2017, america, Best Of, favorites, list, music, Music, music mix, Best Albums

2017 | The Year In Music

A Good Year For The Veterans. But Where Were The Surprises?

Unlike 2015 and 2016, this year's list is a bit lacking in 'new music discoveries' (which is, admittedly, half the fun of sharing an 'end of year list'). Instead, 2017 was a year when some dependable artists put out really solid albums of new music (ie: Hiss Golden Messenger, Dan Auerbach, The War On Drugs, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, David Ramirez, and Cataldo). The exceptions to this generalization are the other albums stirred into the favorites list below, notably Jake Xerxes Fussell, Ana Tivel, ALA.NI, Overcoats, and Bedouine.

And although I scoured list after list of other people's 'Best Albums' of 2017, very little from those lists caught or captured my attention (I'm looking at you NPR, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, etc.), which is really disappointing because December is usually a time when I stumble upon several new artists / albums that end up becoming long term favorites. But none of the favorite 'new artists' below (those artists that are 'new to me' at least) knocked me out in the same way that Wet, Chance The Rapper, Foy Vance, and Sturgill Simpson did in 2016.

But maybe I missed some amazing 'knock-me-out' artists or albums from 2017? Perhaps you can help...please comment below and share any favorite albums from 2017 that I omitted and that I need to hear. 

Anyway, here's my list (the album names link to artist videos)...

  1. Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up
  2. Jake Xerxes Fussell, What In The Natural World
  3. Cataldo, Keepers
  4. ALA.NI, You & I
  5. Bedouine, Bedouine
  6. Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow
  7. Lillie Mae, Forever And Then Some
  8. Iron & Wine, Beast Epic
  9. The War On Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
  10. David Ramirez, We're Not Going Anywhere
  11. Anna Tivel, Small Believer
  12. Overcoats, Young
  13. Dan Auerbach, Waiting On A Song



2017, america, Camp

Easter at Camp Wandawega

All photos by the man, the myth, the legend: photo wunderkind  Alec Vanderboom.

All photos by the man, the myth, the legend: photo wunderkind Alec Vanderboom.

By far one of our adventures from this crazy year traveling around America was spending Easter weekend at Camp Wandawega in Walworth County, Wisconsin. A few years ago, I wrote a book chronicling the history of Camp Wandawega (you can read that here), but it wasn't until this Spring that I was actually able to visit in person. And maybe the only thing better than spending Easter at Camp Wandawega was having our friend and photographer extraordinaire Alec Vanderboom there with us to document the magic of it all.

*An immeasurable thanks to the wonderful and talented David and Tereasa (and Charlie) for hosting us!

**Learn how you can go visit Camp Wandawega this summer!

***Getting married? You need Alec Vanderboom to take your wedding photos, trust us!

Easter Boys.jpg
These guys have nothing to do with Camp Wandawega, but their portrait is hanging in one of the Camp's bathrooms, and I think it's just about the most epic camp photo I've ever seen. Great find Tereasa!

These guys have nothing to do with Camp Wandawega, but their portrait is hanging in one of the Camp's bathrooms, and I think it's just about the most epic camp photo I've ever seen. Great find Tereasa!

america, travels, The Americans, 2017, USA

The Mansion On The River | Charleston, South Carolina

"It was my father who called the city the Mansion on the River. He was talking about Charleston, South Carolina, and he was a native son, peacock proud of a town so pretty it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets. Charleston was my father's ministry, his hobbyhorse, his quiet obsession, and the great love of his life. His bloodstream lit up my own with a passion for the city that I've never lost nor ever will...

Because of its devotional, graceful attraction to food and gardens and architecture, Charleston stands for all the principles that make living well both a civic virtue and a standard. It is a rapturous, defining place to grow up. Everything I reveal to you now will be Charleston-shaped and Charleston-governed, and sometimes even Charleston-ruined. But it is my fault and not the city's that it came close to destroying me. Not everyone responds to beauty in the same way. Though Charleston can do much, it can't always improve on the strangeness of human behavior. But Charleston has a high tolerance for eccentricity and bemusement. There is a tastefulness in its gentility that comes from the knowledge that Charleston is a permanent dimple in the understated skyline, while the rest of us are only visitors."

