"I'll tell you a very funny story," John Darnielle says. This is probably not the first funny story he's told today. Nor will it be the last. Today is a publicity day for Darnielle. When it's over, he will have talked to more than a dozen members of the music press. And tomorrow, he will do it all over again. He has submitted to this grind to promote his upcoming six-date tour, which he will embark upon to remind listeners of All Eternals Deck, the hyperliterate indie folk album he put out last winter with his band the Mountain Goats.
It's a measure of his hard-won success that the dozens of journalists who've requested his time have been corralled into two days of 15-minute phoners. Darnielle is less available these days than he once was. That was back before his shows became events around which a whole generation of hapless Young Werthers arranged their Moleskine planners. But today, on this warm Friday afternoon in spring, and by the grace of the songwriter's team of publicists, we have been made captive to Darnielle. There is hardly time to follow-up on his breezily expressed pontifications. We imagine this is what it's like to be one of his many dedicated followers.
Though after 20 years, 13 albums, and a fanbase so fervent as to warrant a feature two years ago in New York magazine, Darnielle can afford to be his own person. Much of the humor in the story he's about to tell us hinges on that fact.
"So when I was 17, I had this girlfriend," he begins. "We had a really unhealthy relationship. And I really worshipped her."
At the time, Darnielle started reading Joan Didion, whom his girlfriend disapproved of despite having never read the writer Darnielle calls "the foremost stylist of American letters in the second half of the 20th century."
"Now my girlfriend was a fellow book person," Darnielle says, the strain of disbelief still loud in his voice nearly 30 years later. "We're talking about an intelligent person who's chosen to be shallow, alright?" The 17-year-old him protested. And his girlfriend gave in, kind of. "She said, 'I just want you to know you can do whatever you want,'" he says. "'But if you read more Joan Didion, that will send me the message you don't love me.'"
Darnielle stopped reading Didion for a while, only to begin sneaking peeks into her 1979 book of essays, The White Album, near the end of the relationship. Three years after the couple broke up, they crossed paths again. Darnielle was on his way to studying English at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. Together the exes achieved something like closure. "I was like, 'You know, that was totally bogus that you forbade me to read one of my favorite writers.'" he says. "And she was like, 'Oh, yeah. I'm really sorry about that. That was all messed up. You should read what you like.'"
Today, despite the apparent harm the relationship inflicted on Darnielle's younger self, he recognizes the unlikely prize the power struggle bestowed upon him. "It sort of forged this connection with Didion's work, which had this forbidden fruit-quality. I ended up writing my English thesis about [Didion's second novel, 1970's] Play It as It Lays."
Darnielle shrugs off our suggestion that this struggle also prompted him to assert himself in his songwriting. But the meekness that crippled the 17-year-old Darnielle has never been on view in his music career, which he began in earnest in his mid-20s. Since the early '90s, he has amassed one of his generation's most audacious songbooks. He has written concept albums and song series, all with a fascinating mix of wry wit and adolescent self-seriousness that do battle in his oeuvre like shoulder angels. Though Sasha Frere-Jones describes him more concisely. To The New Yorker's pop critic, Darnielle is simply "America's best lyricist."
No one ever truly knows how artists' pasts shape their work. But sometime after Darnielle and his early tormentor broke up, he indeed asserted himself, not only in his own life but also in the lives of his listeners. He is their self-possessed and very American idol. And together, idol and idolizer are like the frayed couple Darnielle has chronicled in his "Alpha" series of ballads:
Ah, the lengthening hours in the refinery
Belching fire into the sky
We do our best vampire routines
As we suck the dying hours dry
The night is lovely as a rose
If I see sunlight hit you
I am sure that we'll both decompose
Doubtless, for Darnielle and his fans, there are more vampire routines to come. There will be more albums and tours, broken up by the blenching dawn of 15-minute phoners.
