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Tony Rehagen

At the Guthman Competition, innovative instruments just might predict the future of music

Caleb Byerly
Caleb Byerly and his Salimbaa

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Whispers float in the darkness of an empty auditorium. Feet and metal chair legs scuffle across a wooden stage. The din subsides in a moment of anticipation.

Suddenly, the blackness is sliced open by a short bar of white light emitting a deep, otherworldly buzzing, like an ignited lightsaber. The floating horizontal line dips vertically to the right; the sound’s pitch intensifies. As the bar swings to the left, the tone climbs higher, completing a sort of electronic scale. The shadow of a gloved hand appears to strum the rod, sounding a single, flashing note. Then, a series of notes creates a strobe effect that, to adjusting eyes, barely illuminates a man in a dark hoodie who appears to play the beam like a broomstick guitar. White radiance turns to green to purple to blinking blue and red in a laser-show dance to an alien rock solo of robotic tones. After a frenetic crescendo of beeps, tweets, and bops, the light fizzles and withdraws into darkness.

The house lights go up to a smattering of applause from the two dozen or so people seated onstage in front of Chet Udell, a professor of biological and ecological engineering from Oregon, who has a seemingly ordinary fluorescent bulb hanging from a guitar strap over his shoulder. Udell explains that by using LEDs, some customized software, and more than a little imagination, he converted a shop light into the Optron, the novel musical instrument they just heard. At least 16 members of the gallery appreciate the difficulty of this achievement—as well as its creativity. They, along with Udell, are semifinalists in Georgia Tech’s ninth annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, a Star Wars cantina band-meets-science fair contest that attracts inventors from all over the globe. Participants battle for a $5,000 first prize while providing glimpses of what music might sound like in the future.

“We focus on pushing the envelope of what music can be.”

The annual contest actually began with student performances on a more traditional instrument: the piano. Originally called the Margaret A. Guthman Keyboard Competition, it was launched in 1998 by Tech alum Richard Guthman and named after his wife, a gifted pianist. In 2009, Georgia Tech opened its Center for Music Technology, one of the first of its kind in the world, and the faculty sought a flagship event that could showcase the center’s innovative mission. “We looked at the mirror and asked, ‘Who are we?’” said Gil Weinberg, contest organizer, CMT founding director, and himself a pioneer in the field of robotic musicianship. “We focus on pushing the envelope of what music can be.”

Tech rolled out the rebooted Guthman in 2009. Since then, it has grown to attract submissions from engineers, musicians, students, artisans, and designers in dozens of countries. In 2017, 85 applicants submitted presentations, videos, audio recordings, and schematics of inventions. The faculty then invited 20 semifinalists to come to Atlanta (three were eliminated for visa issues) and demonstrate their instruments before three judges, recruited from different realms of the music industry—performers, academics, and tech-company executives. The panel watching Udell and company consisted of Mike Adams, CEO of Moog Music; Elaine Chew, a professor of digital media from Queen Mary University in London; and Daedelus, a producer and electronic musician.

Each year, the judges observe and query contestants and even try playing the inventions. Then, they winnow the field to seven to nine finalists who perform in a public concert at the Ferst Center. (The 2018 performance will be held March 8 at 7 p.m.) After the show, first, second, and third place divide $10,000 in prize money. A lucky few might even find buyers for their ideas. Previous finalists like the OP-1 portable synthesizer, the Roli Seaboard electric-acoustic keyboard, and the Guitarbot interactive instructional app have all gone on to commercial success.

The judges have an unenviable puzzle to solve. The only entry criteria is crafting a virtual or physical instrument that generates sound acoustically or electronically, an infinite orchestra of possibilities. Udell’s Optron demonstration was followed by fellow semifinalists playing everything from the “Track It/Zip It” vest, wired with sensors that trigger electronic notes and melodic loops, to the primitive, 10-foot-tall Trombo Moderna that was merely wood and two strings modeled after an ancient Scandinavian harp. Amid that cacophony, the judges evaluated three factors—engineering, design, and musicality—and picked the winners.

