A surprising beatnik spirit is growing in Alabama's rolling Appalachian hills, led by native folk artists and fashion designers alike.
My father's family planted roots in Alabama five generations ago, and I have always found this slice of Dixie pretty well steeped in heirloom sensibilities. But these days, just beyond the drippy oaks and Piggly Wigglys, folk art and fashion have begun to flourish, with creativity as the new bumper crop. That in mind, my friend Ed Hall—also a native Alabamian—and I set out to see how our home state is embracing its heritage in new and slightly offbeat ways.
We begin our three-day exploration up north in Florence. The small college town on the bluffs of the Tennessee River is home to two of the area's best-known names: clothing designers Billy Reid and Natalie "Alabama" Chanin. Reid moved from New York City to Florence, his wife's hometown, shortly after 9/11 to open the flagship of his eponymous store Billy Reid. (He also hangs his shingle in New York, Nashville, Houston, Dallas, and Charleston, S.C.) The shop feels like an antebellum parlor, filled with sky-blue hydrangeas, antique knickknacks, and the smartly tailored threads that won him GQ's Best New Designer award earlier this year (114 N. Court St., billyreid.com, men's shirts from $45). When I walk in, the hypnotic tunes of a local duo, the Civil Wars, are playing on the stereo, and on the back rack, I spot a sunflower-yellow tee that reads MAKE CORNBREAD NOT WAR.
If Reid is the dandy of Florence, then white-haired sprite Natalie Chanin is its hippie. The 20-year fashion veteran now sells hand-stitched dresses and DIY sewing kits out of a converted factory by appointment. Chanin tells us the homespun story of her most recent venture, Alabama Chanin, launched with a cut-up cotton shirt, her grandmother's quilting techniques, and a love of the surrounding countryside (alabamachanin.com, sewing kits from $35).
Leaving Florence, the two-lane Highway 13 runs south past catfish shacks and bingo halls, and for two hours, Crimson Tide flags pinned to hay bales let us know we're getting close to the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. Just shy of the city limits, we pause in Northport, a Mayberry-like town with Alabama's dreamiest Main Street—swirling barber pole and toy store included. Northport is home to The Kentuck Art Center, a year-round local crafts bazaar, which also hosts a huge Southern folk art fair every October (503 Main Ave., kentuck.org).
Forty miles south of Northport on Highway 69, the passage into Alabama's rich farmlands, we roll into Greensboro. Architects around the globe envy the area's renowned Rural Studio, a design-build program responsible for dozens of local structures, from homes to chapels to an award-winning firehouse (cadc.auburn.edu/rural-studio). We check out a few of the buildings and then head to PieLab, a year-old bakeshop refitted with salvaged, paint-speckled wood (1317 Main St., pielab.org, slices $2). I dig into a piece of Empire apple and pair it with a Mason jar of strawberry lemonade—summer in a glass. We stay the night at The Muckle House, a pristine B&B built in 1906, and end our evening with bourbon, rocking chairs, and a choir of cricket calls (2005 Main St., 334/624-8374, rooms from $85).
If I've learned anything while driving these few days, it's this: Alabama embraces the curious. After a cross-state drive the next morning, we meet folk artist Butch Anthony at his Museum of Wonder in the tiny town of Seale (41 Poorhouse Rd., museumofwonder.com). In his fraying Liberty overalls and felt fedora, Butch shows us his collection of backwoods curiosities: snakes in jars and beaver sticks, plus a circus of salvaged stuff, thingamajigs, and doohickeys that, gathered together, feel like a boondocks fortune. Butch has a drawl as soft as new pine straw, and this place is both his sanctuary and his inspiration. And for an afternoon, it is ours too.