Excerpted from South of Broad, by Pat Conroy, 2009, Doubleday books.

2016, america, art, The Americans

The Americans: Maynard Dixon (1875 – 1946)

Introducing The Americans

We are starting a new series on this blog called, The Americans. This ongoing series will feature the creative work of American writers, artists, photographers, or designers that we discover during the next several months, while we are back living in the US. Our first discovery for this series is the American painter and artist Maynard Dixon (1875 - 1946).

We discovered Dixon's work while browsing the permanent collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I think what drew us to him so strongly was the marriage of his striking graphic style (reminiscent of the French artist Henri Riviere and the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler) with his profoundly American subject matter. The bulk of Dixon's work focused on the romance and grand scale of Western American landscapes and the people who braved to live there. Above and below, you can see samples of his paintings and of his work that was used for publications, posters, and book covers. 

Stay tuned for our next The Americans discovery, coming soon. You can learn more about the life and work of Maynard Dixon here.

Artist Maynard Dixon, late in his life.

Artist Maynard Dixon, late in his life.

Dixon in 1900.

Dixon in 1900.

Dixon with his second wife, Edith Hamlin.

Dixon with his second wife, Edith Hamlin.

2016, america, books, list, favorites

The American Experience, By The Book

America By The Book

Just in time for this week's presidential election, here’s a list of ten books that I think help to explain 'The American Experience.'

This is list of personal favorites and by no means an authoritative list - it varies widely in styles, genres, and publication dates, but what unites these stories is that each one captures a particular moment in time or singular voice that is distinctly American. Whether reading these stories as an American or as an outsider, each one communicates a powerful spectrum of perspectives. In these books are truths that are not always pleasant, convenient, or easy to swallow - but they are important because they remind us how far we have come and how far we still have to go as a nation.

1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Huck Finn.jpg

This classic book is a serious morality tale wrapped in the guise of a downriver adventure. At the very heart of Huck Finn is the title character’s struggle to reconcile the mainstream racism of his generation with the basic truths of humanity coming of age in his heart. Why is this essential Americana? Because, in Huck Finn Twain holds up a mirror to American hypocrisy and takes on the great sin of the history of The United States (slavery) without (miraculously!) coming off as preachy. 

2. Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between The World.jpg

This may very well be the most important book of 2015 / 2016. Written ostensibly as a letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me is author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful memoir of growing up as a black man in America. This slim book is a hard-hitting, deeply personal, non-fiction read, full of blunt condemnations of a system that has, for centuries, marginalized millions of African Americans. This book will change the way you see the African American experience.

3. Beach Music by Pat Conroy

In early 2016, America lost a literary lion when Pat Conroy passed away suddenly. Better known for the best sellers The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, Beach Music is an essential American story because it is a love letter to the golden age of American post WWII prosperity. The language of this sprawling, Southern family saga is poetry posing as prose, and contained within the book’s pages is a colorful cast of American characters who display the great diaspora of the nation and the family units that make up it’s people.

4. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

For those of you wondering how in the world Donald Trump could appeal to such a significant portion of the American populace, there are plenty of clues in this book. Another recent, best selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of a young man coming to age in the industrial ‘Rust Belt’ of America, part of the shrinking culture of blue collar working class whites. Vance’s book tells the story of growing up in a volatile home, a dying town, and as a part of a threatened way of life. This is a timely and touching that helps to shatter the prejudice that comes with stereotyping others.

5. On The Road by Jack Kerouac

Everybody has heard of On The Road, but many less have actually read this groundbreaking 1957 novel. An icon of the Beat generation, On The Road blurs the lines between memoir and fiction, documenting a group of friends traveling on a wild jazz- and sex- and drugged-fueled road trip across America. Once controversial, now considered a classic, this book is a celebration of freedom, of driving the roads of America, of youth, and of the universal quest to find meaning.

6. Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley.jpg

Like On The Road, Travels with Charley is the story of an ambitious road trip that criss crosses the vast American nation. Unlike On The Road, Charley features no illicit drugs or sex, but, instead, the observations and insights of author John Steinbeck as he drives along the highways and byways of the good ole USA with his standard poodle Charley. After writing fiction about the American experience for decades (East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath), this book is Steinbeck’s non-fiction(ish) account of what it was like to hit the road and reengage with the people and country he loved so well.

7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a sweet, hilarious, and challenging; the fictional story of Oscar De León, a chubby, comic book obsessed Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey. Featuring several styles, several narrators, and quite a bit of ‘Spanglish,’ Diaz’s novel is part immigrant memoir, part magical realism, and part coming of age story. In reading this book, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get illuminating glimpses into what it means to grow up in one place, but to also ‘be from’ somewhere else.

8. A Good Man is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor

This collection of stories by Flannery O’Connor’s is absolutely perfect. Each of the book’s ten tales thrusts the reader into a scene populated by characters so real, so Southern, so utterly American, that it’s hard to believe it was published over 70 years ago. At times contemplative, at other times brutally violent - this book portrays an American South haunted by racial inequality and possessed by strange and incongruous religious spirits. A Good Man Is Hard To Find deserves to be read and reread.

9. One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Best known for his travel books recounting his travels in the US, Britain, Australia, and along the Appalachian Trail, author Bill Bryson has spent much of his life on the move. But, in the this book, Bryson settles in one particular moment in America’s history: that eventful summer of 1927 when Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns, Sacco and Vanzetti went on trial, and The Jazz Singer became the first ‘talking’ motion picture. Far more than a collection of facts, One Summer is a fascinating and humorous snapshot of America during one of it’s most adventurous, most innovative, and most prosperous periods.

10. Beloved by Toni Morrison

A masterpiece of American fiction, Beloved is a story of slavery and freedom. It is a story of a mother and her daughter. It is also, both figuratively and literally, a ghost story. Described by The New York Times as “one of the best works of American fiction from 1981 to 2006,” Beloved received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and was later adapted into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey. When asked why Morrison had chosen to write Beloved, the author replied that because, “there [existed] no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall [honoring the millions of Africans brought to America as slaves]...this book had to.”

books, america, summer

American Getaway: 100 Years of Saints & Sinners at Camp Wandawega

In 2014, I was asked by David Hernandez and Tereasa Surrat, the incredible owner / directors of Camp Wandawega, to help write a history of their extraordinary property in Walworth County, Wisconsin. The result was a book, titled American Getaway: 100 Years of Saints and Sinners at Camp Wandawega, Wisconsin. Here's the summary from the book's dust jacket: 

Indians. Bootleggers. A Swedish Madam. The Feds. A Murderer On The Lam. Refugee Priests. The Ghost Of The Lake. Kids In Canoes. A Russian Gangster. And A Cheeky Racoon Named George. This is the very strange, very true story of Camp Wandawega, Wisconsin: an American getaway since 1925.

Below you can read the book's prologue. At the Wandawega Historical Society's website, you can read all of the book's seven sections.

American Getaway, Prologue: "Our Place," Walworth County, Wisconsin, August 2012.

