Historian Michael O’Brien has called the South’s music Southern culture’s “major contribution” to the world. The South has offered the world Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Bluegrass, and Rock and Roll. Without the South we would lack the music of Elvis, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Robert Johnson, and Bessie Smith. Southern, and American, music presents us with a living tradition. Our best music grows out of, and invigorates, our culture. Thus, it serves as a means of keeping traditional culture alive and passing it along to posterity. In that spirit, I pass along to you some musical suggestions for giving as Christmas presents. This is not intended as a “best of” list. Rather, these are merely some recent Southern albums (and an older box set) I have enjoyed. Maybe someone on your Christmas list will enjoy them as well.
The Secret Sisters, “Put Your Needle Down”
North Alabama has produced a lot of good music recently. Within the past couple years the Civil Wars, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, and the Secret Sisters have all recorded albums worth giving a listen. The Secret Sisters harmonize as well as the great sibling duos of yore. Among the stand-out tracks here are “Iuka,” “I Cannot Find a Way,” and “Rattle My Bones.”
Doc Watson, “Southbound”
This is a reissue on vinyl of an album originally released in 1966. North Carolina’s Watson was one of the best to ever play guitar. To paraphrase the great Guy Clark, I’ve not seen the Mona Lisa, but I’ve seen Doc Watson play “Columbus Stockade Blues.” My favorite songs on this album are “Walk On Boy,” “Tennessee Stud,” and “Riddle Song.”
Johnny Cash, “Out Among the Stars”
This is an album Johnny Cash recorded in the early 1980s that sat around for thirty years before finally being released this past year. That a Johnny Cash album, and one that also features June Carter Cash, Waylon Jennings, Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Bryan Sutton, sat in a vault for thirty years while Florida Georgia Line was allowed to happen tells you all you need to know about the current state of the country music industry. My favorite songs on this album are “Baby Ride Easy,” “She Used to Love Me a Lot,” “I’m Movin’ On,” and “I Drove Her Out of My Mind.”
Gram Parsons, “180 Gram”
Many of these alternate takes of Gram Parsons’ songs feature Emmylou Harris.
R.E.M., “MTV Unplugged 1991/2001”
Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M. at the top of their game.
This is an amazing, and absolutely essential, 2003 gospel box set. There are so many rare gems here I would not know where to start. It has 135 songs, covering the years 1902-1960, on five CDs, and another CD with 25 sermons.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
 Michael O’Brien, Rethinking the South: Essays in Intellectual History (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 169.