“You would imagine that the mandate for those three principles would make it kind of easy, especially since there are so many approaches,” Daedelus said. “But if anything, all these different methodologies toward music make it really hard. Plus, you have to balance out what these makers are capable of on their instruments. It’s a musical instrument competition, not a performance competition.”

That distinction proved to be key during the 2017 final concert. The show moved briskly, with all nine finalists staking out risers on the broad Ferst stage, awaiting the spotlight for a few minutes each—a rapid fire variety show emceed by Atlanta radio host Mara Davis, featuring a medley of industrial sounds, techno beats, and Metallica covers. The flow was interrupted when Germany’s Subhraag Singh encountered a software problem with his Infinitone, a futuristic-looking woodwind played partially through an iPad. After some shuffling, he worked out the bugs, skipped his informative spiel, and jumped right into a meditative performance. At the end of the show, despite the snafu, Singh and his sax emerged victorious. “What he didn’t have time to tell everyone was that his instrument has 256 different notes in a scale,” Daedelus said after the show was over and the crowd cleared. “It opens up a realm of possibility that is really significant.”

The auditorium emptied except for the inventors onstage, who gathered to congratulate one another, exchange contact info, and get the address for the after-party. Udell wound up his cables and put away his laptop. The Optron didn’t finish in the money, but Udell’s sci-fi ballet won the audience’s vote for Best Performance. “I feel wonderful,” Udell said. “I’m relieved it’s over. And sad.”

The house lights went off, the stage lights down—the Optron buzzing and glowing in a yellow-green hue until Udell bent down to pull the plug, leaving the stage in shadow.

Meet the 2017 winners:

Akito Van Troyer
Akito Van Troyer and his MM-RT

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Akito Van Troyer: MM-RT

From: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Contest Finish: People’s Choice: Most Unusual

Specs
The Material and Magnet—Rhythm and Timbre (MM-RT) uses magnets and actuators to vibrate circular pads on a console. Van Troyer places small objects or containers of cardboard, glass, or tin filled with knick-knacks on the pulsating pads to create a vast array of rumbling, jangling sounds. Like a DJ, he rotates combinations of jars and boxes to lay out textural percussion using everything from marbles to coins to a balloon.

Backstory
Once he hatched the idea, Van Troyer says he would just walk through dollar stores and tap on items to see how they’d sound. “You can turn everyday objects into musical instruments,” he says.


Subhraag Singh
Subhraag Singh and his Infinitone

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Subhraag Singh: Infinitone

From: Stuttgart, Germany
Contest Finish: First Place

Specs
It looks like a futuristic soprano saxophone, but instead of keys, remote-controlled slides on the top and sides trigger small hobby-helicopter motors on the woodwind. This can produce a range of 256 different notes per octave, as opposed to the 12 typical of Western instruments.

Backstory
Singh says he sought to create an instrument that could enable players to “paint” with the infinite color palette of an artist—limited only by the composer’s imagination.


Somesh Ganesh, Hanoi Hantrakul, and Zachary Kondak
Somesh Ganesh, Hanoi Hantrakul, and Zachary Kondak with their Moog’s Greatest Hits

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Somesh Ganesh, Hanoi Hantrakul, and Zachary Kondak: Moog’s Greatest Hits

From: Atlanta
Contest Finish: Special Award for Most Collaborative Music Making

Specs
A wooden drum box is rigged with a Moog synthesizer that is placed in a cardboard box, which is lifted, lowered, swung, and even tossed between musicians to create a range of sounds that accompany the beat.

Backstory
This entry is the first-place winner from another Tech event, the 2017 Moog Hackathon, in which teams of students are given identical Moog synthesizers and 48 hours to conceive, design, and fabricate the most innovative instrument.


Ly Yang and Zak Seipel
Ly Yang and Zak Seipel with their Lyharp

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Ly Yang and Zak Seipel: Lyharp

From: Platteville, Wisconsin
Contest Finish: People’s Choice: Best Overall Instrument

Specs
A 23-string acoustic-electric harp that is played horizontally with two frets

Backstory
Lyharp has a tuning mechanism that enables it to play all the notes in the chromatic scale, making it especially versatile. Special pickups also trigger preprogrammed accompaniment.