          "How dare you, sir. How dare you threaten to take this place away from us."
          At this the crowd fell silent. Clearly, emotions were high. After all, when a ninety-year-old woman crosses a crowded courtroom to dress down the county zoning board - directly to their faces - well, then, pretty much everything else comes to a standstill.
          And she was just getting started: "Ashamed, the county should be ashamed for even considering something like this," she yelled, quaking with indignation. "That’s our place, that’s God’s place and you will not take it away from us." There was a respectful wave of applause. The venerable woman spent the next several minutes laying out the many noble qualities of the place in question before finishing her statement with a final wag of her finger and a final benediction: "ashamed, you should all be ashamed."
          Mrs. Rita Sisk of Walworth County is a devout Catholic mother, grandmother, and first-time zoning board scolder. The inciting incident that had brought so many supporters together that day? A zoning violation. And, “the place” that Mrs. Sisk, along with fifty others had stood up to defend? ‘Our place,’ she had called it, ‘God’s place,’ was an outdoor chapel situated on a twenty five acre piece of property along the north edge of Wisconsin’s Lake Wandawega, known today as Camp Wandawega.
          Since the 1960s, when the property was used as a retreat center by an order of refugee Latvian priests, the outdoor chapel at Camp Wandawega had been used during the summertimes for ‘Mass in the Grass.’ For the faithful, the opportunity to pray and hear mass outdoors was more than just a novelty, it was a new kind of sacrament: worship in that first of all temples, nature. Over time, the tradition became sacred. So, in 2012, when the county zoning commission realized that the chapel sat on property zoned for residential use only (and not for religious gatherings), it threatened closure and an end to "Mass in the Grass."
          Cue the community uproar. Cue the indignation. Cue Mrs. Sisk and the crowd of people who showed up on a weekday to protest; the local residents, the out-of-towners from Chicago, the members of the Latvian community, the Catholic school principal, a big city ballet director, even former Illinois state representative Joe Lyons. Cue the over three hundred letters of support that came in from around the world, insisting that Camp Wandawega be allowed to remain open as-is and that the loss of Mass in the Grass would be, "a travesty."
          In the end, it was a non-travesty: the chapel and the camp were saved from the wrecking ball, or, at least, from closure. It was a victory for the diaspora of those who love Camp Wandawega; the generations of families who had come (and are still coming) to their summer getaway ‘on the lake no one has ever heard of’ in southeast Wisconsin.
          But there was a second, less instantaneous consequence in Camp Wandawega’s August, 2012 campaign: in the process of preparing for the court hearing, the camp’s current owners David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt were introduced to decades worth of documentation and first-hand accounts clarifying much of the shadowy history of the resort property which included, in the broadest of strokes, illegal booze, illicit sex, the mob, the Vatican, a panhandling raccoon, and even a murderer on the run. And what they found - the facts they were able to confirm after years of unconfirmed myth and campfire legends - was stranger, more fascinating, and more complicated than they could ever have imagined. 
          As it turns out, for the past century, "God’s place" - that wholesome, all-American getaway by the lake - has been just as much a sanctuary for sinners, as it has for saints. Since the first modern building appeared on the site in the 1920s, it has been a speakeasy, a secret hideout for Chicago mobsters, a 1930’s brothel, and as the site of a gruesome, 1942 murder-suicide. For almost one hundred years, what is now known as Camp Wandawega has been many things to many people, but one thing has remained constant: the shores of Lake Wandawega have always played host to those who seek, whether for virtue or vice, to get away - both to something, and away from something else. 
          The story you are about to read reaches back into far away decades, it is populated by real people - both heroes and villains; the facts of their lives and times have been meticulously gathered, thoughtfully considered, and sketched here with as much journalistic integrity as we could muster. There’s a chance that a little ‘color’ has been added between the lines here and there whilst still leaving plenty of room for these tales to grow taller in the years to come. This is the stuff of legends, after all. So crack open a cold one, wrap up in a blanket, and gather in close around the fire...this is the very true, very strange history of Camp Wandawega, American Getaway.

Learn more about the American Getaway book project here, and more about Camp Wandawega here.

books, america, essay

Introducing American Getaway: 100 Years of Saints and Sinners at Camp Wandawega, Wisconsin


I am thrilled to finally be able to see this project come to life in print: American Getaway was a collaborative research, writing, and historical fact-checking endeavor over a year in the making. 

You can learn more about the extraordinary true history of Camp Wandawega and the extraordinary couple who is keeping such a special plot of Americana alive here.

Read the whole, rambling story of American Getaway for yourself here.


Pure Wonder: The American Museum of Natural History

It is encouraging that, in the age of limitless, hyper-digitized, high-def 3D imagery, the static, hand made naturalist dioramas of The American Museum of Natural History in New York can effect visitors so powerfully. The craftsmanship, attention to detail, and beauty of these scenes were completely arresting and I (Austin) was catapulted into a childlike sense of wonder the moment I walked through the door at The AMNH. Below are some shots from my favorite exhibits. They are, of course, merely two dimensional snapshots of moments that you really need to experience in person. After my first visit, I'm convinced the AMNH is one of America's truly priceless institutions. You can plan a visit here or support the museum here.