Gone South 

Annual University of Memphis conference honors Delta culture.

Magnolia blossoms, iced sweet tea, slow-simmered collard greens, humid summers, cotton, and the blues: That's the Mississippi Delta in a nutshell.

But an annual conference held at the University of Memphis takes a deeper look into what sets the Delta apart from any other place on earth.

Held at the Michael D. Rose Theatre on June 8th, "The Delta: Everything Southern," now in its seventh year, offers lectures and breakout sessions on everything from Delta art and music to the state of health care in rural Mississippi.

"The whole point of this program is to show the uniqueness of the Mississippi Delta," said past chairman Nick Gotten, who helped found the conference in 2006. "I got interested in doing this because it was an observation of mine that there were so many people here in Memphis who came from the Delta and who were very successful. There's something unique about the Delta that's producing these artists, musicians, writers, and professional people."

The morning portion of the conference features speakers on a variety of topics. Richard Leatherman, who comes from a long line of Delta cotton farmers, will be interviewed by filmmaker and conference chairman Willie Bearden. Artist Dolph Smith will discuss how the Delta has influenced his award-winning drawings and paintings. Bearden will give a lecture on the friendship between Delta authors Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. And cardiovascular surgeon Michael Trotter will present a lecture on health care.

"Health care for rural Mississippians, black or white, has been pretty abysmal in the past. But things have changed dramatically," Gotten said. "Trotter will trace two families of physicians from the 1800s to present time, and he'll give an overview of how things have changed for the better over the years."

New to the conference this year are afternoon breakout sessions, where participants will have a chance to engage in a question-and-answer session with the morning speakers and other Delta experts.

"In the past, we'd have four speakers in the morning, and then we'd break for lunch and have four speakers in the afternoon. That's a long day, and people get weary. There was a lot of attrition of the audience in the afternoon," Gotten said.

He's hoping the breakout sessions will better engage the audience. Participants can choose to attend two of five sessions: "Cotton Is King," "Healthcare in Rural Mississippi," "Delta Art and Photography," "Archeological History of the Delta," and "Music of the Delta."

The conference has grown from hosting about 70 people in its first year to nearly 350 attendees last year. Gotten said most registrants are from the area, but the conference has drawn people from as far away as Rome, Italy. He's hoping the conference will continue to draw international visitors.

"The Delta is hot. There are people all over Europe who know more about the Delta than we do in Memphis, especially about our music. They know it from Elvis Presley and the blues," Gotten said. "We're tapping into a real phenomenon. We're at the right place at the right time with this program."

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