‘Forgotten’ Horseshoe Bend is a lesson for New Orleans’ Civil War monuments

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The park welcomed me with a grand sign typical of the National Park Service’s careful attention to detail and rustic aesthetics. The next sign I read changed my perspective on the battle.

Third-grade Alabama history is the gift that keeps on giving, even 45 years on. (Thanks Mrs. Virginia Harless Cook!)

This time it was the inspiration for this opinion piece in The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina in which I apply the lessons I learned about the horror of an Andrew Jackson-led Indian massacre to what’s going on new in New Orleans and other places debating Civil War memorials.

Let me know what you think.

To learn from the past, keep its monuments

 

 

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No wave? No way. Pretty sure Michael Stipe called B-52’s new wave

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Moogfest: Michael Stipe moves on from pop music

So trumpeted (or should that be synthesized) the Durham Herald-Sun in a headline for a story about Mr. Stipe at Moogfest.

Moogfest is a weekend art, music and technology festival happening this very weekend in Durham.

I’m not sure anybody really classifies the R.E.M frontman’s music as pop, but the headline writer and the story’s reporter might be forgiven for that since Stipe calls himself a pop star later in the story — although probably facetiously.

(Side note: The word “pop” shows up eight times in the story. “Rock” once. “Alternative” none. But who’s counting?)

The writer does take a step over the line of credibility when she calls R.E.M. itself a “pop band.” Do popular hits make a band with 15 mostly rocking studio albums pop? Not in my book. But if you’ve only heard “Everybody Hurts” and “Shiny Happy People,” then you might not know any better.

So, while the story unsteadily tiptoes on the edge of understanding its subject, it still manages to do a decent job of explaining what Stipe has created for Moogfest: a video portrait of an influential friend accompanied by an original Stipe composition.

But the story comes crashing down that ridge it was warily treading when it reports, “Stipe also talked about others he knew in Athens — the B-52s, who left for New York at a time ‘punk rock wound down to no wave.'”

I know it happens, but papers are usually careful not to send someone who doesn’t know much about the legal system to cover a court case or someone who only eats chicken fingers to review a five-star restaurant. Alas, here’s a story that makes reference to the glory days of the no wave movement. Since there was no wave, no wonder I don’t remember it well.

Also, it’s B-52’s (not B-52s). Clearly, I wish I’d covered it myself.

But since that isn’t going to happen, the better solution is just to enjoy the artwork itself, thanks to WRAL.

Jeremy Dance by Michael Stipe

 

 

 

You might think of this as my letter never sent to Michael Stipe, R.E.M.

“I am tired of second guessing.” — R.E.M.

In the news business, you sometimes get the opportunity to interview famous folks. By my third or fourth time doing it, my insides would start to pitch and tumble like wet clothes in a dryer as interview time approached.

I had learned by then celebrities sometimes react to interviews like they’re uncooperative witnesses being asked by a judge, “Where were you when the prostitute’s body was found?”

Over the years, I developed some strategies for getting them to engage. Sometimes I upped the dosage of Southern in my accent or dropped in some “y’alls” or “yes sirs”/”yes ma’ams” — or if things were going really poorly, all of those things.

I’m not sure why they work, but they do sometimes.

Also, a little flattery can do it. And some big names will perk up if you show you actually know something about their music or their TV show or some member of their band.

Another approach that takes some creative thought and strategic planning is to say something attention-grabbing they haven’t heard before — a funny line, a unique observation or an oddball personal anecdote.

Not just any oddball anecdote, though; it has to involve them somehow. It once worked with Ira Glass at a public radio fundraising reception. I put my arm around Jennifer and told him his first movie was our second date.

He raised his eyebrows, looked me straight in the eyes and didn’t say a word for a couple of seconds. “Really?” he finally said, his voice shooting up. “That movie usually has the opposite affect on couples.”

I’m pretty sure it was his most memorable conversation of the night.

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Our waiter said Michael Stipe came to the restaurant somewhat regularly, but I didn’t think to ask the waiter if Mr. Stipe minded interruptions.

I’m not quite so sure any of those things work if you sidle up to a table and make uninvited conversation, which is one of the reasons I didn’t try that on Michael Stipe the night we found ourselves sitting a few tables away from him in Manhattan.

But if I had, I would have told him this in my best Southern accent: R.E.M. came to Tuscaloosa in 1984. I was a big fan. But one afternoon, propped up on my dorm room loft bed, I had given it some thought and told my roommate, Chip, I thought $10 was too much to pay for a concert ticket. I guess he agreed because we didn’t go.

