BY JIM DEES
The attributes and amenities of Oxford are well known: our civic charm, temperate weather and ravenous parking meters. But another plus of living here is how easy it is to get somewhere else. And not just any-somewhere else, but destinations revered worldwide for their music and culture: Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, even Muscle Shoals. All in our backyard or a morning’s drive away.
As the month of May heats up, the school year ends, vacations kick in and our national rallying cry can be heard: “Are we there yet?” I’ve had dinner trips to Memphis that felt like I’d been gone for days. Likewise, returning from a few days (and nights) in New Orleans can often leave a residue that resembles foreign travel. The garlic detox can be fierce.
Memphis is close enough to be considered the cooler, older brother of Oxford. For decades, the Peabody Hotel was almost the official capital of Mississippi, the scene of weddings, rendezvous and epic pep rallies. It was the only place ducks could tread around Mississippians without fear of winding up an entree.
We don’t have anything in Oxford quite as hip (or haunted) as Ernestine’s and Hazel’s. We have excellent BBQ but we’re the NIT compared to the Big Dance of Payne’s. Then there is the late, lamented Buntyn’s, a taste bud-blowing shrine to home cooking on Southern Avenue. It was worth the drive just for their yeast rolls. Sitting in that decades-old restaurant with its faded furnishings and yellowing photos, topping off a classic southern meal with pie from heaven, sometimes a train would trundle by on the tracks just outside the door. That’s when the transporting would take place. The psychic travel, perhaps aided by food delirium, made Oxford seem many miles, and years, away.
New Orleans, of course, has its own orbital pull. Going down there for any length of time and then driving back to Oxford satisfies – if not overloads – all the major sensory portals. You can eat on the way to eating, hear a great band on the way to hearing a great band and get happily sidetracked, all while never sitting down. Much like the trains of Memphis, the thick blast of river boat horns can transform a New Orleans vibe into a trip within the trip.
The closest we have to that in Oxford is the Civil Defense horn at noon on Wednesdays. Even our courthouse chimes have taken their toll.
As with Memphis, Oxford shares a long and storied history with New Orleans, from Faulkner’s forays in the 1920s to the Rebels’ Sugar Bowl trips, to blessed Archie becoming a Saint in 1971. More recently, New Orleans’ annual Jazz Fest, which presents every genre of music from around the world and wraps up the first weekend in May, is now a part of many Oxonian’s calendars.
As an unemployed 27-year-old in New Orleans in 1925, William Faulkner was living in a donated spare room and contemplating washing dishes when the Times-Picayune finally bought some of his “sketches.”
At the time, he was living on a dollar a day. When New Orleans played out, he would return to Oxford. Back home, he too used Memphis as a getaway. According to his biographer, Joseph Blotner, Faulkner would go to Memphis with his friend Phil Stone and “engage in the business of getting drunk with his friend [Reno DeVaux], a well-known Memphis gambler and roadhouse proprietor.” (I have Googled Reno DeVaux – anyone with that name and “roadhouse proprietor” in their bio bears a closer look – but that is a column for another day).
We talking geographic escapism here. Surely Oxford is one of very few small towns in America with such proximity to so many of this country’s bedrock musical and cultural locales. I mean, we’re only an hour away from Elvis in two directions!
We find ourselves in a Bermuda Diamond of Culture. I’m not suggesting Oxonians spend their money in other towns, heavens no. Shop local, my friends! But if you happen to find yourself on a slab of highway, in most any direction, you can really “get away.” Average Americans might be surprised at the wealth of cultural, culinary and artistic diversions we have right here in our little backwater outpost of Oxford and Lafayette County. The late author Willie Morris referred to this area as a “boondocks avant-garde.”
Indeed. As wonderful as it is to take flight into the Bermuda Diamond, and breathe in its other worldly pleasures—and eat way too much butter—sometimes the best part is the return trip and the sign saying, “Welcome to Oxford.”