A Deeper South

Twenty-one years ago next month, Johnny Cash played Atlanta for the last time. John Hayes and I were in the audience that night in Chastain Park. The next morning, we left Atlanta in John’s 1977 Ford pickup bound, more or less, for New Orleans. We wanted to see the South that had produced Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters, Flannery O’Connor and Martin Luther King. The South that isn’t on the main tourist drag.

A deeper South.

It was August in a different era. Johnny Cash was still alive. We shot on 35mm Kodachrome transparencies and Ilford black and white film. We printed our own prints in hired-out darkrooms, mailed them off to Kodak or took them to local camera shops for processing. There was no Toyota Prius. We used pay phones. There was no GPS. We used maps.

The truck did not have air-conditioning. There were no cell phones, global positioning systems, We weren’t sure how we would get there, or where we would stay, or what we might see. We did not have much of a plan, but we did have a few rules:

1. No interstates; stick to back roads.
2. Camp in state parks and if necessary, the back of the truck. No hotels, unless absolutely necessary, in which case “hotel” should spelled with an “M”.
3. Take lots of pictures.

We had both grown up in Atlanta and attended the same private high school together, but neither of us had ever really seen the rest of the South. Since shortly after the Civil War, Atlanta made a name for itself by being forward-looking and sometimes deliberately dismissive of the past. We wanted to look backwards, at the landscapes that interstates had passed by, at towns that were being slowly drained of life by chain stores and shopping malls along the interstates, at the figures that we never got close enough to in high school to be shaken by.

We took four more trips in later years, and covered a lot of ground. We shot rolls and rolls of film and made various plans to publish them. We talked about doing another tour one day, but it never happened.

Until this year.

In three days, we are returning to the road. For two weeks we will retrace our steps from previous tours and light out into new territory. After years of becoming habituated to the convenience of digital photos, we will both be shooting film again (read my post from March about film vs. digital photography, “Truths Breathed through Silver”). The same rules apply, but this time there will be air-conditioning because it comes standard on a minivan. And also, duh.

The ethos of this trip is roughly seven parts old-school, analog, 78rpm, acoustic chemistry and one part new-school, digital, fiber-optic-speed electromagnetism. I will be posting regular updates on candler.ink, and you will be seeing more emails from me over the next few weeks. For more frequent updates and behind-the-scenes rough cuts from the road, follow us on Instagram (@adeepersouth), and be sure to tell your mom and them.

(And if you have a friend, neighbor, fishing buddy, yoga partner, or random stranger that you think would like to be on this list, please share this link with them: eepurl.com/cGmwc5)

You will be able to see these updates as they happen; wait a little longer and you will–Lord willing–be able to read the full account in print. An essay will appear in the fall, and later, a book will follow. The book is about how the South has changed over the course of our tours, but more about how we have changed with (or against) it. It is about what we did not look for and did not see the first (five) time(s) around, about the ways in which Southern memory is constructed and enacted publicly. And ultimately, it will be about the the subtle ways that selective cultural memory shapes private lives too, including our own.

My three most recent published essays for The Millions, The Christian Century and The Bitter Southerner reflect the direction this book has taken so far.

I hope you will follow along to see where it goes.

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