A class in Southern balladry at the University of Mississippi helped inspire a successful singer/songwriter who returns to Oxford for two performances Feb. 28.
Caroline Herring, a Southern studies alumna known as a pre-eminent storyteller of the Gothic South, is slated to perform at Thacker Mountain Radio at Off Square Books at 5:30 p.m., followed by a show at Proud Larry’s (211 South Lamar Blvd.) at 8 p.m. A co-founder of the radio show, Herring is touring in support of her new album “Lantana,” due out March 4.
She credits her time at UM’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture for inspiration.
“My master’s in Southern studies greatly influenced my songwriting,” Herring said. “My songs are mostly about Southern people and Southern themes.”
Herring said her first real foray into Southern traditional music styles began in a Southern studies class, taught by Bill Ferris, former director of CSSC.
“I sang ‘Knoxville Girl,’ a murder ballad, and ‘Barbara Allen,’ a famous folk ballad, as my special assignment for the Southern balladry class and I haven’t turned back since,” she said.
After making a name for herself in Mississippi, Herring moved to Austin, Texas, where she released her critically acclaimed debut album, “Twilight.” The album won her Best New Artist at both the 2002 SXSW Austin Music Awards and the Austin American Statesman. She soon released the follow-up album “Wellspring.”
Touted as being intimate, powerful and honest, “Lantana” features all original songs, except for two traditional ballads, and is in many ways an artistic rebirth for Herring. Her songs represent the experiences of women who have not only faced the challenges of a childhood in the rural South but also the complex experiences of adult women.
Herring’s UM studies helped shape the themes of “Lantana.” Her thesis topic “The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching” comes through in the song “Fair and Tender Ladies,” about Montie Greer.
Craig Havighurst of The Tennessean in a review of Herring’s work said: “Mississippi’s dense history and the shackles of its past are vividly present in Herring’s songs. Characters come of age knowing something’s not in tune with their soul or conscience, but they can no more figure out where their own vices of race, class, gender, religion and politics came from than they can comprehend the roots of bigotry, social disdain or codes that keep women from realizing their potential.”
Reflecting on her time at Ole Miss, Herrin said, “I love Oxford, I love the Southern studies program in particular, and when I make my first $100 million, Drs. Abadie, Wilson and Ownby know that I plan to dedicate a significant portion to Southern studies student communal housing,” Herring said.