Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash

Every year, the Oxford American literary magazine dedicates an issue to exploring the music of a single southern state. The issue includes a CD with a variety of musical styles from the featured state. Three years ago, that state was Alabama, and I was so surprised by the breadth and quality of songs from this relatively unheralded locale that I wrote about it for The American Culture. The music highlighted in Oxford American’s current issue is even more extraordinary, although that’s less surprising given where it comes from.

The currently featured state is Tennessee, which has probably contributed more to America’s musical heritage than any other place. Tennessee is enriched by a variety of distinct musical influences, from the bluegrass and Piedmont blues coming down from the Appalachians in the east to the gospel and delta blues percolating into Memphis in the southwest. And of course the worldwide musical mecca of Nashville is smack dab in the middle. It’s not surprising that some of America’s premier hybrid musical forms – like rock and roll and rhythm and blues – came together in Tennessee. Given the depth and quality of the state’s musical output, it’s also not a surprise that the Oxford American issued a double CD for the music of Tennessee issue.

These two CDs contain a total of 50 songs in a variety of genres. If you’re a serious aficionado of American music, I strongly recommend purchasing both of them, but here is a preview of some of the highlights, which I will group by artist into five broad categories: 1) legends; 2) big stars, just shy of legendary status; 3) smaller stars and one-hit wonders; 4) ‘underground’ heroes; and 5) the truly obscure.

The Legends

Bob Dylan, “I Threw it All Away.” OK, I know what you’re thinking: Bob Dylan is not from Tennessee; what’s he doing here? Well, he did make two of his best known albums in Nashville: Blonde on Blonde, which some (but not me) consider his best; and Nashville Skyline, a paean to domesticity, country living and the lush, countrypolitan Nashville sound. “I Threw it All Away” is the best thing off Nashville Skyline, and one of Dylan’s most under-appreciated songs.

Elvis Presley, “Known Only to Him.” Elvis Presley loved gospel music, and in fact won Grammies for his Gospel performances. This is the best of several gospel songs across the two CDs, and it shows what a truly remarkable voice Elvis had.

Johnny Cash, “Monteagle Mountain.” It’s hard to imagine anyone but Johnny Cash pulling this concept off (and he does): a notorious stretch of Interstate 24 between Nashville and Chattanooga, where the devil is trying to tempt truckers to take risks in order to claim their souls. I love this song because I drove this particular piece of road at night about a year ago, and it seemed treacherous and downright scary. Good to know it wasn’t my imagination.

The Stars

Charlie Rich, “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs.” I am a huge Charlie Rich fan and consider him the most under-rated singer in popular music history. This could be his signature song, written for him by his musical partner and wife Margaret Rich, and based on their life together. Billy Sherill’s production brings out the depth and resonance of Rich’s vocals perfectly.

Emmylou Harris, “Take That Ride.” Emmylou Harris has always left me a little cold, but if you’re a fan, this is Emmylou, doing what she does.

Bessie Smith, “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” A randy, risqué blues number by a blues belter, who was one of America’s biggest recording stars in the 1930s.

Dolly Parton, “Travelin’ Prayer.” Dolly Parton turns this Billy Joel (gasp) song into the down-from-mountain hoedown it was meant to be. Lots of fun.

Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, “Tramp.” One of the standout tracks. It’s just Memphis horns, a backbeat, and two great singers trading vocals back and forth. Carla doesn’t think Otis is good enough for her because he’s not the slick, continental dude to which she’s become accustomed. Their interplay is fantastic, and hilarious (“Otis, you know what? You’re country” Otis: “That’s all right” Carla: “You’re straight from the Georgia woods” Otis: “That’s good!”).

Chet Atkins, “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” Fabulous guitar picking from a master. A little bit country, a little jazzy, and a little Hawaiian. Chet pulls it off.

BB King, “B.B. Blues.” This is early B.B. King, about 1949, before he developed his slick, signature blues guitar sound. This is raucous and chaotic little number that has a loose, blues jam kind of feel.

Al Green, “Have You Been Making Out O.K.” From about 1971 to 1975, Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell made magic at Hi Records studios in Memphis. This song is an example.

Minor Stars/One-Hit Wonders

Bobby Hebb, “Sunny.” Chances are you remember the tune but never knew who sang it. It’s an upbeat, positive song, which some people believe is directed (in part) to the singer’s older brother, who was killed shortly before the song was recorded.

Connie Smith, “Haunted Heart.” Connie Smith was a big country star but never enjoyed much crossover success. Remarkably, this song was stuck in the vaults and not released before Oxford put it on its CD. It is an outstanding, big, old-school country vocal – and yes, a little haunting.

Billy Lee Riley, “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll.” The title pretty much says it all; a goofy rockabilly romp about men from outer space landing and playing rock and roll with Billy Lee. Although he never had much commercial success, he was known around Memphis for playing fun-loving, silly stuff like this. Minor quibble: an even better choice from Billy Lee Riley would have been “My Gal is Red Hot, Your Gal Ain’t Diddly Squat.”

Isaac Hayes, “Walk on By.” Isaac Hayes, of course, was more than a one-hit wonder, but not quite a bona fide star either. He as an amazing talent, though, particular as a producer and arranger, as this track shows. It’s the old Dionne Warwick tune, funked up, electrified and pretty darn brilliant.

Underground Heroes

James Dickinson, “Don’t Bring Down the Judgment.” Jim Dickinson was a legendary producer and studio musician in Memphis but never recorded much on his own. Here is one exception, a song reportedly ‘dedicated’ to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

Big Star, “September Gurls.” A tragically under-loved group while they were together, Big Star has since been hailed as an important influence by dozens of bands. If you ever hear someone mention Big Star’s “shimmering power pop,” chances are they’re referring to this song, which should have been one of the biggest hits of 1974.

Buddy and Julie Miller, “Something Within Me.” Buddy Miller is not a household name, but he’s probably the most important figure in Americana and alternative country music for the last 15 years. Here he sings a gospel duet with his wife and the McCrary Sisters.

The Truly Obscure

The Grifters, “Last Man Alive.” A great guitar-driven rocker. It deserves to be heard for many reasons, not the least of which is that it contains the lyrics “As for me, of course I’m enraptured by the lilting sounds of colorblind James.” Cryptic wordplay is reportedly common for The Grifters.

John Buck Wilkin, “Nashville Sun.” Another standout and possibly my favorite on the two CDs. It’s impossible to describe how seamlessly this song changes rhythms, and jumps genres (country to avant garde jazz, to folk, to pop), in less than four minutes, while still hanging together as a whole. It’s a remarkable composition.

Big Maybelle, “One Monkey Don’t Stop the Show.” Here’s an authoritative take on a classic blues topic: a woman whose man is leaving, saying don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Think Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” except with guts. It’s hard to disagree with Big Maybelle: one monkey don’t stop the show.

Tupper Saussy, “If You Come This Way Again.” This could be one of the lost classics of the American songbook. It contains an absolutely gorgeous piano melody that is one of the most beautiful I’ve heard. Saussy was more of a piano player than vocalist, and his vocal performance here was apparently impromptu and near the end of his life, but he compensates for his lack of vocal technique with passion. Plus Saussy led an eclectic and exciting life outside of music, including running his own advertising agency and becoming an outspoken advocate against the IRS and the Federal Reserve system. Anyone who could do all that, while possessing one of the coolest names of all time, is OK in my book.