Above: Chuck Reece, editor of The Bitter Southerner. Photo by Joe Earle

Looking past debutantes and the Beverly Hillbillies for the modern South

To hear Chuck Reece tell it, cocktails played no small part in naming his website centered on life in the South. He’d been to New Orleans and was impressed with the cocktails there. Then, when he saw an article online listing the best cocktail bars in the country, he was shocked to find none were from New Orleans. In fact, none were from anywhere in the South.

“I was like, ‘This ain’t right’,” Reece recalled.

So, he decided to post a rebuttal online. To name his new effort, he and some friends “started with names of things you put in cocktails,” he said. “Hmm… ‘It’s not The Sweet Southerner, not The Spirited Southerner…’” Then he thought of bitters, the flavorings used in many cocktails.

“The Bitter Southerner,” he said, eyes lighting at the memory. “Wow! That name seemed to be a quadruple entendre.”

The name seemed to invite thinking about more than merely cocktails. Five years ago, when Reece launched the website The Bitter Southerner, it seemed ready take on about anything related to being a thinking resident of the modern American South.

In the first issue, Reece announced that “if you a person who buys the states’ rights argument … or you fly the rebel flag in your front yard … or you still think women look really nice in hoop skirts, we politely suggest you find other amusements on the web. The Bitter Southerner is not for you. The Bitter Southerner is for the rest of us. It’s about the South that the rest of us know: the one we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.”

Reece and his writers still contemplate cocktails and food on occasion, but they also tackle music, literature, history, folklore, politics, civil rights and what it means to be a Southerner. “I think we’re creating a kind of a place where people who want to acknowledge all the South’s baggage are free to do so,” he said.

One recent article, for example, looked at the image of Southerners as presented on TV, a subject Reece said he’s come to realize had a lot to do with his desire to create a publication like The Bitter Southerner in the first place.         “Everything I was seeing, in every TV show set in the South, you have two images of the South — one looked like debutantes and the other looked like the Beverly Hillbillies,” Reece said recently over coffee at a coffeehouse in Decatur, near his home in Clarkston. “We don’t all fit those molds. That always bugged me, that many Southerners don’t fit into those stereotypes.”

Growing up in Ellijay in north Georgia, Reece knew a very different kind of South than the one on TV. Reece attended the University of Georgia during the heyday of R.E.M. and other Georgia rock bands, so he had an interest in the region’s music. After a career that included stints as a journalist, as spokesman for Gov. Zell Miller and in corporate PR, the 57-year-old now works fulltime as editor in chief of The Bitter Southerner.

In its five years of existence, the online magazine has drawn notice. Reece says the page draws 200,000 unique visitors a month. It’s been written up in places such as Forbes.com and npr.com and the New York Times recently described The Bitter Southerner as “a kind of kitchen-sink New Yorker for the region,” a description that tickled Reece because he wants his publication to feel rooted in its region the same way The New Yorker seems grounded in New York City.

What makes a Bitter Southerner story? “It depends,” Reece said. “A Bitter Southerner story in general is something that goes against most people’s idea of what you see in a Southern magazine. The best stories are the ones where the writer has a personal connection to the subject matter … Our point of view is that the South is a way more complicated place that most people think.”

And there are more kinds of people living in more varied Souths than in the old days of debutantes and hillbillies. “This is what we’ve heard from our audience over and over again: ‘I never felt like I fit in any of the proscribed boxes of Southern life,’” Reece said. “We’re the publication for anybody who doesn’t fit in the American South.”

Reece jokes that if his magazine had a flag, it would bear the image of Booker T and the M.G.s, a soul band that included black and white musicians and, at Stax Records in Memphis in the 1960’s, created records people still dance to all over the world. “They represent the essence of what we’ve been about,” Reece said. “If we can get past the usual stuff, we can create some amazing stuff.”

To find the publication, visit bittersoutherner.com.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.