kingsland is only about the size of a few city blocks, the marker was difficult to find. There is no “Johnny Cash Avenue” or “Man in Black Boulevard” to clue you in. I had to ask a woman named “Peenut” at the One-Stop for directions to the marker. As it turned out, I had driven past it about five times. Eventually, I discovered it was near a church and a basketball court. The marker, which includes a guitar design, was painted a long time ago, and the harsh southern Arkansas sun has bleached it white. The marker’s visibility is not helped by a fence that has been placed around it.

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I also wanted to spot the building where Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton had their picture taken together in the 1950s. Back in the 50s, it was the Kingsland post office. It later became a bank. I wasn’t able to find it, so I went back to the One-Stop to ask “Peenut” yet again for directions. The “Cash-Horton” building wasn’t too far from the Cash marker.

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Old post office where Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton stopped for pictures in the 1950s.

And really, in Kingsland, you’re not too far from anything. Still, I needed help. But I wasn’t alone. “Peenut” told me that people from all over come to find the Cash marker and see where he was born. It’s too bad there’s no Johnny Cash Museum or some such in Kingsland, where you could get a mug or t-shirt.

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Kingsland Mercantile

I also ventured to Rison, the seat of Cleveland County (which has a population of about 11,000 people). In Rison, I visited the office of the Cleveland County Herald. There, I looked through some bound volumes of issues from 1976 and 1994, when Cash visited Cleveland County. The 1976 visit to Rison was especially dear to Cash, who called it one of the “biggest kicks” of his life, because he visited  the town with his daddy. If you buy the book House of Cash, written by John Carter Cash, there’s a CD inside that has Cash doing a five-minute spoken word segment about the 1976 Rison visit, including a story about his father and the Cotton Belt Line that he set to music.

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Rison, Arkansas

Rison isn’t big either (about 1,300 people), but the town had a grocery store, Mexican restaurant, and a library, where I did research in old issues of the Herald. Cash’s father, Ray, helped build the courthouse, which sits on a the hill overlooking Rison. The grocery store there is one of those older, small grocery stores that I love going into.

Stan Sadler, who used to work at the Herald, let me borrow some Johnny Cash photographs to take back to Little Rock with me. I didn’t get a chance to meet Sadler, whom I had spoken with via email. But he had the Cash photos waiting for me when I got to Rison, and the images were terrific. Stan’s generosity was one of those friendly acts that are difficult to find outside Arkansas.

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Courthouse in Rison, which Johnny Cash’s father helped build.

Cleveland County was perhaps an odd place to spend my birthday. But for me, following the trail of a famous artist–like a Cash or Faulkner or Hemingway–is just as fun, if not more so, than visiting a historic building or Civil War battlefield. And it won’t be the last Johnny Cash-related place I’ll visit. Dyess is next on my list.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

Helena, Arkansas, and Southern History

Downtown Helena, Arkansas

By Colin Woodward

In July, I had the opportunity to visit Helena, Arkansas, a true Delta town about two hours east of Little Rock. The town has a lot of history. The place was where Levon Helm of the Band grew up. Helm became famous later as a drummer, but early in his life, he realized playing guitar at local venues was his ticket out of the fields. As a boy, Helm, who was born Mark Lavon Helm, had the chance to see blues master Sonny Boy Williamson perform in town. Williamson played with Robert Johnson, who grew up in nearby Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Helena also has an important Civil War history. Helena produced more Confederate generals than any other southern town of its size. Unfortunately, the town has fallen on hard times. If you’re a history buff, Helena is well worth a visit. It contains not just a newly restored Fort Curtis, but also a terrific (and hilly) Confederate cemetery, not to mention the Helena Museum, the Delta Cultural Center, and the Phillips County Museum.

I toured the city’s Civil War sites, courtesy of local expert John Darnell, who took me all the way from west Helena to the Mississippi River levee to the east. I was hoping to find the spot where the skirmish at Polk’s plantation happened in May 1863. Along the way, I learned a lot about Helena’s past and had a chance to see how the town is faring in the Great Recession.

Helena Museum.

Helena’s Civil War history is interesting. In the summer of 1862, the Federal army occupied Helena, which became a staging ground for Union expeditions further south, most importantly during Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg. For Union troops, the low-lying, flood-prone, mosquito-infested place was pestilential.  They called it “Hell-in Arkansas.”

