Sturgill Simpson doesn't fit today's common image of a country singer. When he arrived for his Tiny Desk Concert, the 36-year-old Kentucky native sauntered in sleepy-eyed, wearing jeans, a pair of old canvas tennis shoes, no socks and a well-worn button-down blue shirt, one of only two identical shirts he said he had in rotation while on tour. (He appeared a few nights later on Letterman wearing either the same garment or its twin.)
Simpson's songs don't sound like what you'd expect, either: Mostly, it seems, he writes about taking drugs and drinking. Opening his Tiny Desk performance with the seemingly existential meditation "Turtles All The Way Down," Simpson tells the audience it's "about some other stuff, but mostly drugs." He follows that song with "Time After All" ("I wanna roll off the tempo, lay back and get high") and "Life Of Sin" ("Every day I'm smokin' my brain hazy ... I keep drinking myself silly") before closing with "Water In The Well," a tamer, comparatively melancholy reflection on loneliness and failed dreams.
Regardless of the themes, Simpson is a force. His acoustic-guitar work in this solo performance is phenomenal, and he possesses a thundering voice that made the NPR offices shudder. "Turtles All The Way Down" and "Life Of Sin" are from this year's incredible Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, while "Time After All" and "Water In The Well" both appear on Simpson's 2013 debut, High Top Mountain. (Get it?)
- "Turtles All The Way Down"
- "Time After All"
- "Life Of Sin"
- "Water In A Well"
Producers: Denise DeBelius, Robin Hilton; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Colin Marshall; photo by Sarah Tilotta/NPR
At this summer's Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, thousands turned up for readings by big-name authors: Salman Rushdie, Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith and Albert Johnson. Odds are the name Albert Johnson doesn't ring a bell. But if you're a hip-hop fan, you might recognize the author by another name: Prodigy. Off and on for the past 20 years, he's been one half of the acclaimed Queens, N.Y., duo Mobb Deep.
Prodigy says he began his debut novel, H.N.I.C., over a decade ago and, with the help of co-writer Savile, it wasn't hard to translate the somber realism he expresses in songs to the page.
"Writing lyrics, I pull from my real life," Prodigy says. "A lot of negativity that goes on in my world, in my neighborhood, with my friends, negative things I had to deal with — I take that negative energy and instead of doing something bad with it, I put it into my music."
Rappers taking on book publishing has become something of a trend. 50 Cent has his own imprint with Gallery Books; Simon & Schuster has Cash Money Content, run by the heads of Cash Money Records, home to Drake and Nicki Minaj. Titles on these imprints are often classified as "street lit" or "urban fiction": gritty, hard-boiled stories about gangsters, crime and the streets. But Prodigy's not a fan of those labels, and neither is his publisher, Johnny Temple, of Akashic Books.
"So-called 'urban lit' is the closest thing publishing has to hip-hop music," Temple says. "And just as when hip-hop came around, everyone thought it was going to last two years, and now it's transformed the landscape of the world of music, I've always believed strongly that urban lit has great potential."
The genre has its roots in the 1960s and '70s, with such authors as Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines and Chester Himes. Its current renaissance goes back about 15 years, to The Coldest Winter Ever, a hit novel by rapper Sister Souljah. That book's blockbuster success transformed an indie genre into a corporate money maker, says K'wan, an author with more than 20 novels under his belt.
"Initially we weren't getting advances," K'wan recalls. "We made our money from our hustle, the out-of-the-trunk hustle. So when the major publishers came in, they started throwing these advances like, 'Hey, this is what it is: I'll give you six figures if you write two or three books.' And you're like, 'Wow, you're going to give me six figures up front — all mine?' So, off to the races."
Kwan's latest, Black Lotus, is published by an imprint of Akashic that's curated by Prodigy. It's called Infamous Books, and publisher Johnny Temple says Akashic's goal is simple: "Akashic's slogan — it's slightly tongue in cheek but not really — is 'reverse gentrification of the literary world.' And Infamous Books is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of that motto."
For his part, as curator of Infamous, Prodigy says he's interested in titles that teach — books with a moral. And that grows in part out of the three years he spent in prison on a gun-possession charge.
"Having that time, it helped me to learn what other inmates were going through, and the system and how it works," Prodigy says. "So I guess when I'm writing something that pertains to that, it's a little bit more authentic than if I didn't live through it. 'Cause I've seen it, I lived through it, I know what's going on in there.
"So it definitely made me want to talk about it and let people know what's going on in there, and let young people know: That's not where you want to be. 'Cause you can go to jail for something small and end up doing 10 years, life, for something that happens in there — a lot of things happen in jail. So it definitely influences the way I tell the story and the stories I choose to tell."
