Oxford, Mississippi – Oxford Square and City Grocery…

From Greenville, Mississippi, in the Delta, I was able to make it to Oxford, Mississippi…which is outside of the Delta, a little after nightfall.  As part of the “Bourdain Effect”, my only destination was the bar above City Grocery Restaurant in Oxford Square, featured in the Parts Unknown – Mississippi episode.

I have to say this: Mr. Bourdain, and/or his friends, the program’s staff, or whomever does the research for his shows, definitely finds the most interesting, coolest places to go.  Oxford Square and City Grocery are no exception.  Oxford is a college town…home to the University of Mississippi…”Ole Miss”.  Oxford Square reflects that diversity that college towns tend to evolve into and cultivate.  It is lined with hip/trendy restaurants and boutiques, and was thriving with activity on this Thursday evening…people everywhere…heading out to a bar before dinner, and then dinner.  Here’s a photo of one side of the Square, and another of City Grocery’s storefront, with the bar on the second floor.

The Square reminded me of two college towns not far from where I live in Connecticut…Northampton and Amherst, Massachusetts.  But, being in Mississippi, a state that I was only barely beginning to scratch the surface of exploring, I was struck with a sense of warm familiarity juxtaposed with stepping into a deeply mixed history and culture that I knew very little about.

This time, I brought my nice DSLR camera with me into the bar, hoping to get a few nice photos.  I don’t know if it’s the camera, or that regulars at the bar see this stranger getting very involved in taking photos in their bar, but my camera has repeatedly become a sort of entrée, or calling card, wherever I go.  People notice it…they notice me…and they approach me.

Here are a couple of photos I took while sitting at the bar, playing with focusing first, on the reflection of a cool wine-bottle chandelier in the mirror behind the bar, and then, focusing on the chandelier, itself…just to see the effects.

And as I was ordering my dinner at the bar, I’m sure I chatted-up the bartender a bit, explaining my trip and how I had seen City Grocery on Parts Unknown (very touristy, I know).  Eventually, a very nice young couple, a few seats away, started up a conversation with me.  Apparently, they had overheard my conversation with the bartender, who is a friend of theirs.

Meet Josh and Chelsey, and the bartender (whose name escapes me, unfortunately).

Josh is a Mississippi Delta native, who had moved away, and eventually re-settled in Oxford.  Chelsey is a graduate of Ole Miss.  They were taken with my interest in Mississippi, the Delta region, and the South, in general.  They even bought me a drink and invited me over to chat.

So, over the course of, I think maybe an hour and a half, Josh and Chelsey explained a lot about the area, and gave me a list of “must-do” restaurants and museums that I need to eventually visit.  Here is the list that they compiled over the course of our conversation, and wrote on a couple of bar napkins.

Chelsey said she was also very interested in learning how to use a DSLR camera, so I gave her a little crash-course with mine.  Here is one of Chelsey’s photos, where I was explaining depth-of-field, and set a single auto-focus point on the camera.  I asked Chelsey to point the auto-focus point on the Budweiser sign to see the resulting foreground-blur.

And here’s another that I took with the same setting, to demonstrate foreground and background blur among the bar bottles.

Josh and Chelsey were the nicest couple.  I am so grateful that they struck up a conversation with me.  They made my night.  We exchanged contact info, and I sent them the photos I had taken of them.  They loved the photos.  When you are on the road, photos like these are a really nice way to thank some of the people you meet for their friendliness and hospitality.

Chelsey said that before I leave Oxford in the morning, I need to go to the Ole Miss campus and check out The Grove, which is a traditional/historical grove of trees deep in the campus, where on football game days, everyone sets up tailgate parties.  So, the next morning, I headed to the campus, which was only blocks from my hotel, and began my search for The Grove.

Little did I know, that my search for The Grove would eventually provide me with a tour of much of this beautiful, old…and huge…campus.  But, Chelsey had also cautioned me, that the posted speed limit on campus is a very odd 18 mph (which I think she said is in memory or in commemoration of an Ole Miss football player), and that I should not exceed this speed limit.  She said that she once got ticketed for going something like 19 mph.  So, I heeded her warning.

After at least a half an hour of creeping along a maze of roads on this very hilly campus, stopping every so often to ask directions from passing students and faculty who seemed as lost as I was, I eventually found  The Grove.  There was no game that day, so I wasn’t able to see The Grove in all of its tailgate-glory, but getting an accidental tour of the campus was really a treat.  Although, I have no idea how students even find their classes.

