Whenever Adia Victoria found herself struggling to write about the South while confined at home throughout 2020, she would turn to the soil. The one source of creative comfort she found was the imposing magnolia tree visible just outside her mother’s house in North Nashville.
“I got really close to that tree,” says the singer-songwriter and artist. “I’m from South Carolina, and like a lot of kids, I grew up in the shade of a magnolia, where I would create worlds with my little sisters and all the little girls in the neighborhood. I went back to that: There were times when I would feel blocked when I was writing, and I would just go outside and put my hands in the dirt underneath the magnolia, just cover them in the dirt, and then immediately feel re-centered.”
Victoria’s writer’s-block cure found its way onto her stunning third album, A Southern Gothic. “I’m gonna let that dirt/do its work,” she sings on the opening track “Magnolia Blues” over a simmering roots-noir arrangement. “I’m gonna plant myself/under a magnolia.”
Victoria’s “Magnolia Blues” has no overt relation to the 1930 Charley Patton tune of the same name, but for Victoria, the conjuring of American musical history and blues lineages are never fully coincidental. A Southern Gothic is a declarative and delicate work of roots reclamation, the latest compelling chapter in Victoria’s artistic project of expanding and re-centering the blues in a contemporary framework. Finding herself stripped of the normal movement and stimuli that inform her writing in 2020, Victoria began digging through the journals of her youth for inspiration.
“It made me ask questions,” she says. “About belonging, and about the way that a group forms its narratives, about private memory versus public memory and the way our memories are shaped by the culture we live in.”
After making two critically acclaimed, adventurous records, Victoria has emerged as a leading musical voice in Nashville. In 2002, in the wake of John Lewis’ death and George Floyd’s murder, Victoria wrote and rush-released “South Gotta Change,” a rousing anthem that took on an urgent life of its own — Victoria was so overwhelmed by the response to the song that she almost vomited when she left the stage after performing it at this summer’s Newport Folk Festival.
Victoria, who considers herself a blues poet, folklorist, historian, and sociologist in addition to singer-songwriter, has also remained a vocal critic of Nashville’s roots and Americana community’s tendency toward whitewashing and minimizing Black artistry. She is now regularly having those conversations with prominent musicians and industry figures like Brandi Carlile and Rhiannon Giddens on her podcast Call and Response. She is also having those conversations, implicitly, on A Southern Gothic, by folding Americana heavy-hitters like T Bone Burnett, Margo Price, and Jason Isbell into her own world of collaborators, which includes everyone from Kyshona to the National’s Matt Berninger to expat Southern folk artist Stone Jack Jones.
A Southern Gothic is a concept album of sorts that intimately traces a collection of hauntingly interwoven, character-based stories about people with deep connections to the South. She gave the record its title as a way of staking claim to a rich cultural-literary-musical tradition that has often disregarded the contributions of Black Southerners.
“What do we think about when we think about Southern gothic? What do we think about when we think of Southern literature — usually Black Southern writers are hemmed out of that,” Victoria says. “You have your [William] Faulkner, your [Eudora] Welty, your [Flannery] O’Connor, but it’s not common you’ll see Alice Walker included in that list as well. I wanted to include myself in the history of the South. I wanted to make this young Black girl’s narrative just as emblematic of a Southern experience as Faulkner could write.”
That spirit of reclamation seeps throughout A Southern Gothic, which offers on the surface a series of classic country/roots/Southern musical tropes: There are songs that assume the conceit of the homesick Southerner stuck north of the Mason-Dixon; there are songs inspired by Alan Lomax field recordings; there’s even a song called “Far From Dixie.”
But as with all of Victoria’s work, the singer-songwriter tinkers with and deconstructs those tropes. “There’s never anything that’s not multi-layered with Adia,” says friend, collaborator and poet Caroline Randall Williams. “So even if there is something that could be a cliché sentiment on its face, you know by virtue of it being on her record that she’s doing something sideways with it… There’s always a twist. There’s always some subversion.”
One example of Victoria’s Southern subversion comes on the stunning highlight “Whole World Knows.” The song opens with the idyllic Southern imagery of a preacher delivering a Sunday morning sermon, until, just three lines in, Victoria reveals that the preacher’s daughter is injecting herself with dope just outside the service. “How could you most belong to that community? By being a preacher’s daughter,” she says. “But how could you most defile that community? Probably by shooting heroin in your dad’s car while he’s preaching on Sunday morning.”
“I can go blow to blow now with anybody talking about the South. I can claim it with my full chest.”
At the end of the song, the narration briefly switches from omniscient third-person to intimate first-person when Victoria sings, “Just let me rest and say amen.” It’s a striking moment, and the type of writerly attention to how words shape musical storytelling and vice-versa that could only come from an artist as interdisciplinary as Victoria. “There’s a lot of poetry in her lyrics,” as Williams puts it, “and there’s a lot of music in her poems.”
After the riotous punk shock of 2016’s Beyond the Bloodhounds and the witchy electro-noir offerings of 2019’s Silences, Victoria’s latest album is her most straightforward, stripped-down iteration of Southern roots music. It was a musical decision largely borne out of pandemic-era necessity, with Victoria and her creative partner Mason Hickman experimenting at home with what they could: banjo, mandolin, homemade percussion. “I love how many different sounds Adia brings to bear on the work of the blues,” says Williams. “It feels, not like a retraction, but a deepening of her project…It makes the sound of the blues almost inevitable, because you still come back to it even when you’ve gone far afield.”
Victoria’s path afield began with her debut, Beyond the Bloodhounds, a record rooted in trauma and fear. Victoria wrote its breakthrough song, “Stuck in the South,” in 2012, on the night she learned about the murder of Trayvon Martin.
“I feel a lot of trepidation on that record,” says Victoria. “There’s a fear of people looking at me, a fear of staying in one place for too long. That’s very much my ghost record. But on Southern Gothic, I can go blow to blow now with anybody talking about the South. I can claim it with my full chest. I can be shoulder to shoulder with a lot of the people that influenced me. I’m no longer afraid.”
A Southern Gothic then is a brave record, an uncompromising, richly structured work that insists on asking questions rather than pretending to answer them. Victoria notes that the LP is bookended by tales (“Magnolia Blues,” “South for the Winter”) of the same character being stuck up north, longing for her Southern home, as tortured and complicated as her relationship to the region may be.
“There are no complete happy endings,” she says. “I didn’t want to put a bow on it, like, ‘Aw, now she’s back on grandmama’s porch.’ I didn’t want to lean into nostalgia. I felt OK with that, with no tidy endings, and that’s just something every Southerner does: We ruminate, we go in circles, we leave, we come back, we love it, we hate it, it’s this anguish and this tension, and oftentimes, it’s just not resolved.”