Words & Music
Thacker Mountain Radio
For 12 weeks in the spring and 12 more in the fall, Off Square Books in downtown Oxford, Mississippi, is transformed into a performance space that hosts Thacker Mountain Radio. Caroline Herring and Bryan Ledford were Southern Studies students at Ole Miss when they conceptualized the program that features two of Mississippi’s most revered exports: literature and music.
“They saw a lack of venue space in Oxford for bluegrass music,” said Producer and Director Kate Teague, who ascended to her new role following Kathryn McGaw’s departure in February. “They had been to a Larry Brown reading at Square Books, and Blue Mountain was playing at the reading. They pitched the idea to Richard Howorth, the owner of Square Books, and he agreed.”
“Words and Music,” as it was then known, debuted in 1997 at a local bar called Blind Jim’s. The first band was led by Herring and Ledford and it was known as the Sincere Ramblers; when legendary musician and producer Jim Dickinson came onboard, he dubbed the house band the Yalobushwhackers. Today, that group features multi-instrumentalists Paul Tate and Slade Lewis, percussionist Wallace Lester, and pianist Mark Yacovone. Dickinson’s sons, Luther and Cody of the North Mississippi All-Stars, still swing by the program when they can.
The program has welcomed a remarkable collection of guests, including: JoJo Hermann of Widespread Panic, Drive-By Truckers, Elvis Costello, Joy Williams of the Civil Wars, Larry Brown, Marty Stuart, T-Model Ford, Kinky Friedman, Amy Ray of Indigo Girls, Ace Atkins, Barry Hannah, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, and Mississippi Poet Laureate Beth Ann Fennelly. A musician herself, Teague is now responsible for booking the artists, and she maintains a high-profile lineup by coordinating with Proud Larry’s (the local music club) and End of All Music (the local record store). Square Books General Manager Lyn Roberts books the literary guests.
Jim Dees has been hosting the show since 2000. He’s an author himself, who has penned The Statue and the Fury - a Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails. And for longer than anyone, he’s been the face—or voice, as it were—of the show.
“I've stayed with the show so long for a very simple reason: I don't have a life,” Dees jokes. “I'm kidding—kind of. I've hung with it all these years because it's fun. Who doesn't love books and music? Plus, I feel a kinship with the band and our sound crew, producers, interns, bookstore employees—the whole team. People have come and gone over the years, but we've been blessed to attract a cool group throughout 20 years.”
In addition to 24 shows during the Ole Miss school year at Off Square Books and the Lyric Theater, eight remote shows are hosted across the state in places like Jackson and Tupelo. The remote shows take place on Saturdays, and, as the show continues to grow, they’ll strive to expand their Southern footprint into Alabama.
“The most enjoyable thing about watching the show grow is remembering the early years when there might be more people on stage than in the audience,” Dees said. “The mandolin player had to climb on the roof to set up the antenna. The gig has come a long way from two cans and a string.” When an institution eclipses 20 years of existence, its legacy becomes as synonymous with its identity as its current product. And honoring that isn’t something that Dees takes lightly; he’s honored to be the torchbearer.
“I also feel a pride in the fact we've kept the show going for 20 years,” he said. “That continuity honors two of the show's leaders who have passed on. Guitarist Duff Dorrough and pianist Dickinson gave the show its cool and set a tone. We still use the theme song they wrote. The show living on helps them live on. Dickinson's epitaph is true, ‘I'm just dead, I'm not gone.’”
Thacker Mountain Radio airs live on Rebel Radio 92.1 and, since 2001, has been broadcast on Mississippi Public Radio. Live tapings are on Thursday’s at 6:00 p.m., with broadcasts on Saturday’s at 7:00 p.m. The 20th anniversary show takes place at the Lyric Theater on October 19. Herring and Ledford will return with the Sincere Ramblers, who’ll be joined by the Yalobushwhackers. Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers, Kenny Brown, and Bonnie Bishop will provide the music, while the evening’s author is Finn Murphy.
Words by Blake Ells
Photography by Ann-Marie Wyatt