Caleb Byerly
Caleb Byerly and his Salimbaa

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Caleb Byerly: Salimbaa

From: High Point, North Carolina
Contest Finish: Third Place

Specs
The primitive appearance of strings stretched across a wood-topped steel bowl is deceptive. The 36 strings are doubled up, with half the strings played by a mallet while the other half resonate in harmony beneath. Plus, the Salimbaa is chromatically tuned, which means that the player need only turn the instrument a few degrees to change key.

Backstory
Byerly says that the idea of the Salimbaa came to him in a dream while he was doing mission work with the indigenous Manobo in the Philippines. As it turns out, his vision closely resembles an ancient Philippine instrument that had been lost to time. Now, Byerly runs a nonprofit that works with tribal peoples to “redeem” long-forgotten flutes, drums, and stringed instruments.


Takumi Ogata
Takumi Ogata and his Rib Cage

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Takumi Ogata: Rib Cage

From: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Contest Finish: Second place

Specs
An electro-acoustic instrument, the Rib Cage is just that: a spine of aluminum bars lined with 3D-printed plastic “ribs” that can be struck with a mallet or sawed with a violin bow or even a comb to create a range of acoustic sounds.

Backstory
Appropriately, the Rib Cage’s electronics also produce a heartbeat pulse that quickens and subsides with the intensity of the percussion—resulting in a deeply primal musical experience.


Yoshihito Nakanishi
Yoshihito Nakanishi and his Cell Music Gear

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Yoshihito Nakanishi: Cell Music Gear

From: Tokyo, Japan
Contest Finish: Finalist

Specs
A pair of soft 3D trackpads respond to touch and pressure and translate those signals into sound.

Backstory
The instrument can play any genre but is best exemplified when Nakanishi “DJs”—producing a mix of electronic and techno beats.


Erich Netherton
Erich Netherton and the Netherbox

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Erich Netherton: The Netherbox

From: Atlanta
Contest Finish: Finalist

Specs
A wooden acoustic box contains a contact microphone that captures the sounds of the long screws and springs that are plucked, strummed, and struck on top. Netherton creates the percussive sound, records it, and loops it to create a complex piece of music.

Backstory
Netherton is a percussionist, fascinated by all things that can be struck to make a sound. “I walked into Home Depot, bought a bunch of stuff, cut it up, and hit it,” he says.


Chet Udell
Chet Udell and his Optron

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Chet Udell: Optron

From: Albany, Oregon
Contest Finish: People’s Choice: Best Performance

Specs
A shop light, some multicolored LEDs, a complex array of electronics (including a webcam equipped with a motion detector), and a laptop create this straight-out-of-sci-fi instrument that can be played by waving it around, running fingers up and down a sensor, or strumming it like an air guitar.

Backstory
Japanese noise artist Atsuhiro Ito created the first Optron, which was a buzzing fluorescent tube. Udell’s device reminded almost everyone, young and old, of phantom duels with Darth Vader.

This article appears in our March 2018 issue.

Jason Isbell doesn’t want to stay silent on politics

Jason Isbell

Alabama native and Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Jason Isbell returns to the Fox Theatre for back-to-back shows in February with his band, the 400 Unit. The group will be pushing its latest album, The Nashville Sound, which might pack a few surprises for longtime fans of this soft-spoken Southern balladeer and former Drive-By Truckers guitarist.

What can fans expect to see that’s different this time around?
There’s a good chance that people will hear songs they’ve never heard live. We’ve got six solo records to choose from, and we’ll be playing a lot of songs from the new album. Be prepared for a louder rock ’n’ roll show than you might expect from the other records.

The new record is also more political. You’ve said that Trump’s election made you lose faith in the South. Do you expect any backlash here?
Atlanta can sometimes be the exception to the rule in the same way that Nashville is. There are some urban pockets in the South that don’t really [accept] all the politics of the rural South. The current political climate, and the fact that I have a family, has motivated me to try to tell people what I believe. A lot of people can’t afford to stay silent. If they choose to, they’re ignoring a lot of Americans who don’t have a voice. I don’t really go into diatribes on stage. I normally let the songs do the talking.

