(Originally written for Just a Pinch of South in 2012)
Continuing with my occasional series of interviews with people who embody the concept of “just a pinch of South” I had the opportunity to interview Micah Whitson from The Old Try a few weeks ago. He and his wife Marianna are Southern expats living in Boston, Massachusetts. Micah was raised in Alabama, but has also made his home in Mississippi, Georgia, and North Carolina before moving to Boston in 2007. That’s what I call Southern ecumenical.
Micah and Marianna have day jobs, but you may know them from their unique Southern inflected letterpress posters. I first fell in love with their work when I saw (and immediately purchased) their manners print. It turns out that one is Micah’s favorite, too.
Micah and I talked books, faith, and barbecue (As Micah says, “Alabama barbecue is my jam.”), but there’s just too much to include it all. Here are some highlights.
JaPoS: What do you miss about living in the South?
MW: I certainly miss the food of the South, but I think the main thing I miss is that even if it’s really, really busy back home, there’s always this feeling of the possibility of fellowshipping around the corner. You know you could just roll into someone’s house, or call up a friend, and could actually do things with them. Boston is such a scheduled and regimented place. Our best friends here we see three times a year, maybe. If we don’t work with people then it’s really hard to get time to see them. There’s just that feeling of harried-ness here. When we go back home I can call up friends in Alabama and I can say, “Hey, do you want to get a beer tonight?” and they are like, “Sure I’m not doing anything.” Here I feel like it is tough to do those things and be neighborly because you try to do it, and nobody’s got the time for it.
JaPoS: How do you think living in New England has shaped or changed you?
MW: I think the biggest thing comes from living with people who have different kinds of backgrounds. I can be a pretty judgmental person and think, “This is right and that thing is wrong,” and there isn’t any grey area. But living in New England has really allowed us to realize both as Christians and as human beings on the earth that there is a place to speak truth, and there is a call to do that with love, but at the same time, it isn’t really my place to judge. I can try to live an example, but I don’t think it is really my job to force that example onto everyone else. Living here has made us a lot more accepting. Not necessarily that we have just thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but a lot of our lives are lived in that grey area. It’s a helpful thing to have to grow and think about that and wrestle with those ideas while not being surrounded with the “group think” that says, “This is just what we do, and if you don’t do it you can just move to a different state.” Instead, by living [in Boston] we’ve really had to confront those things and live with people who believe different things. Because we are all just people, it’s our job to love one another.
I think too another thing that has changed, in part the main genesis for Old Try, is living somewhere else and then realizing that there can be a lot of shame in being a Southerner. I grew up just regular old guy in Alabama, and I feel like because of the stories that we are told and the things we read we think, “Oh man I guess we as Southerners are not as cultured as other people.” Then by moving elsewhere I’ve seen that there are just as many rednecks in Connecticut and Massachusetts as there are in Tennessee and Alabama. You get somewhere else and you realize that there are all the same kind social problems and issues that happen in the South. I’ve realized that I don’t need to be ashamed of my Southerness. I think now I can go toe to toe with a person who thinks something negative as to what being a Southerner is. I can talk about it with some amount of realism because I’m living elsewhere.
What was the inspiration for The Old Try?
MW: Several things came together. Marianna made me a letter sweater which I wore to an Ole Miss game, and everybody was kind of fired up about it. They said, “I have to know where to get one.” So Marianna and I said, “Well, let’s make some stuff that really connects people to what they are really about and where they are from.” For instance, I went to Ole Miss. But that won’t work for everyone. Let’s say your grandad went to Davidson. If you were to wear a Davidson shirt, that actually has a connection to you beyond just an arbitrary brand. But [because of the difficulty of collegiate licensing] and not knowing what the heck we were doing with fashion, we tabled it. Our name came from “the old college try” because of our original idea. So [The Old Try] sat around and languished. Then the Tuscaloosa tornadoes came through 2 years ago. Being here, away from home, seeing helicopter footage of Athens and Limestone county, and seeing buildings that had been there for years disappear, it made me miss home. After that I saw a lot of Southern designers who were living outside the South doing different designs to show their solidarity and that they were thinking of home. I was on the bus thinking of that one day, and I realized while we didn’t know anything about clothing, I knew a heck of a lot about print design and how to do that. I walked home and ran the idea by Marianna. So the iteration of Old Try as it is took place in about five minutes on the bus.
Since then, The Old Try has made numerous letterpress posters (and now t-shirts) referencing a wide range of Southern places. To create them, Micah researches history and takes little details to create something unique. No “Hey Y’all” prints from these folks. Most recently, Old Try has partnered with Union Press to produce a print with proceeds going to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. To get one of these limited edition prints click here.
Photo Credit: David Salafia