I might have added that I regret it to this day. I’d like to go back to 1984 and slap some sense into my 21-year-old self. Since I can’t do that, I make it a point to go to the concerts of everybody I like so Tuscaloosa, 1984, never happens again.

P.S. I sat on the edge of my seat the entire night, so close to jumping off and walking over. Do you think my story of Tuscaloosa 1984 would have engaged him? Tell me what you think.

Concerts I did see in Tuscaloosa between 1983 and 1986*

  1. Oingo Boingo
  2. X
  3. The Go-Go’s
  4. Jason and the Scorchers
  5. Cheap Trick

 

*All were free. I guess I was just a cheapskate.

 

Talk about the passion: Mine for R.E.M. started in Tuscaloosa

Timing is everything. R.E.M.’s first album and I hit Tuscaloosa in 1983.

When I got there, I knew nothing about college or alternative rock. But I was ready for something beyond the Top 40 and found it on the University of Alabama campus radio station, WVUA.

VUA played “Radio Free Europe” from “Murmur” in as steady a rotation as a campus station is likely to do. I took notice. I remember the song seemed to just jump out of my car speakers one day as I crept over the train tracks on Hackberry Lane, past the Flowers bakery, making my way to campus. I thought, “Man, I really love this song.”

“Murmur” is usually called R.E.M.’s first album, and being new to college radio station I was unaware of the earlier “Chronic Town” EP, which I didn’t hear until a lot later — and by a lot I mean just the other day.

So I wasn’t on the R.E.M. ground floor, but thanks to WVUA I was a pretty early adopter. I bought “Murmur” around that time, probably at the grungy Vinyl Solution record store on the Strip. I was hooked and had no idea my love for R.E.M. was going to last well past college.

See the first post in this series here.

Next: 40 years later, still second guessing

 

That’s him in the corner: Michael Stipe sighting launches R.E.M. pilgrimage

Journeys sure do start unexpectedly sometimes.

If you follow them, they can take you to sacred moments from the past and then on to new places and discoveries of things you might have missed the first time. It’s risky, though. Trips to the past can bring joy but can stir up old heartbreak too.

This one started in an oyster bar in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. These are not places I frequent often — Manhattan or oyster bars in general. But Jennifer and I were near the end of a visit to the city earlier this year and enjoying our drinks amid the echoing clatter of food being served and the crunch of ice serving as temporary bedding for oysters.

We were deciding whether to add oysters to our order when the host seated a man several tables behind Jennifer who wasn’t quite as pedestrian-looking as the rest of us in the restaurant. He sported a bushy, gray beard, black horned-rim glasses and what in Alabama we always called a toboggan — you might call it a knit cap — covering his bald head.

I barely noticed those signifiers and focused mostly on the man’s nose (or septum) ring. It very gradually started to dawn on me I might be having a New York celebrity sighting. I asked Jennifer to Google to see if Michael Stipe wore a nose ring. A quick image search showed that he did, indeed, sport one — and horned-rim glasses and a long beard.

For me this wasn’t just any celebrity sighting. I described it to the kids this way: Think of your all-time favorite band, and then imagine the lead singer walking in and sitting a few tables over. I hadn’t really listened to R.E.M. much in a while, but the answer to “who’s your favorite band of all time,” would certainly, if I thought hard about it, always be R.E.M.

I didn’t bother Mr. Stipe, who was sitting alone at a small table near a window before being joined by someone a short time later. But boy did the R.E.M.-related moments and connections and missed opportunities and meaningful songs start stirring.

The posts that follow are what I imagine I’d have told him if he’d invited us over to his table for a chat.

Next up: Murmurs of new music in Tuscaloosa

 

 

 

A follow-up on site traffic

Nice example of having success generating more traffic to a blog. Textbook.

Talent in the Triangle

In my last post on my blog’s site traffic, I talked about just how little attention this blog was getting. In the month since, the traffic to my blog has gone up exponentially! I’m not even kidding, you guys. It’s a little ridiculous. I’m getting more than 10 hits a day, which doesn’t sound like much but is huge compared to the 10 hits total I had before.

So, clearly, I made a few changes in my posting style to make all this happen. First of all, I started posting more than I had been which should be an obvious tactic. Secondly, I started tagging my posts with key words that were relevant, like “North Carolina” “entertainment” and other terms someone would use in a Google search. Another thing I did was use more hyperlinks about the blog content to link to other pages, which I noticed specifically got those…

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New York Times spotlights problems with Alabama Music Hall of Fame; here are some possible solutions

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Photo via Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

It’s sometimes said all publicity is good publicity, so a New York Times story about the struggles of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is probably a good thing for the beleaguered museum.