Artists often seek conflict. You’ve been living straight for the past few years, though. You’re sober, married, and a father.
Before I got sober, before I got my act cleaned up, I was afraid of what happiness or satisfaction might do to the art that I’m trying to make. That was a trick. My mind wanted me to keep drinking. That’s been pretty clearly disproven. I’ve been a lot happier over the last three albums than ever. And my work has improved because of it. Once you get your own problems solved, you can start focusing on the things outside your own front door. You can find a higher calling.

See the show

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit play at the Fox Theatre, with special guest James McMurtry, on February 8 and 9. foxtheatre.org

Do you feel like, overall, your music is better received in the South?
We did better in the South early on. But I think that had more to do with Southern people supporting natives than the content and subject matter. That stuff tends to translate everywhere, all over the world. Southern people just like to see a member of their tribe do well.

Do you feel like you’re proselytizing at your shows or preaching to the choir?
When I put this record out, a lot of people would say, ‘Well, you’re going to alienate half your fan base.’ I don’t think it’s anywhere near half. If I alienate anybody, it’ll probably be a small portion of people who, for one thing, don’t agree with me and, for another thing, just aren’t willing to listen to people they don’t agree with. I think there’s a chance to give them some information they’ve not heard before. More than that, I don’t think it matters if you’re preaching to the choir—you just keep preaching.

Where do you go for inspiration?
I read a lot—a lot of fiction. That helps me figure out what works and what doesn’t. Much of it comes from day-to-day conversation. I’ll be talking to my wife, or my best friend, or my dad, and someone will say something, and I’ll write it down. And I’ll go from there.

This article originally appeared in our February 2018 issue.

Albert Schweitzer Organ vs. Mighty Mo: How does the new size up with the old?

Albert Schweitzer Memorial

The mere sound of air shrilling through metal organ pipes summons images of cavernous churches and movie houses and long-dead virtuosos. In that context, Spivey Hall’s 25-year-old Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ is just a babe. So how does this newcomer size up against metro Atlanta’s ranking piper, the Fox Theatre’s “Mighty Mo?

Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ
Nickname None
Installed 1992
Made in Padua, Italy, by Fratelli Ruffatti
Number of pipes 4,413
Longest pipe 32 feet
Shortest pipe 1/4 inch
First performance A concert by British organist Dame Gillian Weir in May 1992
Connection to famous organist Virgil Fox Fox was good friends with developer Emilie Parmalee Spivey, for whom Spivey Hall is named.

Möller Opus 5566 Theatre Organ
Nickname 
Mighty Mo
Installed 1929
Made in 
Hagerstown, Maryland, by M.P. Möller Organ Co.
Number of pipes 3,622
Longest pipe 32 feet
Shortest pipe 6 inches
First performance 
A musical accompaniment to Steamboat Willie, Disney’s first Mickey Mouse feature on Christmas Day 1929
Connection to famous organist Virgil Fox 
The organist headlined several “Fox at the Fox” concerts in the 1970s.

Hear it in person: On May 13, you can experience the 50-foot-tall Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ in its full, thundering glory in a concert by master organists. Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ 25th Anniversary Celebration starts at 3 p.m. at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall.

This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.

Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee: Music City’s country cousin

David Arms

Visit Franklin

Fifteen minutes south of Nashville, deep in the wooded hills, the creative spirit of Music City is distilled to its rustic essence. Leiper’s Fork is barely a wide spot in the road, but this village of wood-framed country cottages lures Nashville royalty with its authentic musical offerings. It isn’t uncommon to find Winona Judd or Justin Timberlake eating fried chicken and playing alongside locals at Open Mic Night at Puckett’s Grocery, and everyone from grocers to Grammy winners shows up at the Lawnchair Theatre for live music and free movies. At Serenite Maison, strum a tune on priceless instruments such as a vintage 1944 Martin B28 guitar or a 1930s Gibson mandolin. (Alas, these instruments are not for sale, though many a would-be buyer has tried.) Leiper’s Fork is also home to more than its share of world-class art, thanks to galleries including Copper Fox, Leiper’s Creek, and David Arms—the eponymous studio of the renowned painter housed in a refurbished barn.

