Reginald D Hunter’s musical guide to the South

The American comedian takes a fresh look at the Deep South on a tuneful road trip

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“When you think of American music, what you are thinking of is the South,” says Georgia-born Reginald D Hunter, who returned to his roots to film a documentary series for BBC2. “Blues, soul, jazz and country; they all crawled out of the swamps, mountains and cities of the southern states of America.”

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But where are the best places to stop and savour the sights and sounds? 


Gatlinburg (Tennessee)

“I haven’t spent much time in Tennessee, but what comes to my mind is lots of letters, college football, blues, Elvis, end of the road for Martin Luther King [who was shot dead in Memphis in 1968], Smoky Mountains, beautiful mountains. And hillbillies; the deadly kind. Clan-feuding, moonshining, inbred.

“‘Hillbilly’ has become a derogatory term for Southern mountain folk, but I wanted to go beyond the stereotype and discover the rich culture of an ancient and remote people.

“These people were legendary back in the day for the moonshine they distilled up in the hills. The best moonshine is as clear as water. It can put you on your ass! You don’t need to drink a lot of it – you couldn’t live if you drank a lot of it. The distilling of white whiskey by the light of the moon was synonymous with hillbilly culture. Mysterious, magical and, back then, illegal.

“Things have come a long way from the days of the still in a mountain shack. ‘Shine is now a taxable commodity and everyone’s invited to the party.”


Dollywood – The Dolly Parton Museum (Tennessee)

“Dollywood embodies what the new South has done with its heritage – bottled it up and served it back to a paying public. But it’s also kind of cool. Dollywood is the embodiment of several American narratives, the ones that we like.

“Local girl done good; local girl brings her family along to enjoy the fruits of her success; but the most popular American narrative is local girl makes money. Dolly done good.”


Albany (Georgia)

“I grew up in a town called Albany. It’s near the Georgia/Florida border, and referred to as the ‘Good Life City’. The sun makes its exit some time around 9 o’clock at night, and that long-hanging summer sun in the South? Can’t beat it. When that sun comes out, it’s porch and tea time. In a shrinking world where everywhere can feel the same, I find it refreshing to be back in a part of America where it can feel like time has stood still.

“I have to say, as I travel around the world and meet people and say I’m from Georgia, three out of five times they’ll go, ‘Georgia, Georgia on my mind’ [The song made famous by Ray Charles, but not written by him]. Then they’ll ask, is Georgia on my mind? That never gets old; it’s always original and fresh when someone asks that. It makes me feel like I’m in Georgia every time someone says that to me.

“Like Louis Armstrong and Louisiana, Georgia was slow in recognising Ray Charles as their favourite son. It was only in the latter portion of Ray Charles’s career that Georgia began to recognise that, ‘Hey, you know what? This is actually quite special. I know we normally treat black people this way, but we do ourselves a disservice in the eyes of others and even maybe ourselves, long term, if we don’t recognise this man now.’

“Georgia, the state that fined Ray Charles for refusing to play to segregated audiences, proclaimed his version of the song the official state song in 1979.”


Memphis (Tennessee)

“The Mississippi drains America. Its muddy waters start life as northern waste. But when the river reaches Memphis the magic begins.

“The city that gave the world the blues of Bobby Bland and BB King dines out on its musical heritage. Downtown Memphis isn’t as gentrified as some historically black areas in New York, but the tale of Memphis’s most famous thoroughfare is that of the typical black American inner city. Beale Street is the heart and soul of old Memphis.

“In the 1860s black travelling musicians began to play here, and by the 1900s many clubs were owned and frequented by black Americans. It was in this atmosphere of booze, colourful characters and music that the Memphis blues was born.

“But then the Great Depression came to Beale Street, and it never left. By the 1960s the street was almost completely boarded up. Attempts at urban renewal destroyed the town’s black cultural centre and created a tourist theme park. It’s what America does best when it’s tired of portions of its past. It destroys it, evicts it, coops it up and sells part of it back to you.”

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Reginald D Hunter: Songs of the South is on BBC2 this Saturday 21 February at 9.00pm