Twelve years ago, Athens rock outfit Drive-By Truckers released Southern Rock Opera, an ambitious double album that commented on the South's proud traditions, darker past, and misunderstood nature. Frontman Patterson Hood penned the lyrics "the duality of the Southern thing" to describe the underlying, discordant feelings of pride and shame that come with living below the Mason-Dixon Line.
The Bitter Southerner, a new Atlanta-based website that publishes original stories about the South, grew out of that sentiment. Launched in early August, veteran scribe Chuck Reece and designer Dave Whitling produce one new story every week about the region. Each longform feature offers a nuanced look beyond its blemished racial history, conservative reputation, and occasionally backward culture.
Reece and Whitling have long embraced the South, warts and all, and have carried a chip on their shoulder whenever outsiders incorrectly characterize the region. Over the years, they both felt slighted over how national lists underrepresented its institutions. After originally setting out to create a publication devoted to Southern alcoholic beverages, they decided to expand the website's concept.
"We thought it [should] be more than just cocktails," Reece says. "We didn't know why it should be, we just knew we had the chance to tell a lot more stories and not be fenced in by particular segments."
The online publication has caught the eye of like-minded Southerners, filling a niche between Garden & Gun and the Oxford American with its thoughtful, specific mission. During its first three months, the website has covered Southernness in the form of drinks (Holeman & Finch bartender Greg Best), strip clubs (Clermont Lounge), and zombies ("The Walking Dead"). It's also recruited high-profile contributors such as Hood, who described how his views on "the Southern thing" have changed since writing Southern Rock Opera, and Atlanta novelist Charles McNair, who recalled how a 1963 Birmingham church bombing helped him overcome his father's prejudices.
Like his writers, Reece's relationship to the region isn't simple. He grew up in Ellijay, a 1,600-person North Georgia mountain town, and witnessed many of the South's stark traditions firsthand. He credits his father, a World War II veteran who helped liberate Buchenwald, with steering him away from deep-seated bigotry. He's viewed the South in that light ever since.
"Once you start learning things about the heritage of the region, [you've] got to separate yourself from it in some way," he says.
After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1983, Reece's writing career zigzagged from staff gigs with Adweek and Georgia Trend to a three-year stint as former Gov. Zell Miller's press secretary. He delved into an 18-year corporate communications career, but felt the urge to return to journalism. After teaming up with Whitling at Unboundary, where they collaborated on multimedia projects for clients, the duo decided to use their creative skills to tell stories of the South.
"I had a weird career path." Reece says. "[But] I really missed journalism. This feels like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."
Reece and Whitling quit their full-time jobs and are freelancing to pay the bills as the Bitter Southerner finds its way. When they launched, Reece says the co-founders promised each other that they'd focus on the site's growth for the first three months without worrying about a long-term financial plan. They'll soon cross that road, which Reece admits may present major challenges given the site's model.
Despite lacking an editorial budget, Reece has seen a growing interest from readers and potential contributors who identify with the Bitter Southerner's voice. That's an encouraging sign, he says, that they're on the right track.
"We got writers and photographers getting in touch from Nashville, Asheville, Kentucky, [and] Arkansas," he says. "People came out of the woodwork. ... The response was much greater than we had anticipated."
While the clock's ticking, the Bitter Southerner's editor largely remains focused on fulfilling its mission. Some upcoming features will cover Henri Matisse's great grandson Alex Matisse, an Asheville-based potter; Marie Rudisill, a television personality known as Florida's "fruitcake lady" and who was Truman Capote's aunt; and Rural Studio, Auburn University's design-build architecture studio that works in West Alabama's Black Belt region.
As for Reece, he's slowly chipping away on a story of his own about Killer Mike and his relationship to the city, state, and region. Not only does Reece love the Atlanta rapper's music, he thinks the story will further the Bitter Southerner's mission.
"Mike identifies himself as a Southerner," Reece says. "When I interviewed him, he said, 'I drive a pickup truck, but I don't have a Dixie flag on my bumper.' Over time, we want to cover the whole experience. That's rather limitless and it doesn't always get fully explored."
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