Where to Stay

Moonshine Hill Inn / Situated on twenty-one private wooded acres, this luxurious inn features a pond, vegetable garden, tree house, and its very own music barn honoring the town’s place on the Americana Music Triangle. moonshinehill.com

Where to Play

Lawnchair Theatre / Bring a chair or quilt and enjoy live music or free Friday-night movies all summer at this outdoor theater, complete with a tin-roofed pavilion. visitfranklin.com

Where to Eat

Puckett’s Grocery / Over the last sixty-plus years, this country store has grown into a classic meat-and-three and now operates several locations throughout Tennessee. But this is the original. puckettsofleipersfork.com

Meet the Neighbors

Aubrey Preston

In 1995, when developer Aubrey Preston returned from Colorado to his home state of Tennessee to raise his family, he discovered Leiper’s Fork. At the time, the burg was little more than a hollowed-out timber town that had long been left to its ghosts. He fell in love with the place, the hills and rural wilderness reminding him of East Tennessee, where he grew up. Preston, fifty-seven, bought up much of the village and encouraged Nashville artists to refurbish and set up shop in some of the abandoned buildings he’d acquired. One of his rules was that every business had to have a front porch, fire pit, or some place where people could congregate, rock in their chairs, and most importantly, play guitar—one of Preston’s passions. “The community takes a lot of pride in letting anyone who wants to play participate,” Preston says. “Music is a way of life here.”

Enjoy lake life in the quaint town of Mount Dora, Florida

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Mount Dora Lighthouse

Julie Fletcher/Visit Florida

For a window on Old Florida, look no further than Mount Dora, a popular winter destination for Northerners in the early twentieth century. With 1,400 lakes and an elevation 184 feet above sea level, the Central Florida town was dubbed the “Land of Lakes and Hills” by early promoters. Its most famous body of water is Lake Dora, a former entry point for steamships and home to the Lakeside Inn, the oldest continuously operating hotel in Florida, open since 1883. In the downtown village, much of the action is centered on Donnelly Street, named for J.P. Donnelly, the town’s first mayor. Wander antique shops (Oliver’s Twist, Village Antique Mall) and tasting rooms (the Wine Den, Maggie’s Attic). Then, stroll to Donnelly Park, where you’ll find the Donnelly House, a stunning example of Queen Anne–style architecture and one of the town’s most notable landmarks. Just a few blocks away at the public boat ramps, the red-and-white striped Mount Dora Lighthouse stands as the only inland lighthouse in the state.

Where to Stay

Lakeside Inn / The last remaining Victorian-era hotel in Central Florida, this 130-year-old landmark features a broad porch lined with rocking chairs overlooking a private pier and beach. lakeside-inn.com

Where to Eat

Pisces Rising / Feast on Caribbean-style seafood, steaks, and drinks—as well as sunsets over Lake Dora—in a restored 1919 bungalow. piscesrisingdining.com

Where to Play

Mount Dora Festivals / No matter what time of year you travel to Mount Dora, you’re likely to stumble upon a special event in Florida’s “Festival City.” Spring and summer standouts include the Blueberry Festival (April 29–30) and the lakeside Seafood Festival (Aug. 26–27). visitmountdora.com

Meet the Neighbors

Amy Sellers / Amy Sellers has always drawn inspiration for her paintings from the people and places that have touched her. And since she and her husband, Andrew, discovered Mount Dora six years ago, the lakeside community has served as a generous muse. “It’s almost like going back to Mayberry,” says Sellers, fifty-two, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania before moving to Tampa for college. “Mount Dora is a quaint town where everyone knows and helps each other.” Oils of landmarks like the Mount Dora Lighthouse and the Orange Blossom Cannonball tourist train line the walls of her downtown studio. Sellers says that prints and reproductions are quite popular with visitors who, like her, have fallen for this Old Florida town and want to take a piece of it home with them.

