@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images COURTESY OLD TRY
Micah Whitson, from the great state of Alabama, thought it was about time he experienced winter. So seven years ago he moved north, all the way to Boston, where the snow rose as high as the windowsills. Micah loved the snow, getting his bike out every day, riding through the neighborhood streets that were as quiet as a whisper under the white winter wrap.
He’d come to New England with his wife, Marianna, who was born and raised in North Carolina. They adapted quickly, this Southern couple, in the land of stoic Yankees.
For the most part they blended in. “I wasn’t saying ya’ll or wearing a cowboy hat,” Micah laughed. “And I don’t have much of an accent, unless you get me around my brother, or if I’ve had a little whiskey. But I was always aware of my roots, and when I found myself being short with people, I’d slow down and remember one of the best things about the South: We value relationships over everything else.”
Micah, a graduate of Old Miss, began thinking a lot about his hometown of Athens. He’d left behind his father, who was known for his lyrical storytelling, and his gracious mother, who happened to grow up in Trumann, Arkansas.
And then one day he looked up and saw a sign. “There was a concert poster that I found up here a day after a show,” Micah said. “It was gorgeous and I knew it was letter pressed. Old wood type and wood blocks. It reminded me of the rodeo posters back home when I was growing up. I pulled it off a telephone pole and took it home and framed it.”
It could have ended there, but Micah, who’d studied design in Atlanta, saw more than nostalgia in the piece. So he came up with an idea. He drew a few designs that reminded him of home. There was a letterpress just a few streets away from his house. He stopped by and met the owners, showed them his work and asked if they’d be interested in printing a few posters that he’d try to sell.
With that, Old Try (adapted from Give it the Old College Try) was born. Micah and Marianna set up a website that went live in July. “We weren’t even sure it would fly. But we said even if it went up in flames we’d have tons of paper left over to write on.”
It didn’t go up in flames. Since then, the two have sold more than 1,500 prints that he calls love letters to the South. For Razorback fans, ‘Root Hog or Die’ feels exactly right. Others read ‘Love Me Some Jesus,’ ‘The New South,’ ‘The South Wind,’ and his favorite, a quirky take on the Yellowhammer, which is Alabama’s state bird.
Micah now carries a notebook with him wherever he goes, making sure no fresh idea escapes him. He also does a little eavesdropping. “I was recently in the Atlanta airport and I heard a woman say, ‘Quit your bellyaching.’ I hadn’t heard that in a long time.”
But not every idea translates to print. “My day job is website art direction. I can do absolutely anything I want. I can make laser beams come out of a deer’s ears and eyeballs. But what I love about letterpress is that I have a design and then I have to go to the guys and say, ‘What kind of type do you have that’s close to this?’ They’ve got 300 typefaces, and I have to stay with that range. If I have to adjust, I adjust.”
He adjusts, yes, but one thing this ad man doesn’t do is advertise. “I believed if you made something truly spectacular and really different, you wouldn’t even have to talk about it because people would do it for you. The work would speak for you.”
He’s right. News of his work is spreading. He is thankful. “I answer every email. People recount stories. They say, ‘I grew up in Mississippi but now I live in D.C., and I remember my dad teaching me to spell Mississippi, crooked letter, crooked letter.’ People in Boston don’t know what you’re talking about, just like they don’t understand why Southerners have so many churches. If you’re Southern, you don’t have to explain any of it. You just get it.”
Right now, Micah estimates he and Marianna, both thirty-one, work about seventy-five hours a week between keeping up with Old Try and their regular jobs. In what little spare time he has he reads a good deal of Southern literature. Last summer he read a lot of Curtis Wilkie and Willie Morris. Curtis moved to Boston, working for the Globe for years. Willie moved to Manhattan and swore never to return to Mississippi, but the pull of home called him back at the end of his life.
Micah mentioned Oxford’s favorite son, saying “You know, William Faulkner’s quote, ‘To understand the world you first have to understand Mississippi,’ is true. These themes play out everywhere.”
Micah’s story, at least for now, is playing out in Boston.
“So many Southern writers wrote when they weren’t at home and explained their relationship with home,” Micah said. “Powerful stuff.”
Micah is working through his own relationship with the South by using a different kind of printed word. “I was missing home and I found a way to address it,” he said simply. “I’m a problem solver. And yes, I’d say I’m a storyteller. When I design these prints, I feel like I’m saying, ‘Sit down and listen to this.’ “
For more signs of the South, visit OldTry.com.