James Redd of Starkville, at left, and Michael Smith of Columbus rehearse Monday night in Smith’s garage. Both are creative writers who also relish writing and performing original songs. They have begun playing publicly as Wild Magnolias. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
February 16, 2013 8:51:35 PM
Brash light filled the garage, draping weed eaters and leaf blowers in stark fluorescence. But the music reverberating around the boxy space during rehearsal would have been at home in any dimly lit venue where verse and chorus tell stories, and curious souls come to drink them in.
Telling stories is something Michael Farris Smith and James Madison Redd are good at.
Smith, an associate professor of English at Mississippi University for Women, awaits the release of his debut novel, "Rivers," by Simon & Schuster in September.
He has been awarded the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship, the Transatlantic Review Award for Fiction, the Alabama Arts Council Fellowship Award for Literature, and the Brick Streets Press Short Story Award. His short fiction has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous literary reviews and anthologies. His 2011 novella, "The Hands of Strangers, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing.
Redd will complete his doctorate in creative writing at Mississippi State in May. His monthly online Crooked Letter Interview Series for the internationally-recognized Prairie Schooner literary magazine -- published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studied -- features esteemed Mississippi writers such as Richard Ford, Sonny Brewer, Michael Kardos, Catherine Pierce and Steve Barthelme. Redd, a Booneville native, is a recipient of a Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Prize, writes short stories, poetry and is near completion of a novel.
But there's more to these literary men than may first meet the eye. Music is essential to both of them.
It was Redd's desire to interview Smith for the Crooked Letter Series that first brought the wordsmiths together. That, and the Welty Writers' Symposium at MUW in October 2012, where they began to discover they had more in common than writing. By December, they were jamming in Smith's Columbus garage. By February, they were the Wild Magnolias (adopted from the title of one of Smith's songs) and were taking their original material to singer/songwriter nights at Dave's Dark Horse in Starkville, and other venues.
In the best tradition of writers and musicians who cross over -- think Stephen King, Larry Brown, Leonard Cohen, Patterson Hood, Ryan Adams, even Dylan -- Smith and Redd tap into the music and let it nourish their creativity.
"For me, it's exhilarating; it's instant gratification," explained Smith, taking a break during rehearsal for a gig at Old Venice in Starkville. "In writing, there's a lot of quiet time (between projects). With music, you play it that night and get instant feedback."
Both authors write original songs. As with his books, Smith wants his to convey stories. They often spring from a phrase he'll nurse in his head and bring to fruition on the guitar.
"I think about words all the time," explained the English professor, who leans toward the grittier storytellers like Steve Earle, Martin Zellar, Uncle Tupelo and Ryan Adams from his Whiskeytown days as musical influences.
Many of Redd's songs spring from poetry he's written, words already embedded in his consciousness, just looking for a riff or melody to take them to a whole new audience.
"Music fuels my creativity," said the longtime performer, who goes by "Mississippi Jimmy Redd" on stage.
Golden Triangle fans will know him from the band Big Blue Truck. He's also recording keyboard with the Old Memphis Kings soon for an album slated for release in April.
"I love Neil Young; he's been my musical father, and he taught me a lot about how to arrange a song," Redd explained. "I've also been influenced by the people I've played with over the years, watching them, talking about songs, taking them apart. Through performing, Ive learned to watch and grow."
Both Smith and Redd praise a strong influence from the pulpit. Both are preacher's sons.
"I was listening to gospel music from the time I could crawl," shared Smith, whose dad is a retired Southern Baptist minister. He feels it's where he first absorbed the lyrical rhythm of language. "I think that has a lot to do with being able to write," he said.
For Redd, it was often the preaching itself, the cadence, the rise and fall, the structure of the sermons in his father's independent Methodist church, that inspired.
"And those old gospel songs taught me so much about songwriting and how harmonies work," he added.
For each of the writer/singer/songwriters, it comes down to expressing what's inside, knitting words together to create vivid pictures, characters and emotions. Being able to channel it into music, as well as the written page, is icing on the proverbial cake.
"I think I'm a better musician because I'm a writer," mused Smith, who usually spends some time on the guitar before his solitary morning writing sessions.
"I'll just strum through two or three songs; it helps open me up and relax. I've found that to be really helpful to my writing process," he said. "And I think my writing has made it easier for me to write lyrics to songs."
His Wild Magnolias partner said, "I'm the kind of guy who'll get immersed in something for a while. I'll be writing poetry for a month, or stories, or just writing songs. What's great for me is that I'll get stymied if I only do one thing, so if I have these other outlets, I'll always have the potential to be creative in some way; that's how they feed off each other for me."
The writers are reveling in a newfound musical synergy and looking forward to what comes.
The immediate outlet is fulfilling for Smith, especially now while he is between books.
"I'm waiting for 'Rivers' to come out, and I've already submitted another manuscript to the publisher. I don't like to lie dormant for long, and music fills the waiting spaces," he said.
Redd added, "The really important thing is just being open to all the possibilities for creative output."
And there can be something a little thrilling -- and "wild" -- in that.
" Them waters they're rolling down toward New Orleans town
I've been cooped up too long in east St. Louis, waiting for the next barge
Steamboats and arches and bridges and silos and cannons down in Vicksburg,
leevees threaten breaking to strand me helpless in a cotton field
before I can make my money and come home to you honey and get me some
sweet Mississippi love."
From "Mississippi Love," by James Redd
"I wait for a purple sky
where women dance and the moon is high'
and somewhere back across the line
I see the smoke of a better time."
From the song "Stranded," by Michael Smith
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.