Bluffton, South Carolina, is a Lowcountry work of art

Church of the Cross

bigstock.com

Bluffton Oyster Company

Bluffton CVB

These days, you don’t often hear the term “boom town” associated with a small community. But this creative village in the Lowcountry marshes is happy to break the mold. Bluffton’s population has exploded by more than 120 percent since 2000, and the median age of its residents is thirty-three. This injection of youth is both the cause and effect of a thriving arts scene based in the historic district, Old Town Bluffton. The neighborhood itself is a work of art, filled with restored buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Admire the weathered wooden Church of the Cross, a gothic structure built in 1857, and don’t miss the Heyward House, a classic 1841 plantation home that doubles as a visitors center. Artists and artisans showcase their works throughout the district; highlights include Fantozzi’s Wrought Iron Design, Al-Harry Furniture Design, and the Filling Station Art Gallery. After browsing for an original piece to bring home, take a short stroll to the May River, where everything from baptisms to boating still takes place.

Where to Stay

Inn at Palmetto Bluff  / A town unto itself, this luxury resort features a variety of accommodation options, half a dozen dining experiences, a golf course, and a spa. montagehotels.com

Where to Eat

Bluffton Oyster Company / This local institution, owned by a third-generation oystering family, serves up the briny mollusks freshly plucked and shucked. blufftonoyster.com

What to See

Rose Hill Mansion / A stunning example of Gothic Revival architecture, this private residence is open to the public for tours every day at 2 p.m. Reservations required. rosehillmansion.com

Local Landmark

Secession Oak
In 1844, Congressman Robert Barnwell Rhett stood beneath an ancient live oak in downtown Bluffton and made a fire-eating speech riling up local furor over perceived abuses by the federal government and its Yankee leaders. The offense to South Carolina’s sovereignty was so outrageous, he claimed, the state should consider splitting off from the Union. The speech spurred a Southern nationalist movement, and seventeen years later, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. The man, the cause, and the Confederacy are, of course, long gone. But the oak (some estimate its age at more than 400) still spreads its moss-draped branches over Old Town Bluffton. Seventy-five feet tall, it is a peaceful symbol of a turbulent past.

Thomasville, Georgia: A proper Southern town

Downtown Thomasville

Gabriel Hanway

In the late nineteenth century, Thomasville was a terminus on the Southern Railway, making it an easily accessible destination for wealthy Northerners. Enchanted by its pine-scented air and warm temperatures (it’s just a few miles from the Florida line), they chose it as a winter vacation destination. Many built lavish homes or purchased former cotton estates and transformed them into hunting plantations. Fast-forward to the present day and this air of Victorian refinement is still as central to Thomasville as the massive 300-year-old oak at the corner of Monroe and Crawford streets. Drive or walk down the town’s original brick roads, sit on its wrought-iron benches, and admire its preserved Victorian architecture. Restored downtown buildings house thriving retailers such as Dillon Candy Company, which has specialized in pralines and pecan rolls since 1918, and Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop, where you can sample local meats and cheeses. Don’t miss the grand Pebble Hill Plantation, a standout among the town’s plantations (also see: Pine Hill and Sinkola). While you’re there, take a tour and book a quail hunt—after all, the area is known as the Quail Hunting Capital of the World.

Where to stay

The Paxton House Historic House Hotel / Experience Gilded Age charm at this B&B built in 1884 as a vacation home for wealthy West Virginian James Paxton. Have breakfast on the sun porch before taking a spin around town on one of the hotel’s complimentary bikes. thepaxton1884.com

Where to eat

George and Louie’s / A Thomasville institution since 1981, this Greek restaurant and market features a large porch on which to enjoy its famous grilled-shrimp Greek salad. georgeandlouies.com

What to see

Lapham-Patterson House Historic Site / Built between 1884 and 1885 as a winter home for Chicago businessman C.W. Lapham, this ornate National Historic Landmark showcases unusual design elements such as asymmetrical rooms and more than fifty exit points. gastateparks.org/laphampatterson

Don’t Miss

Rose Show and Festival

April 27-29, 2017
Once home to a test garden where botanists experimented with growing different types of roses, Thomasville—known as “The Rose City”—boasts a world-renowned variety of the genus. All year long, visitors can walk through the Thomasville Rose Garden, which showcases more than 1,500 bushes. And every spring since the 1920s, the city hosts the annual Thomasville Rose Show and Festival, a three-day affair with two parades of flowery floats. The main event, of course, is the rose show itself, during which thousands of visiting flower enthusiasts will see rose hybrids in a staggering array of colors—from black to green to aquamarine.

