Some people call it (Fairhope) an artist’s colony, and that is true, since you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a serious-faced novelist.
– Rick Bragg “Fairhope, Alabama’s Southern Comfort” for Smithsonian.com, June 2009
On the Alabama Gulf Coast, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, folk artists, and photographers. Many of these are known across the country for their work, but here, they are neighbors, friends, or the parent of a student in your child’s class. They are just another one of us who grew up here or moved here to be closer to the water and an easier way of life.
Unlike Mississippi blues or New Orleans jazz, there is no label that easily defines Gulf Coast music. Jimmy Buffett will always be our favorite son, but we are much more than Margaritaville. Local musicians can build a following based on their individual songwriting and music style without playing Lynyrd Skynyrd cover songs. From the flamenco jazz of the band Roman Street to the rural southern storytelling of Grayson Capps, there is diversity in our music. “Music on the Gulf Coast is organic and community based,” says Mobile singer Lisa Mills. “It is rooted in actual living and people knowing each other. It is a musical melting pot of blues, soul, gospel, folk and country. It is all the things that are truly southern.”
Our music venues and radio stations provide stages and airtime for a wide range of local musicians. “This is an exciting time because the public cares about the quality of music,” says Catt Sirten, host of Radio Avalon and Catt’s Sunday Jazz Bruch on 92 ZEW. Sirten has introduced new music, promoted local musicians, and provided the soundtrack of the Gulf Coast for almost 30 years. “Live music is becoming more than just the background for the bar scene. You go to an art museum to look at art and now we have music venues where you go to listen to music. Musicians are appreciated as artists with something to say. There is so much talent here and we have as good a musicians as any place in the world.”
Good music is easy to find any night of the week. Clubs on Dauphin Street in Mobile, storm-battered restaurants on the Causeway, beach bars, neighborhood pubs, and barbecue and blues joints help support a community of full-time musicians. “The Gulf Coast is a musician’s dream,” says Anthony Crawford of Sugarcane Jane. A Nashville musician for 25 years, Crawford played with Neil Young, Steve Winwood, Dwight Yoakam, and Vince Gill, but left Nashville to get away from the demands of the music industry. “The music community is alive and thriving on the coast because there are many people who want to hear music,” says Anthony. “We get to play for people that visit from across the country and around the world, but still get to stay close to our families and sleep in our own beds at night. Playing music here is about life and reality, not the business of music. There is a social interaction with an opportunity to make friends that genuinely care about you. That kind of appreciation can’t be purchased.”
The Gulf Coast singer/songwriter culture began almost 35 years ago when Joe Gilchrist bought the small Flora-Bama Package and Liquor Store and hired singer/songwriters to play in the shack in the back. In 1978, the Flora-Bama was in the middle of nowhere, but the crowds grew quickly. “It was the people of the Gulf Coast who made it possible for songwriters to play here,” says Jimmy Louis, one of the Flora-Bama’s first songwriters. “They were willing to listen to the songs we wrote and would listen to any genre. That is why songwriters from Nashville and other places gravitated down here. It wasn’t just about the Flora-Bama, it was about the people in the audience.”
From the Mobile Museum of Art, The Coastal Art Center of Orange Beach, and the Eastern Shore Art Center in Fairhope, to Mardi Gras floats, outdoor park sculptures, and storefront windows, art is always present on the coast. It is chandeliers, evening dresses, and jewelry blowtorched out of old 55-gallon oil drums. It is photographs of vibrant sunsets leaving pink, purple, and orange reflections on breaking waves. It is shrimp, jellyfish, and crabs painted on tar paper in art therapy classes at the Regional School in Mobile.
“We have many different types of artists on the coast, but there is a connection or a new inspiration that comes from meeting each other,” says Nancy Raia, Director of Outreach at the Eastern Shore Art Center. “Art is about those connections and sharing our stories. There is so much here that feeds your soul.”
The natural beauty of the bays, rivers, Mobile Delta, and the Gulf provides a peace and calm that relaxes artists, but also stirs their thinking. Artists describe this peace of mind as the only way to hear the voices in their head and unlock their imagination.
“Without peace of mind, you don’t have anything. Here I can get quiet enough to listen to the ghosts of the driftwood and old farm metals as I fit them together,” says Bruce Larsen, an internationally known sculptor and special effects designer. “I moved from Atlanta to Fairhope because I had to be near the water. Fairhope is like a little campfire that draws in artists and people that appreciate the arts. It is also a good place to drop off the map. You can make your art and do your shows and still be normal.”
The Gulf Coast has a long tradition of attracting and nurturing writers. Writing clubs are popular and books by local authors fill two walls at the Page and Palette bookstore in Fairhope.
“Writers always say they like to be in such a lovely place because the beauty of the landscape itself and the water are a kind of inspiration,” says Pulitzer prize-winning author Rick Bragg. “I think writers just like to be where it’s easy, and this is an easy, easy place. Pretty, certainly, and calming. I have always said it is a place where I can draw a breath because it’s easy.”
Some of the country’s best writers, such as Bragg (All over But the Shoutin’), Winston Groom (Forrest Gump), and Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes) live here or have homes here. They have collectively sold millions of books, but they are our voice when they write essays about life along our coast.
Water has always defined the city. Right above Mobile Bay is the delta, nearly four hundred square miles of pristine cypress swamps, marsh bays, rivers, and bayous, and the domain of swamp creatures from eagle to alligator. It’s all a sportsman’s paradise, with speckled trout, white trout, redfish, and tarpon in the bay and its tributaries, and green trout (or bass, as Yankees call them) and bream in the delta. In the fall there’s duck hunting, and still some respectable dove shooting out from town. In the upper reaches of the delta, deer and turkey abound, and for you hog shooters and squirrel barkers—have at it, we got more than the Lord allows.
– Winston Groom “Why Life is So Good On Mobile Bay,” Garden and Gun February/March 2011
A town of about 17,000, Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook the bay. It’s not some pounded-out tortilla of a coastal town—all tacky T-shirt shops, spring break nitwits and $25 fried seafood platters—but a town with buildings that do not need a red light to warn low-flying aircraft and where a nice woman sells ripe cantaloupe from the tailgate of a pickup. This is a place where you can turn left without three light changes, prayer or smoking tires, where pelicans are as plentiful as pigeons and where you can buy, in one square mile, a gravy and biscuit, a barbecue sandwich, fresh-picked crab meat, melt-in-your-mouth beignets, a Zebco fishing reel, a sheet of hurricane-proof plywood and a good shower head.
– Rick Bragg “Fairhope, Alabama’s Southern Comfort” for Smithsonian.com, June 2009
Writers, musicians, and artists gather bits of our world and lay them out in ways that we understand. They take the everyday ups and downs and give them back to us in stories, songs, and visual art. This creative impulse lives not only in our artists and musicians, but also in the imaginations of our teachers, entrepreneurs, chefs, shipbuilders, art patrons, fishermen, parents, and students. We share a spirit of discovery, a desire to experience something new. These discoveries often spring from the music, art, and writing of where we live. The Alabama Gulf Coast brings out the artist in all of us.