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The Gadsden Times

A talk with Sean of the South: Author, columnist, musician, storyteller

By Greg Bailey, Gadsden Times,


Sean Dietrich, aka Sean of the South, is a man of many talents: author (14 books), columnist, musician (he’s appeared on the Grand Ole Opry), podcaster and storyteller. And he may have been born in Missouri 41 years ago, but he’s now as Southern as a pone of cornbread.

His work focuses on the region — in particular on tiny towns and just plain folks with interesting stories — plus he married someone from Brewton (and they now live in Birmingham).

Thousands read his daily blog at and listen to his podcast at He also does a regular schedule of personal appearances across the U.S., and was in Gadsden on Sept. 14 for a sold-out concert at the Pitman Theatre to benefit MAXimizing Mental Health.

That organization was formed by David and Kelly Cochran after the suicide of their son, Max, who had struggled with mental health issues throughout his life.

Along with keeping their son’s memory alive, it seeks to bring awareness to mental health issues involving young people and, in general, remove the stigma attached to it in the community.

It’s something Dietrich knows about. He was 11 years old when his father killed himself, and he had to drop out of school and work construction and other jobs to help support his family. (He also was a professional musician before returning to school and launching his writing career.)

Dietrich discussed that connection — one fact in particular — and other subjects in an interview before his concert here. His answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

The event you're appearing at benefits an organization that stems from a similar story to what happened to your father. Does that add extra meaning to this appearance?

This appearance occurs on the 29th anniversary of his death. ... This is a pretty significant day in itself, so the fact that I’m speaking ... at a place that values mental health is pretty huge. ... All I can imagine is that anybody knowing my story knows the importance of it. I don’t know that I have any extra talent for delivering the message itself.

What makes the South such an inviting subject for writers?

We’re a unique culture in that we pride and value our ancestry and our roots. ... (Other cultures) might do it, but they don’t do it in the same way. We’re an interesting people. ... We love humor, we love crazy people and you don’t find that in other cultures that talk about our ancestry. One of the things I love about the South is that we take our outsiders and we make them famous, we make them special. If there’s a nut in anybody’s hometown, that nut is the famous one in the town.

You gravitate to places and everyday people and stories that are off the beaten track. Do you also enjoy some of the historic and traditional Southern cities?

I like ‘em all. I really love little, tiny towns that nobody ever seems to pay attention to. They’re always my favorite, when I can find a tiny town. Some that come to mind are Brewton and Burnt Corn in Alabama — little, tiny towns. When I find a small community, something about that just raises the hair on my arms, because I know they do life a lot different there than maybe in other places. ... I love Birmingham, we’ve lived there for a couple of years and that’s been such a joy. ... There’s a lot of history there, too. I love Savannah, I got my first job writing for a magazine (there). I used to just go there for work, and I’d think, “Wow, I can’t believe this town exists and the whole world isn’t trying to live here.” I love it so much.

Your writings read like someone telling a story. Would you describe yourself as a storyteller who just happens to write?

I don’t really consider myself a writer, I consider myself someone who likes a story. I don’t know if I can always tell a good story. I try. But there are real writers out there who actually know the craft of writing a lot better than I do. So, I don’t know what I am, but whatever I am, I’m learning how to be OK with it.

Do you prefer writing or making live appearances?

I find that I like it all. I find that if I don’t get enough of one, or too much of the other, that I’m kind of unsatisfied. I’ve played music since I was 9 years old for audiences and in church, and it’s such a big piece of my life that if I don’t do it, I feel kind of weird. ... What I enjoy most is meeting the people when it’s done. ... It’s gratifying in a way that I can’t even describe it in words.

You often mention your love for old-time country and jazz; suggest some artists for those wanting to explore that music.

(Country) I would tell them to look up the Skillet Lickers. I would tell them to look up Tommy Jarrell, an old-time fiddler, a guy who worked for a road department in Kentucky. The Light Crust Doughboys. Bob Wills of course; I just love him, he’s my favorite. (He) meshes the two kinds of music together. (Jazz) Satchmo (Louis Armstrong) for sure. There’s a trumpet player I like called Jonah Jones. Piano players, Bud Powell and Bill Evans. The Boswell Sisters (legendary New Orleans vocal group). And Bix Beiderbecke, (he) would probably be my favorite, because I think he almost invented the genre.

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