Immerse yourself in history in Edenton, North Carolina

Roanoke River Lighthouse. Photograph courtesy of visitnc.com.

Nestled on Albemarle Sound, two hours inland from the Outer Banks, Edenton was established by cotton and peanut farmers in the late seventeenth century and incorporated in 1722 as the first capital of the North Carolina colony. To this day, it feels a little more New England than Old South. A sizable portion of its architecture dates back to the eighteenth century, including the 1736 St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and the red-brick 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, the most intact colonial courthouse in the country.

Cotton Gin Inn. Photograph courtesy of Chowan County TDA/Kip Shaw.

Follow the city’s guided walking tour of historic buildings, or take the trolley from the courthouse to the Cupola House, an architecturally unique mansion built in 1758. It’s framed by the expansive Colonial Revival Gardens, filled with fruit trees, beds of herbs, and other plants botanists believe could have been grown here prior to 1800. For a taste of the true colonial spirit, head to the Barker House museum and welcome center, a 1782 residence overlooking the bay where former owner Penelope Barker organized the Edenton Tea Party to protest unfair British taxation. Next door stands the relatively new Roanoke River Lighthouse; built in 1886, it is believed to be one of the last remaining square-framed structures of its kind.

Paddling Edenton Bay. Photograph courtesy of Chowan County TDA/Kip Shaw.

Where to Stay

Cotton Gin Inn / Set in a restored 1900 cotton plantation, this food-focused bed and breakfast offers organic breakfasts, locally sourced appetizers during cocktail hour, and special supper-club events open to the public. thecottongininn.com

Where to Eat

The 51 House / Enjoy steaks, seafood, and views of the Albemarle Sound at the site where Penelope Barker inspired more than fifty women to sign a petition pledging to boycott British goods. the51house.com

Where to Play

Paddling trails / Rent a canoe or kayak at the Edenton Town Harbor and explore the area’s natural history on its many scenic waterways. visitedenton.com

Local Landmark

1767 Chowan County Courthouse
With its brick facade, window shutters, and signature bell tower—complete with a weather vane—this National Historic Landmark is a model of classic Georgian architecture. The oldest continuously operating government building in the state, it has also witnessed the formation of a colony, state, and nation. Lawyer Joseph Hewes, who helped build the courthouse, went on to sign the Declaration of Independence. During the revolution, future Governor and Senator Samuel Johnston practiced law in the central courtroom. The hall also hosted meetings of the Masons of Unanimity #7, of which George Washington was a member. The chair in which America’s first president sat is on display. While court cases are no longer heard here, county business is still conducted in the offices.

Pack your bags for Natchitoches, Louisiana—a Southern classic

If you wanted to create the quintessential Southern small town, you’d model it after Natchitoches. Just ask Robert Harling: A Natchitoches native, he set his play Steel Magnolias in a homey fictional town that closely resembled the one in which he was raised. And when it came time to make the film starring Julia Roberts, there was never a doubt it would be shot in this city of French Quarter–style wrought-iron balconies and overflowing flower boxes.  Visitors can still tour famous sites from the movie, including St. Augustine Catholic Church and the eighteenth-century American Cemetery. Fans of the movie will be familiar with the annual Christmas Festival of Lights, but if you missed the holiday, you can still catch one of the weekend festivals held here year round, such as the Cane River Zydeco Festival in August or the Meat Pie Festival and River Run in September. And if you can’t score a room at the Steel Magnolia House bed and breakfast, you needn’t worry—the town is home to more than thirty B&Bs, earning it the moniker “B&B Capital of the World.” While you’re in town, be sure to tour some of the Creole plantation homes along the Cane River, and check out a replica of Fort St. Jean Baptiste, built from the original 1716 blueprints.