Alabama Museum, in Area Where Stars Found Sound, Seeks an Audience: Tourists

The story suggests the museum, with its long history of closings due to funding problems, might need to do some things differently to be successful in the future, including moving to another city.

As a reporter and editor at The TimesDaily in Florence, I covered the hall of fame before it had a building or displays and was raising funds through an annual all-star concert in Birmingham.

I heard and met an amazing lineup of musicians and music industry types on this beat, including members of the country band Alabama, Martha Reeves of Vandellas fame, Jim Nabors, David Hood and Jimmy Johnson of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, blues legend Johnny Shines, Charlie Louvin, FAME Studios founder Rick Hall, bandleader Erskine Hawkins, the Commodores (minus Lionel Richie), Percy Sledge, Bobby Goldsboro, Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie and Marty Raybon of Shenandoah, Clarence Carter and more. One year’s show ended with a group of stars on stage for a spine-tingling rendition of “My Home’s in Alabama.”

(There were almost more people on stage as in the audience. The Birmingham News didn’t cover the event and the city didn’t support it particularly well.)

When the funds were raised, construction began in the late 1980s on a parcel of old cotton field off U.S. Highway 72 south of downtown Tuscumbia, one of the four cities that makes up the metro Shoals area of Alabama (Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals). The Shoals became home to the hall primarily because it was the general area where famous musicians had come to record at several recording studios, most prominently FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound. Also, the powers behind the hall of fame were mostly Shoals-area people with connections to the music industry.

The precise location, though, was a head-scratcher. It’s on a stretch of 4-lane highway that isn’t a main artery between any major points and is used manly by locals who live outside  Tuscumbia or are driving from Northwest Alabama to Corinth, Mississippi or maybe Memphis, Tennessee. The four cities’ metro population is about 200,000 and as you’d expect have several highly trafficked although smallish downtowns and newer, car-oriented commercial areas. For some reason, though, the hall was built just outside the metro area, on the opposite side the fairly busy Huntsville-to-Florence corridor.

When I lived in the area, the hall was surrounded by what would have been pretty countryside if it weren’t for the uneven distribution of over-lit gas stations, fast-food restaurants, billboards and newish churches with huge, paved parking lots.

In the late 1980s Tuscumbia itself was a dusty little town that could have been the location of a movie set during the Great Depression just by changing out the cars on the street. Over time, though, while the U.S. 72 site of the hall of fame gained new fast-food neighbors downtown Tuscumbia came back to life through the generous investments of a local millionaire, making the hall’s isolated location look even more ill-conceived and short sighted.

The Times reports the current debate about the hall centers on whether it should move to Huntsville, Birmingham or Montgomery with the argument being those cities have the critical mass that could keep the museum busy vs. those who’d prefer to keep it close to the  music culture and history of the Shoals.

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The second Muscle ShoalsSound Studios. The front, at left, overlooks a scenic stretch of the Tennessee River. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

I lean toward keeping it in the Shoals, but not at its present location, which never made much sense and has failed to draw crowds. This is easier said than done since the warehouse-like building is constructed around the band Alabama’s tour bus, among other built-in exhibits.

The downtowns of one of the Shoals cities or even a well-traveled commercial strip would be an improvement over the hall’s current location. If the reason for having it in the Shoals is because this is the state’s musical heart, then it would make sense to connect it to that music culture and heritage. Where it is now, it might as well be in Huntsville or Birmingham or Montgomery. It just sits by the highway, isolated and unconnected to much of anything.

Moving it near Muscle Shoals Sound Studios would connect it to that history, give the attraction added dimension and give people more incentive to visit. I was initially thinking of the second facility, located at 1000 Alabama Ave. in Sheffield — a beautiful spot on the Tennessee River — certainly an aesthetic improvement over the current location with the river offering an added attraction. When I worked in the area, the studio was still in use but has since closed, with some of its recording equipment sold.

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The more iconic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio building in Sheffield.

Another option might be the more famous and somewhat iconic original Muscle Shoals Sound Studios at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. It’s been purchased by a foundation for redevelopment. Either site could feature, in addition to museum exhibits, opportunities for visitors to watch actual recording, which would give the hall an extra dimension, coupled with the thrill of knowing these were places where actual stars like The Rolling Stones, The Black Keys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Percy Sledge, Art Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Cher and many others, recorded.

Stuck in a boxy building outside an already remote small town, the hall of fame is the definition of out of sight, out of mind. By connecting it to the rich Muscle Shoals-area music tradition, the place could be truly unique, be about much more than just Alabama music, and be a destination for music lovers of all kinds.