So, this was Oxford, Mississippi.  My next, and final, fun stop before heading home was a return visit to Nashville (there’s no such thing as too much Nashville).

Prelude to Meridian, Mississippi…

I love the use of “place names” in songs, like Emmylou Harris’ use of the city name, “Meridian”, (Meridian, MS), in her achingly haunting and heart-breaking masterpiece, Red Dirt Girl.  Here’s the first verse:

Me, an’ my best friend, Lillian…an’ her blue-tick hound-dog Gideon,
Sittin’ on the front porch…coolin’ in the shade…singin’ ev’ry song…the radio played,
Waitin’ for the Alabama sun to go down…two red-dirt girls in a red-dirt town…me an’ Lillian,
Just across the line…an’ a little southeast of Meridian.

Since songwriting, like poetry, is partly an exercise in conveying emotions and stories with brevity, the selective use of place-names in songs, in concert with other songwriting elements, has the ability to instantly immerse the listener in a specific place, drawing with it all of the listener’s own images, references and impressions of that place, real or imagined, without ever having to go into a description.  Place-names can instantly personalize a song.  If done right, the songwriter simply places the listener right there, inside the songwriter’s story…without the listener even realizing it.  It’s a bit of a magic trick.

I’ve never been to or through Meridian, until now.  I am only passing through…spending the night…and have no plans, except for maybe dinner at Weidmann’s, a local landmark I found online.  But in planning this trip, I thought of Emmylou’s song, and decided I just wanted to at least pass through Meridian…despite “Red Dirt Girl” taking place “Just across the line…an’ a little southeast of Meridian…”, if by chance that experience might get me a little closer to Emmylou’s inspiration for the song, as well as to be able…in the future…to sort of own the use of this place-name, or nearby place-names that I’ll also be passing through, in my own songwriting.  Meridian is only one of many cities and towns I’ll intentionally either be passing through or spending time in, on this trip, for exactly this reason.

I’m just this ordinary guy who happens to love playing with words, rhymes, chords and melodies, and happens to seriously-enjoy attempting to write songs…the best songs I possibly can…mostly for my own enjoyment…but, typically with the hope that others might like them, too.  I have no right to even be talking about songwriting, really.  But, I am pretty much obsessed with this, and do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about lyrics, working on songwriting, reading interviews with my favorite songwriters, gleaning insights into their process, watching my favorite songwriters up close in intimate concerts, and dissecting some of their songs to try to figure out how and why they work.

That said, this is one of the crazy ways that the divergently-thinking part of my mind works…drawing on the sound of a place-name…a place where I’ve actually been…its rhyming and rhythmic potential, the images a place conjures and my personal experiences in the place, itself.

There is a common saying about Country music: Country music is “three chords and the truth”.  Simplicity and honesty are the bedrock of any “Roots” music, I think.  They are what draw the listener in…this very plain, transparent, subtle or raw honesty that is so instantly relatable and universal.

I live in Connecticut…New England.  And as beautiful as it is here, I find it virtually impossible to draw any musical inspiration from this place, where I have lived my entire life.  I have no idea why that is.  For example, we have “Meriden” Connecticut.  Why not use “Meriden” in a song?  Sadly, Meriden connotes nothing to me, emotionally or musically.  I wish it did.  It would save me driving thousands of miles through the South and Texas to find inspiration (Who am I kidding?  I love these drives and these places.).

But, despite the spelling of “Meriden” being so close to “Meridian”, that they could have been twin cities separated at birth…musically and artistically for me, anyway…they are on different planets.  I have absolutely nothing against the city of Meriden.  I’m sorry, Meriden.  I guess I owe you a beer.

But, this is how my mind works.  For whatever reasons, for many years, I have been subconsciously drawn to my musical heroes’ use of place-names in their songs.  And now that I have some opportunities to go to some of these places, and many others (that for now, happen to be in the South and Texas)…I’ve decided to go…in order to see and feel these places…whether only passing through, or spending more time in them.

I am finding that, in this way, I at least feel like I’m getting closer to things that may have inspired some of my favorite singer-songwriters…whether that’s true or not…and am filling my own songwriting reservoirs with truthful experiences and memories to draw on, down the road.

I don’t know if this explanation makes any sense…but, this is one of the myriad ways this mysterious process of songwriting seems to work best for me.  Crazy, I know.