The adopted home of Faulkner, and once heralded as the art center of the South, Oxford, Mississippi, is the kind of small city where everybody knows everybody and their mom. The University of Mississippi keeps the economy stable, rent is cheap, and the music scene is thriving, not so much out of ambition but because kids there don’t have much else to do. In other words, it’s exactly the stuff of which great scenes are made.
Like Athens, Georgia, in the ’80s or Olympia in the ’90s, there are a whole crop of new, diverse bands in this city of 19,000. If this indie zenith in the making has a king, it’s John Barrett. He and drummer Colin Sneed make up the stripped-down garage wailers Bass Drum of Death. BDOD, as they’ve become known, have spent the past year splashed across hip music websites and touring to promote their full-length debut, GB City, released on Oxford’s own Fat Possum Records—a raucous exploration of drugs, religious girls, and the general troublemaking bored small-town kids revel in. Whereas some young musicians from a place this size would take their success and flee to Brooklyn, Barrett is betting on his home turf.
“The scene here is becoming really awesome. Everyone helps out with everyone else’s shit,” Barrett shares, “and there is so much diverse music coming in.” He exalts the virtues of other local bands like Dead Gaze, psych rockers who are generating a big buzz of their own; trashy punksters the Unwed Teenage Mothers; the sexy cerebral rock of Flight; and his brother’s band, the Hüsker Dü–ish Young Buffalo. “I feel like I’m constantly being exposed to and appreciate stuff I wouldn’t normally get into, and end up participating in its process. We are basically garage rockers, and it’s refreshing to be exposed to all sorts of points of view, musically.”
But home’s not perfect. Aside from a club called Proud Larry’s, which boasts amazing sweet-potato fries, Oxford is short on venues for the crush of emerging bands. “I just moved to a place we call the ‘Dude Ranch,’ ” Barrett chuckles; “I live there with four other musicians, and we play a lot of the shows there and we book other touring bands to play too. Almost all the shows here are in houses.” Accentuating the positive, he continues, “Oxford’s a good central location to be based for touring, and my family and community are here. We are here for each other. We aren’t competitive. It’s not like when you go to L.A. and everyone is trying to name-drop or one-up each other,” he laughs. “You can’t do that here. When we were on TV (Fuel TV’s The Daily Habit), everyone got together to watch at the bar. It’s not like we’re rappers. No one’s going to sell a million records, so when someone does make money, everyone else is happy for them.”
So far, success for Barrett has meant quitting his job moving furniture to focus on music full-time. He has also been able to invest in a touring minivan—”full-on soccer-mom style,” he jokes—and he can splurge on books to read on tour. A connoisseur of music biographies, he’s currently immersed in Dirty South, a chronicle of the proliferation of Southern hip-hop. “I’m on the Cash Money chapter, and I know every single they are talking about,” Barrett recalls fondly. “That was my sixth-grade music.”
With his new van full of rock-‘n’-roll history and his musical roots firmly intact, Barrett’s Bass Drum of Death is just the kind of modern ambassador a town like Oxford needs.