If you’ve ever found yourself frustrated trying to explain to non-Southerners that there’s more to the region than Honey Boo Boo and Confederate flags, you’re in luck: There’s a website to help you out.
Counteracting stereotypical representations of the South in the mainstream media is, in fact, one of the primary goals of the Atlanta-based web publication the Bitter Southerner (bittersoutherner.com), which launched in August 2013.
“We’re trying to write stories about people and things that make the culture special,” founder and Editor-in-Chief Chuck Reece said.
“The primary reason the culture is so rich here is that we have this multi-cultural, multi-racial polyglot thing that’s still going on,” he added.
Since its inception, the site has published a new story about the South every week, covering music, food, history and culture, with topics ranging from the Battle of Atlanta, civil rights and Hank Aaron to NASCAR, Stax Records and Flannery O’Connor.
Reece said response to the Bitter Southerner has been overwhelming. “It really seemed to strike a chord with people,” he said. “It’s been amazing the kinds of messages we’ve gotten, really heartfelt, genuine responses. From day one, the emotion that was in there blew me away.”
The website and its philosophy have their origins in a long Halloween weekend that Reece and his then-fiancée, now wife, spent sampling artisanal cocktails in New Orleans three years ago.
“It was really impressive, and we learned a lot talking to bartenders,” Reece said. “But a few weeks after we got back, there was this trade magazine, Drinks International, that put out a list of the best 50 bars in the world. There wasn’t a single bar in the whole South on there.”
Reece, who grew up in Ellijay and has a background in journalism and public relations, originally set out to counteract that omission by creating a blog devoted to Southern bartenders. He enlisted a designer friend, Dave Whitling, to help create the look of the site, and the two chose the name the Bitter Southerner in reference to the cocktail bitters used in some of New Orleans’ most famous drinks.
But the two quickly realized they were working on something much larger than just a site about Southern cocktails.
“The more we played with it, the more we realized the name was kind of a delicious double, or even quadruple, entendre,” Reece said. “It just never felt like a thing about cocktails was enough.”
The two settled on a direction for the site about six months before its launch. “Dave and I were sitting at Octane in Grant Park, and Dave reminded me of the album ‘Southern Rock Opera’ by the Drive-By Truckers,” Reece recalled. “There’s a line that mentions ‘the duality of the Southern thing.’ And we were both like, ‘That’s exactly what’s it about.’ It’s about trying to do stories about people in the South that sort of defy the predominant national stereotypes of Southerners.”
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, who wrote the line, has since contributed his own reflections about growing up in the South to the Bitter Southerner in an essay titled “The New(er) South,” one of the most popular pieces to appear on the site.
“I bugged him long enough, and he came in with a beautiful piece of writing that really helped us get established,” Reece said.
Also helping expand the site’s audience was a story on Atlanta street art organization Living Walls. “There was a lot of sharing, particularly among young people in Atlanta and around the South,” he said.
The site’s readers are demographically all over the map, Reece said, but they primarily break down into two groups: people who grew up in the South but now live elsewhere, and people who grew up elsewhere but now live in the South.
Both groups, Reece said, often face the challenging task of explaining to people outside the South what it is they admire about the region.
“I think they felt the same need that I was feeling, that someone needed to start presenting a broader picture of the South,” he said.
The site’s format of a new story about the South every Tuesday has been so successful that there are already plans to expand. This summer saw the site’s first fundraising drive (the reader-supported site has no ads and no paywall).
Thanks to the funds raised, Reece said, the Bitter Southerner will be able to pay contributors, who previously submitted on a volunteer basis.
This week also marks the site’s first foray into film with the streaming of the short independent documentary “As I Am,” about life in an inner city neighborhood in Memphis.
And the Bitter Southerner has plans to partner with independent businesses around the South: There’s a Bitter Southerner book club, formed in partnership with Atlanta’s A Capella Books; and an evening of music at Eddie’s Attic is slated for this weekend’s AJC Decatur Book Festival.
“There are more colors on the Southern palette than all the pink you see in ‘Honey Boo Boo’ or the olive drab you see in ‘Duck Dynasty,’” Reece said.
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