I was standing in a cemetery near Onancock, sweating in the mid-July heat, when Chuck Reece asked me how I got from radio journalism into ministry. I was supposed to be interviewing him, but Chuck Reece, even over the phone, is a master at sniffing out stories and he trained his curiosity on me before I got down to asking him about The Bitter Southerner, his labor of love.
I had intended to be back at the office for this. Or at least in some air-conditioning. But I had been detained down the road and so I had to search out some relatively quiet space to call and record. The cicadas in the tall trees made a fuss, but otherwise the graveyard suited. I set my laptop up to record and made the call to Atlanta.
I began with flattery, though not insincere. Deborah Lewis, my colleague in campus ministry and a fine writer herself, had put me on to the Southern-oriented online magazine a few years back. I told Chuck, “In the course of watching you change and grow over the last five years, I’ve also started my own blog which was designed to try to understand what is happening to rural America in the wake of 2016 elections.”
“And you’re doing a nice job with it actually.” He was luring me in. I fell for it.
“Oh, have you taken a look at it? Oh good. It’s been fun. I started out as a radio news director and disc jockey at a country music station and this kind of takes me back to the days of that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants journalism when I didn’t have any guidance or direction. I was right out of college and they just wanted something to make us sound local. I just got to follow my curiosity wherever it went.”
“What led you from journalism to the ministry?” There was the question.
“It’s a long story but probably the shortest answer is Annie Dillard.”
“Well, there you go! I get that.”
Let me just say right here that Chuck Reece is awesome.
The Bitter Southerner began as the brainchild of Reece and his partner, Dave Whitling. They claim that the spur to their five-year-old project was a beef about bartending—specifically the lack of respect that Southern practitioners of the craft receive. If you look at the ‘About’ page of the site, that legend is there.
But their ambitions were grander than a simple blog about drinks could contain. With a background in covering media and design and that honed ear for a killer story, Reece was always going to go for something larger. And that’s there on the ‘About’ page, too:
Recent election results suggest that the Southern mind hasn’t evolved much, that we’re not much different from what we were in 1936, when Faulkner was struggling yet again with the moral weirdness of the South. Almost 80 years later, it’s still too damned easy for folks to draw the conclusion that we Southerners are hopelessly bound to tradition, too resistant to change.
But there is another South, the one that we know: a South that is full of people who do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions. Drinking. Cooking. Reading. Writing. Singing. Playing. Making things. It’s also full of people who face our region’s contradictions and are determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window. The Bitter Southerner is here for Southern people who do cool things, smart things, things that change the whole world, or just a few minds at a time.
The world knows too little about these people, which is, alas, another reason to be bitter. But it prompted us to create The Bitter Southerner™.
So the site has evolved into something more vibrant, more ambitious, and more weird than can be wrangled into a simple description. It’s a collection point for new angles on Southern culture. And for some of the best writing about the South on the web.
Perhaps you can see the attraction. For someone who was voted by his college roommates as ‘most likely to end up on a porch writing country music by a rusty refrigerator,’ The Bitter Southerner is salve to the soul. And to have all that plus an appreciation for Annie Dillard? This was prime territory for a Heartlands interview.
“So, let me tell you about my Bitter Southerner story for the day,” I told Chuck. “I got up this morning and I read your article about Who Owns a Woman’s Shoulders.” The article, by Caralyn Davis, was an uncomfortably accurate picture of the over-familiarity some male church members feel in approaching women in church settings. The article was written by a United Methodist lay woman about her mother’s experience in a lay speaking class.
“It hit me, as a United Methodist District Superintendent, right where I live,” I told Chuck. “So I reposted it on Facebook and it’s been blowing up. It was exactly the kind of story that I think I appreciate the most about your site—it was personal, it described a subculture within the South that is definitely there and definitely ripe for looking at in new ways, and yet it touched on some really deep and bigger issues, too.”
CR: Those personal essays—that was a really weird thing. When we started, the first 12 months, all we did was the one big feature story every Tuesday. People just started sending us these things. We hadn’t asked for them and after a while the stack got pretty high—the virtual stack, of course. And you know what? Some of them were really well done and even the ones that weren’t written so well, you could tell that they were written with feeling and purpose.
When we got through the first year and said, “OK, we’re gonna keep doing this,” and we started trying to make some money so we could start paying writers, we were like “Well, let’s start publishing one of these every week on a Thursday,” and that’s how the Folklore Project section came about. It’s sort of amazing the quality that we see in those things and I like the fact that The Bitter Southerner must feel to people like a community in which such stories are welcomed and understood.
People have felt welcomed and understood in the Bitter Southerner community. It’s not just the personal essays that get published in the Folklore Project section. Writers, especially younger writers, seek the site out to pitch ideas. “I think these younger writers know that we’ll edit them with care and they know that we will make their story really, visually appealing on the web,” Chuck says. “It’s like I used to say to people when we were begging for stories for free: “At least you’ll get a good looking clip out of it.”
The Heartlands interview with Chuck Reese continues here…