by Allison Law
Once again, we asked our readers to vote for their favorite places and things about our great state in our magazine’s Best of Alabama contest, for which we ran ballots in the August, September and October issues. We asked you to vote on your favorites – everything from seafood restaurants to small towns to the best articles you’ve read in Alabama Living. It’s likely no surprise that many of the winners are beach-related. Your favorite seafood restaurant was the Original Oyster House, with locations in Spanish Fort and Gulf Shores; your favorite souvenir was seashells, sand dollars or sand from our sugar white beaches. And your favorite day trip? Gulf Shores. But there were winners elsewhere in the state, too. For best burger, you liked the Jefferson Country Store (featured in our Worth the Drive section in 2016), and for best hiking place, you picked Oak Mountain State Park outside of Birmingham. There were some rather curious answers, too. For best burger, more than one of you responded with Burger King (we were really hoping for an Alabama-based restaurant). And for best living history experience, someone responded with “in college dorm room Troy State.” (He or she obviously had a very interesting collegiate career!) But perhaps the funniest responses were to the best Alabama souvenir question. One reader suggested a “redneck tan,” and another responded with “a full stomach from Peach Park.” (Peach Park, incidentally, was voted best ice cream in our 2017 contest!) Read on to learn more about our winners this year, and see if you agree with the winners.
Best seafood restaurant:Original Oyster House, with locations in Gulf Shores and Spanish Fort (on the Causeway)
The Original Oyster House Restaurant has been serving fresh seafood (in addition to a variety of steaks, chicken, salads and pasta dishes) in a casual, family atmosphere for more than 30 years. The first restaurant opened in 1983 in Gulf Shores with 60 seats and 10 employees; after multiple expansions, it now seats 300 and employs 130 people. The second location, on the Mobile Bay Causeway, opened in 1985 and has also expanded over the years to include a gift shop, boat dock, 300 seats, conference room and full-service banquet room. The causeway location is at 3733 Battleship Parkway/Highway 90 in Spanish Fort; call 251-626-2188. The Gulf Shores location on the boardwalk is at 701 Highway 59; call 251-948-2445. Visit them online atoriginaloysterhouse.com
Best Alabama-made burger:Jefferson Country Store, Marengo County
The Jefferson Country Store, located in the unincorporated Jefferson community, opened in 1957 and has been the heart of the area ever since. Besides selling the expected glass-bottle Cokes and Moon-Pies, the store has a small restaurant that offers such Southern house-made foods as pimento cheese, chicken salad and Brunswick stew. Regulars know to ask about daily specials and the “secret menu.” When a writer for Alabama Living visited the store in 2016, that secret menu item was the Firecracker Burger, a hefty beef patty topped with sliced red hots (sausages) and embellished with a thick slab of hoop cheese and jalapeno slices. Besides its kickin’ burgers, the store also offers specialty items, like souse and rag bologna from Alabama’s Zeigler meats, hoop cheese and ribbon cane syrup. And there are locally-sourced products like fresh vegetables and honey. Visit the store at 26120 Alabama Highway 28, Jefferson, Alabama. Call 334-289-0040 and find them on Facebook.
Best recipe from “The Best of Alabama Living” cookbook:Pecan Pie
It’s hard to go wrong with a Southern classic like Pecan Pie. A recipe submitted by Memory Bush of South Alabama EC for the November 2014 issue of Alabama Living was selected for “The Best of Alabama Living” cookbook, published in 2016. Want the recipe, or any of the other 300 other delicious recipes in the book? It can be yours for $19.95, including shipping! Visit bestofalabamacookbook.comto place your order.
Best game to hunt/fish/trap in Alabama:Deer
White-tailed deer are the No. 1 game animal hunted in Alabama, according to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, so it’s no surprise that deer topped our list. Approximately 180,000 deer hunters account for more than 4 million man-days of hunting activity annually and have a significant impact on the local economy of rural Alabama.
The harvest varies from year to year but hunters typically harvest in excess of 300,000 deer annually, according to the ALDCNR.
Best hiking/biking trail:Oak Mountain State Park
Mountain biking and hiking are two of the most popular activities at this state park in Pelham, with more than 50 miles of trails. The Red Trail has something for mountain bikers of any skill level, from kids or beginners to experts. The International Mountain Bike Association added Oak Mountain to its list of “epic rides” with just about every trail condition imaginable.
Hikers enjoy the White, Blue, Yellow, Green and Lake trails, which offer a variety of difficulties and several connectors to allow for loops. Trails are well marked with colored blazes and trail markers to help rescuers find lost or injured hikers. For more on any of the trails at the park (as well as the campgrounds and cabins), visit alapark.com or call 205-620-2520.