St. Augustine Catholic Church

Natchitoches Tourism

Where to Stay

Sweet Cane Inn / This late-1800s home, now a bed and breakfast, boasts twelve-foot ceilings, eleven fireplaces, and a location in the heart of the historic district. Breakfast specialties include Creole crepes. sweetcaneinn.com

Where to Eat

Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant  / Stop in at the birthplace of the Natchitoches Meat Pie—the deep-fried delicacy that put the town on the culinary map. lasyones.com

What to See

Rose Hill Mansion / A stunning example of Gothic Revival architecture, this private residence is open to the public for tours every day at 2 p.m. Reservations required. rosehillmansion.com

Don’t Miss

Meat Pie Festival and River Run

Sarah C. Rutherford

Sarah C. Rutherford

September 15–16
One of Louisiana’s official state foods, the Natchitoches meat pie—a crispy deep-fried flour shell stuffed with beef, pork, and the Cajun trinity of onions, bell peppers, and celery—is said to have originated at Lasyone’s, a local institution. Every September, locals and visitors alike gather along the downtown banks of Cane River Lake to stuff themselves with the meaty handheld treats while enjoying zydeco and country music. There are games and crafts for kids; a beer fest and pub crawl for adults; and a meat-pie eating contest for folks of any age brave enough to tackle a plateful. The festival coincides with the River Run—a leisurely motorcycle ride along the Cane River with stops at historical sights and a quick break for—you guessed it—a meat pie.

Experience true Southern hospitality in Water Valley, Mississippi

In many ways, downtown Water Valley seems like a time capsule from the early twentieth century. Main Street runs parallel to a historic railway line; brick buildings and awning-dressed storefronts seem ripped from a vintage postcard. One of those stores, Turnage Drug, still spins the same malted milkshakes it’s served since 1905. But though the town seems like a love letter to yesteryear, don’t assume its best days are behind it. Water Valley is a vibrant hub for academics and artists, thanks, in part, to its proximity to Oxford (just twenty-five miles north) and its cluster of art studios, including the mixed-media Yalo Studio and the painting-focused Bozarts Gallery. Old-Fashioned Grocery, despite its name, is just six years old and sells produce and meats in keeping with modern preferences for locally sourced, conscientiously imported products. And in the bones of a former foundry, Yalobusha Brewing Company develops new twists on traditional beers, such as a seasonal blackberry saison. (The taproom is open for tastings Fridays and Saturdays).

Turnage Drug

Water Valley Chamber of Commerce

Where to Stay

Blu-Buck Mercantile Hotel / In this town where everything old is new again,  it’s only fitting to book a room on the second floor of a refurbished machine shop. Each apartment-style suite features soaring ceilings and a full kitchen. (888) 829-7076

Where to Eat

Crawdad Hole / Fill up on fresh shrimp and crab and, of course, crawfish served at picnic tables in a converted gas station. (662) 816-4006

What to See

Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum / Learn about the iron horse that built the town and read stories about Casey Jones, who worked as a fireman along this line of rail. caseyjonesmuseum.com

Meet the Neighbors

Snooky Williams / When Snooky Williams arrived in Water Valley in 1955, he was twenty-four, fresh out of the army, and looking to start his own clothing store. “At first, the townspeople didn’t know how to place me exactly,” says Williams, now eighty-five. “But I was accepted. They made me feel welcome.” Williams has been paying that hospitality forward ever since. For the past fifty years or so, he and his wife, Mary Lou, have opened their home for an annual spring mixer, inviting around 200 locals, and they always make it a point to send newcomers a handwritten invitation. Williams sold his clothing store in the 1980s and opened an insurance agency, from which he retired ten years ago. But he kept his Main Street office and maintains regular hours chatting up friends, old and new, when he’s not driving around town in his black Chevy pickup, the unofficial Welcome Wagon of Water Valley.

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