J.D. Wilkes Puts the American South's Contradictions Up for Reconsideration

A novel that believes monsters are “as much a part of us as our penchant for fried chicken and turnip greens.”

The Vine That Ate the South

Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Length: 218 pages
Author: J.D. Wilkes
Price: $15.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-04

“Best way to plant Kudzu? Hold it out, drop it and run.” It’s probably one of the oldest jokes in the American South. After all, no one who has ever experienced kudzu would even contemplate planting it. It’s also the first line of dialogue in The Vine That Ate the South, a novel by author and musician J.D. Wilkes. Indeed, Kudzu is at the center of this mythic and mysterious tale that opens with our narrator making plans to find an elderly couple who had reportedly been swallowed whole by it.

To say that the narrator is colorful is an understatement. To say he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator is also probably an understatement. He describes his forthcoming journey as his “first and last childhood adventure” -- even though he's in his 30s and tells his readers, “Understand, much of my actual childhood was spent in a state of arrested development inside a fatherless home. I typically stayed out of the sun, alone in the woods or indoors reading books. I loved anything having to do with Greek mythology, philosophy, the classics, or the Bible. Alas, I am now the type of guy who says ‘alas’.”

His search takes him into the most rural parts of Kentucky and is prompted by the most epic of causes: true love. He hopes that his journey will help him win the heart of Delilah Vessels, with whom he lost his virginity and with whom he more recently shared a DQ Blizzard. He's joined by “expert guide and kindred spirit” Carver Canute. Together they head into a haunted forest in a “forgotten corner” of Western Kentucky.

From here, it becomes the wildest of rides, where concepts like time seem simply to vanish and where we never know what our adventurers will encounter next or when the narrator will choose to flash back and reveal another bit of his past. The narrator’s flashbacks relate primarily to his family. His mother makes regular appearances, but most of the flashbacks focus on the narrator’s father, who dies when the narrator is quite young and whose last words to his son are “SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET YER ASS TO SLEEP.”

In present day and in the forests of western Kentucky, Carver and the narrator meet a set of equally colorful characters. Some are human but others are not (and some perhaps are halfway in between). There are giants, water serpents, sin eaters, a sad (and abused) buzzard (who perhaps someone ironically ends up being a bit of a hero at the end of the story), and the Bell Witch -- a very famous demon from Tennessee. Demons and monsters, our narrator explains, are “as much a part of us as our penchant for fried chicken and turnip greens.”

The idea of what it means to be Southern is as much a part of this book as the search for the couple consumed by kudzu. The American South is a tricky thing. Perhaps more so than any other region of the United States, it’s stereotyped, ignored, branded, rebranded, labeled and ridiculed. In reality, the American South is, as the back of the book states, full of contradictions, and The Vine That Ate the South puts many of those contradictions front and center -- through the setting, the various characters and perhaps most clearly through the narrator, who often seems to be a walking contradiction.

With lines like “Trite but true: technology has ostensibly solved most of our problems yet created entirely new ones to take their place” the narrator is, at times, practical and logical. Sometimes -- for example, when he comments that everyone knows cicadas hum in the key of C# -- he’s hard to take seriously. Other times, he passes by quirky and moves to just downright odd (but strangely enough in a logical sort of way), such as when he hopes that God is “kind of a dumbass. With coke-bottle glasses, mismatched socks, and maybe his fly open. Because how can you stay mad at that?” At other times, he seems almost a throwback to another age with his gentle reader references: “I ask you, gentle reader. No, I beg you! What is it with plastic mannequins and visionaries of the American South?”

Some of the narrator’s contradictions and eccentricities are distinctly Southern, but others are more universal. Toward the end of the novel, he relates with elegant simplicity, “I always thought that growing old and dying was one of the coolest things I’d ever get to do.”

The narrator also voices thoughts on race, family, poverty and obesity. His commentary along with Wilkes’ ability to spin a story and craft language that's as inventive and clever as the book’s plot combine to create something special that's a bit of a contradiction itself -- a book that feels both classic and new, mythic and modern.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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