Best historic hotel:The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel and Spa
This eight-story beauty, opened in 1908, sits in the heart of downtown Mobile and has hosted politicians, royalty, entertainers and sports legends. The hotel fell on hard times and was closed in 1974, but was impeccably restored in 2007. The restoration incorporates its old-world glamour with modern amenities, including a full-service day spa, modern fitness center and outdoor pool. It’s connected to the 35-story RSA Tower, Alabama’s tallest building. The hotel is located at 26 North Royal Street in Mobile; call 251-338-2000.
Best “living history” experience:USS Alabama
The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the commissioning of its iconic ship. The park has long been considered a worthy tourist attraction, but over the last few years it has enjoyed a shift in focus to a restored-to-original-condition museum on water, its history meticulously researched. It’s also been modernized, with interactive kiosks and newly restored artifact exhibits from two World Wars, with more on the way. The park is located at 2703 Battleship Parkway in Mobile; call 251-433-2703 or visit www.ussalabama.com
Best small town for unique shopping:Fairhope
The Baldwin County town of Fairhope enjoys a picturesque setting along the cliffs and shoreline of Mobile Bay, but it has more to offer than just pretty scenery. It’s long been a resort community, but over the years artists, writers and craftsmen have found the small town to be an inspiring haven for their work. When its downtown area began to decline in the 1970s, leaders decided to revitalize the town in the image of a quaint European village. Today, its vibrant downtown is filled with unique shops and galleries, gourmet restaurants and cozy cafes. Its high quality of life makes it attractive to visitors and residents alike.
Best day trip in Alabama:Gulf Shores
This coastal city in Baldwin County is naturally famous for its beaches, but there’s plenty more to do here. Visitors come for the fishing and golf as well as land- and water-based activities, from hiking along the Branyon Backcountry Trail to kayaking through the back bays. And there are lots of family activities, including the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and the Historic Fort Morgan.
Best Alabama souvenir:Seashells, sand dollars, sand (anything from the beach)
As much a tradition as sunburns and swimming, shopping for souvenirs at the beach is an inexpensive and fun way to create memories from a family vacation. Our readers answered mostly sand dollars and seashells, but you could just as easily include hermit crabs, T-shirts, beach towels and keychains. Next time you’re enjoying the Alabama beaches, boost the local economy a little more with a stop at a souvenir shop.
Best article you’ve read in Alabama Living in the last year:Hardy Jackson’s column on air conditioning (or the lack thereof)
In general, when we ask readers for their favorite part of the magazine, the answer is either the recipes or the musings of Hardy Jackson, humorist and essayist for several publications. You may not know that Jackson is an eminent scholar in history at Jacksonville State University, and has authored, co-authored or co-edited 11 books on various aspects of Southern history.
His column in the August 2017 issue posed the question, “Who Remembers Life Before A/C?” Jackson surely does: “Nights so hot that at bedtime you would take ice cubes, wrap them in a wash rag and hold them to your cheek or chest in the mistaken belief that if you could get one part of your body cold, the rest of you would cool down enough to let you sleep. “What you got instead was a wet pillow or wet sheets.”
Best thing about Alabama: The people
We’re heartened by this response – the idea that what makes our state great is, naturally, its people. But perhaps not surprisingly, running a close second and third to this question were food and football.
Baldwin EMC member wins Best of Alabama drawing
Ally Mills Dorrough was born and raised in Montgomery, but she has called Baldwin County home since 2012 and is a member of Baldwin EMC. And she loves Alabama Living magazine!
“Alabama Living captures the heart of Alabama, telling stories of its people and places with passion,” Dorrough says. “I enjoy discovering hidden gems about our great state, from little known restaurants to recipe inspiration to interesting events and sustainable initiatives.”
Dorrough was the randomly drawn winner in the Best of Alabama contest. We ran a ballot in the August, September and October issues, asking readers to tell us their favorite places and things about our state. All eligible entries were entered into a drawing.
Because Dorrough entered the contest online, she wins $350! (Mailed entries were eligible to win $250.)
Dorrough lives in Foley with her family – husband Dan and children Olivia, 2, and Davis, five months. They love traveling, cooking, volunteering with their church’s youth ministry and anything to do with Auburn. “War Eagle!”
They also enjoy the laid-back lifestyle and hospitality of the Alabama Gulf coast.
“Plus, since this is a tourism-driven area, there is plenty to do on and off the beach!” she says.