The Mississippi River, as seen from Helena.

Mid-nineteenth century doctors were of little help. Armed with dubious medicines, some of which contained mercury, Civil War doctors did more harm than good. Rhonda M. Kohl published an article in the June 2004 issue of Civil War History about how “godforsaken” Helena was during the war. Troops stationed in Helena also suffered from the increasing plague of Rebel guerrillas in Arkansas, who didn’t like to play by the “rules” of warfare.

Perhaps the most famous Civil War resident of Helena–if not the most famous resident of the city overall–is General Patrick Cleburne. Cleburne was  a lawyer before the war broke out, but he became known as the “Stonewall of the West” for his firm stand at the battle of Chattanooga in the fall of 1863, where he might have saved the Rebel army from total disaster.

Cleburne was born in Ireland, and unlike most [yes, most] Confederate officers, he owned no slaves when the war broke out. Yet, had he lived (he died in November 1864), he would have married into a slave-owning family. Cleburne is well-known in Civil War circles not only for his battle acumen, but his early January 1864 proposal in which he wanted to free (some) slaves to fight in the Confederate army.

Cleburne was no abolitionist, and his proposal, if implemented, would have left the vast majority of slaves still in bondage. But his famous plan would have changed the nature of the Confederate war effort. Some of his superiors were appalled by the idea of slaves fighting alongside Confederates. They quashed the proposal and prevented Cleburne from ever gaining a (well-deserved) promotion. With the eventual support of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, the South enlisted black troops until March 1865, by which time it made little difference in the war effort. Yet, historians continue to debate to what extent African Americans would have fought effectively for the Confederacy had Cleburne gotten his way.

Gen. Patrick Cleburne portrait at the Helena Museum.

Cleburne died at the horrific battle of Franklin in Tennessee in late 1864, but his body was brought back to Helena, where it lies. He is buried in the same cemetery as General Thomas Hindman, a far less well-known but talented general in his own right. Hindman was a virtual dictator in Arkansas for a while, until Jefferson Davis heard about his draconian measures and sent Theophilus Holmes to monitor him. Holmes, however, ultimately didn’t interfere much with him.

Thomas Hindman’s grave in Helena.

Hindman and Cleburne were friends, though Cleburne was far more moderate politically. The hard-drinking and abrasive Hindman was one of the Fire-eaters who urged the South to secede. After the war, he lived in Mexico before returning to Helena. He should have stayed away. He was assassinated in September 1868 while reading the paper in his home. His killers were never caught.

Patricke Cleburne’s grave, Helena, Arkansas.

Also buried at the cemetery was Archibald Dobbins of the 1st Arkansas Cavalry who died in South America after the war, under mysterious circumstances. My guide said he thought Dobbins might’ve been killed by cannibals. True or not, I guess there are some things more dangerous than a Yankee with a Springfield rifle. In any case, Dobbins is another in a long list of Civil War officers who fared poorly after the war.

Helena is seeing some encouraging historic renovations. One is of an antebellum home about a mile from the downtown, which will become the town’s Civil War Center. Another has been Ft. Curtis. Although smaller in scope than the site was during the war, it’s unlike anything else I’ve seen in a southern town.

I also heard the Cleburne Hotel is being remodeled, though it looks like the work hasn’t begun yet. As it stands the hotel looks like it was just condemned. But, assuming investors are pumping a lot of money in it, the hotel might regain its nineteenth century glory.

The Cleburne Hotel. Hopefully destined for its former glory.

It’s undeniable that Helena has seen better days. From what I could gather from the exhibit at the Delta Cultural Center, the town was far more prosperous during the late-1930s, when there were movie theatres and shopping in the downtown. Now, there are no movie theatres, no department stores. One restaurant open in the afternoon on a Saturday. That’s a shame, given the town’s history, not just as a Civil War site but for music. The King Biscuit Hour is the longest running radio show in the country. And such blues luminaries as Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson used to hang out in Helena.

King Biscuit Time poster at the Delta Cultural Center.

Helena is hosting the Arkansas Historical Association meeting in April 2013. The theme is “Claiming Freedom.” I’m sure it will be a good conference, but I hope it will bring some much needed revenue to Helena, a historic city that has the potential to become a true tourist destination, if only for southern history nerds.


Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.