And it's not just his stories he wants to tell through Infamous Books.
"I like Malcolm Gladwell a lot," Prodigy says. "His books are real good. Books where you can learn something: health, religion, the food industry, government, politics, federal reserve system, monetary system — how things started and got to the way it is today."
Topics, in other words, that don't bear labels.
The Trojan Women, by Euripides, is a Greek tragedy written 2,500 years ago that war keeps timely.
It's about a group of women who struggle to survive in Troy after the town has been sacked. When one of the women cries out, "Our country, our conquered country, perishes ... O land that reared my children!" it's hard not to hear those words echo today, through Syria, in Iraq, and in Ukraine.
A new production, re-staged by two American filmmakers and Omar Abu Saada, the Syrian director now living in Cairo, was set to open next month at Georgetown University, then move on to Columbia University. It's called Syria: The Trojan Women, and it has already been presented in Amman, Jordan, with a cast of twelve Syrian women who work in their own real-life stories of loss, death, and exile.
But the play's scheduled U.S. performances have been postponed, and may have to be canceled. The U.S. State Department rejected the women's applications for entertainer's visas because they are refugees, now stranded in Jordan. The State Department worries that they might try to stay in the United States, even though they have families and small children in Jordan.
Section 214b of the Immigration Act requires people who want to come to work in the United States to prove they have a home overseas and "no intention of abandoning it." That sounds like especially ugly language to turn on refugees, whose homes may be bombed or burned.
Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration lawyer hired by Georgetown, says that since 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security has gotten more involved in approving visas for artists — or not.
"And it is affecting the arts across the board," Ginsburg told the Washington Post. "It is more difficult than it has been in years to get the underlying petitions approved" for artist visas.
The US State Department is probably not silly to think artists who perform in the United States may get a taste of fast food and freedom and try to stay. The ballet companies of America are richer because of Cuban and Russian dancers who took the stage here and stayed. Quite a few US baseball clubs are better, too.
But Cynthia Schneider, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, and co-chair of Georgetown's Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, says it's American audiences who may lose out on hearing Euripides' classic lines, uttered with the passion and poignance of Syrian women who now struggle through their own tragedies.
"This is the greatest tragedy," says Ambassador Schneider, "because in the United States we really don't have access to the voices of the Syrian people. Who are we hearing from? ISIS."
John Henning Schumann
For years I've had a patient who is a gym teacher. As you might expect, he's pretty fit. Well into his 60s, he can do an impressive number of pushups, as he demonstrated one morning in our exam room.
He surprised me in a different way at an appointment several months ago. He pulled out results from medical tests that he'd had done at his church. He and many of his fellow congregants had each paid about $150 for screening tests that they were told could see if they were at risk for strokes, clogged leg arteries and other problems.
He'd had an electrocardiogram, which measures the heart's electrical activity. He'd also had ultrasound tests performed on the big arteries in his body — the ones on both sides of his neck that feed the brain (the carotids) and the aorta, the largest blood vessel in the human body.
The man was in good health. He didn't smoke, wasn't overweight and exercised regularly. I wouldn't have ordered these tests for him. They come with a risk of false alarms. And in my patient's case, there were no medically compelling reasons for them.
He was disappointed when the tests showed "mild carotid artery disease" on one side of his neck. As someone who prided himself on his health and fitness, he was disturbed to learn that his results indicated that he was at risk for a stroke.
Though his report described the risk as mild, all that mattered to him were the words "disease" and "stroke." By the time he came to see me, I had to work pretty hard to calm him down.
My experience with this patient and others like him led to me look at the website for Life Line Screening, the company that performed his tests. There I found testimonials from customers who felt screening had saved their lives, or at least uncovered problems before they became life-threatening.
A disclaimer acknowledges "there is debate about the importance ... of screening for vascular disease in general." The statement concludes with an admonition to "always consult with your doctor," as we are the ones who "know you best."
My opinion was that my patient could have done without the tests. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which is the most unbiased source of recommendations on preventive care, recommends against carotid screening in healthy people, too.
So what is the evidence for Life Line's approach?
Dr. Stephen Brunton, a family doctor who's an advisor to the company, says Life Line's research distinguishes it from competitors and provides a counterargument to critics. "Our standards are wider, based on the data we've collected," he told Shots. Life Line has screened more than 8 million people over two decades, and willingly shares their data with independent researchers who have performed multiple analyses. The company's conclusion: vascular disease is more prevalent than conventional medical opinion suggests.
But there's another issue.
