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Holler If You Can Hear Me
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Bynam, North Carolina, is a town that you can literally look the other way while going through and miss entirely. In the town center, what was once a general store/post office is now a local venue for small events showcasing new Southern music and arts. Food trucks with gelato, hotdogs, and Eastern-style BBQ are parked just outside the front door and I swear the square footage of the trucks seems to outdo that of the General Store. Inside it is hot as h-e-l-l. I mean juke joint hot. Multiple fans buzz around us and little kids run from one end of the store to the other, opting in the end to bolt out the back door to lengthen the landing strip for their game of tag or whatever kids play at these days.

I was there to help celebrate a lover’s birthday get-together: a concert by Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes. I found myself at the most unlikely spot for a dose of hip hop, string band, old time, and R&B sound all smashed together. As one music critic notes, “The Mary Annettes … offer a future vision of what folk music could sound like, taking polyglot turns through several different strains. There’s hip hop and Appalachian tunes, indie-rock balladry and a touch of (thanks to Stohl) Klezmer. Their songs are testaments to integration or at the very least cooperative creation, where old ideas get stronger by colliding, fracturing and forming something new.” Back at the general store, the crowd was a mix of hipsters, thirty-somethings, and queer folks munching on vegan burritos and at times sitting perfectly still in the stifling heat waiting for Robinson’s band to play cuts from their debut CD, Bones for Tinder . Of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame, Justin Robinson was now with his own act, but with the memory of fiddler Joe Thompson’s sound and the soft echo of the holler not far behind. As many of us know, the Carolina Chocolate Drops took their name from the Tennessee Chocolate Drops—another black string band that recorded in the 1930s, their most anthologized piece being the “Knox County Stomp”—like the hip hop that we know today, string bands seemed to proliferate these versions of territorial battling, each band coming out with a faster or meaner version of the original.

Justin Robinson married a man in Boston, Massachusetts, because he could not do so in North Carolina. And he still can’t since on May 8, 2011, North Carolina voters passed an amendment to the state constitution. In short, it provided that “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.” You have got to love the way in which the amendment both restricts civil liberties, while also safeguarding property rights and contract law. Nice.

A woman just in front of me is sweating so profusely, I think she just might fall out. A man two rows down from me wears a T-shirt with a Confederate flag on the back and something about a history lesson scribbled under it—I pay little attention to him, except for the fact that he is blocking my narrow view of the stage. A tall black man in the crowd catches my eye and we both crank our chins in the direction of the man with the history T-shirt and we shake our heads: … it takes all kinds … bless his heart.

When the Mary Annettes finally get going, I am mesmerized. I love it … all of it. Sure, I remember the Chocolate Drops—who wouldn’t remember lyrics like “Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table/ Eatin’ beans and making love as long as I am able,” or the 2010 cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up Style.” But in this post–Amendment One state, it has been a while since we have felt like a...

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