Life Line also has relationships with some 150 hospital partners, who stand to benefit from referrals of anxious customers like my patient the gym teacher for further testing and treatment.
The company says there's no conflict. "No money changes hands in these relationships," said Joelle Reizes, the company's communications director. "We partner with hospitals to answer the criticism that we leave patients 'hanging' after we provide them results." If a screening customer doesn't have a primary care physician, then a hospital partner can help link to one through their network.
Still, relationships between hospitals and screening companies have come under scrutiny, as Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, has criticized hospitals partnering with HealthFair (a competitor of Life Line Screening). Public Citizen recently sent letters to 20 hospitals in eight states asking them to sever ties with HealthFair, citing the "widespread consensus among medical experts ... that community-wide cardiovascular health screening programs are unethical and are much more likely to do harm than good."
In my practice, I strive to achieve the best results for patients using the best available medical science. I also try to minimize harm. As we often say, each patient is different. Some of us want every morsel of information about ourselves, while others prefer to know only what's necessary, or likely to inspire action. In the case of my gym teacher-patient, less would clearly have been more.
About 2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire stretched from the Middle East all the way across Western Europe. A wall marked the empire's northernmost boundary, at one point less than a mile from today's border between England and Scotland.
Many scholars think the Roman emperor Hadrian built the 73-mile wall at this point to keep the unruly Scottish out. When the Scottish vote in an independence referendum on Sept. 18, they will be deciding whether they want to separate from the rest of Britain.
And Hadrian's wall, which still stands, has some modern-day issues of its own. The organization that maintains the wall has lost its funding.
For most people, a hike along the wall demands only the most basic equipment: a water bottle, a sturdy pair of shoes, and (this being England) rain gear.
Alisha Martin, 9, is working a more authentic look. The girl is ready for battle, with a plastic helmet, shield and sword.
"A Roman costume," she says, "because it's Hadrian's Wall. Hadrian built it to keep out the barbarians."
"Hadrian was a emperor, I think?" She glances at her mother, who nods encouragingly. "Yeah, emperor."
Tourist David Fletcher explains it this way: "The Romans, who were occupying England at the time, were a bit cheesed off at the Scottish people, who kept stealing their sheep."
"Marauding tribes!" adds his wife, Kath.
"Marauding. And Hadrian said, 'Enough is enough!' " Fletcher says.
The wall took six years to build. It originally stood 15 feet high. The Romans put a major fort every five miles along its length.
"There's quite strong evidence that the wall was painted white in Roman times," says Linda Tuttiett, chief executive of the Hadrian's Wall Trust. "So as you can imagine, that would have been visible from miles and miles and miles away."
It made a grand statement about the empire's size and strength. And it also said something about the people who withstood the massive Roman Empire.
"It's a testimony to the strength of feeling and character of the Scots as they were at the time," she says.
And perhaps as they are today as well, given Scotland's upcoming vote.
"Indeed," says Tuttiett. "Who knows how that strength of character has developed?"
Two thousand years later, this wall is a lot less imposing. It's no longer white. The forts are gone. It looks like a garden wall, running along cliffs and hills surrounded by heather and scrubby trees. Hadrian's Wall — now standing only a few feet tall — stretches from one horizon to the other.
"Many, many of the farms and barns and churches across Hadrian's Wall are built out of the very stone of the wall," Tuttiett says. The Romans were great stonemasons. So after the empire fell, people took those nicely-cut stones for their own buildings.
Today the wall is a UNESCO heritage site, and Tuttiett's organization has led the preservation effort — planting new grass, coordinating archaeological programs, and making sure nobody takes a stone for themselves. At least, that's what her organization used to do. Government funding dried up, and now the trust has been forced to close.
"You really hate to see it disappear, because it is a great link to the past," says American tourist Steve Taylor, who's visiting from Houston. "And at the same time, you kind of wonder how long do you keep it around? Forever? I don't know the answer to that."
Nobody expects the wall to vanish, but it won't be kept up like before. Responsibility will lie with 300 or so different entities along the wall's route, rather than one single organization.
"Wall maintenance has been a bit of an issue for almost 100 years, so these aren't new issues that are cropping up," says Dr. Andrew Birley. He's the archaeologist who runs excavations at a nearby Roman fort called Vindolanda, and the third generation of his family to excavate this site.
Birley says studying ancient history gives him a long view of borders and empires.
"Frontiers are not permanent things. Hadrian's Wall is a great example of that. It took a mighty Roman army here for almost 300 years to maintain this barrier between peoples," he says.
As an Englishman, Birley won't be voting on Scottish independence. But he says his personal view is, why shove up more walls? He thinks, better to bring barriers down than put new ones up.