Photo by cheryljoyminer.com

Here’s my elevator pitch: Carla Jean Whitley is a writer and editor who is curious about the intersection of culture and community. She shares those stories through the written word as well as audio, video, social media, speaking engagements and teaching. That includes her role as features editor of the Glenwood Springs (Colorado) Post Independent, as well as past experience at AL.com, Birmingham magazine and the University of Alabama. Whitley co-hosted and produced the Triple Take podcast, and is the author of three books, “Birmingham Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Magic City,” “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music” and “Balancing Act: Yoga Essays.”


And here’s what really drives me: Some people become journalists because they’re on a mission to save the world through words.

That wasn’t me. I chose journalism at age 10, but my motivation was self-serving: I wanted to write, and nonfiction came to me more readily than fiction. That remained my primary drive through school and internships. But within a month of accepting my first professional job, I saw firsthand the power words could have on a community.

Cassidy Tierce was a young girl with a brain tumor so severe that her parents leased an apartment near the hospital, 60 miles from home, and entrusted employees to run their salon. Tierce’s grandparents took her younger brother to visit family in Tennessee, leaving her parents to focus on Cassidy alone. On the return trip, Tierce’s grandfather had a heart attack while driving. The car hit a tree and he died on impact. His wife was admitted to intensive care. Tierce’s brother wasn’t injured.

The family allowed me to tell their story, depicting the parents’ daily journey from their daughter’s bedside in Birmingham to her grandmother’s hospital in Huntsville, 90 minutes north, and back again. I was moved by their willingness to share their story, and later to allow me to meet and interview Cassidy for a follow-up piece.

A girl about Cassidy’s age saw the original article and decided to host a lemonade stand to benefit the Tierces. In nine hours, the stand raised more than $1,000. Other, previously planned, efforts funded cancer research. And 14 years after my journalistic pursuits began, I understood and adopted the mission that motivated so many of my peers.

I’ve spent the better part of 11 years focused on feature stories. Some of my peers scoffed when I began an eight-year stint at a city magazine: Did I want a life of puff pieces and “best of” lists? Or did I want to make a difference in the world?

But I believed in the value of telling a community’s tales. Cassidy’s story influenced me, showing me for the first time why an everyday person would speak to a reporter. Her family drew attention to cancer research by sharing their plight. I could be a conduit for that sort of good, whether at a city magazine, newspaper or elsewhere.

That’s why I’ve remained in journalism, and in 2015 returned to reporting, even in the face of rapid change and instability. Working at Alabama’s largest local media organization allows me to meet people and tell their stories via AL.com and its companion papers. Because of the company’s broad reach, especially through the website, it is the best way to reach people in Alabama with their own stories, and the place where I can do the greatest good as a journalist.

Years after we met, Cassidy Tierce’s face grabbed my attention on the obituary page of The Birmingham News. I grabbed the March 26, 2006, paper and carried it to a separate room, where I could cry in solitude. My tears became a downpour as I spotted my former employer’s name following a list of friends and community members: “Special thanks to … The Tuscaloosa News for sharing Cassidy’s journey with others, all of the people that visited our website and sent emails, cards and especially prayers! You guys and God’s grace are what keep us going.”

Sharing Cassidy’s story left a mark on her family, and it permanently shaped why I write.


8 Responses to About

  1. Nicole Davis

    Are you the same Carla Jean Whitley that wrote the 6 month dating article for Relevant? http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/relationship/features/2160-the-6-month-dating-experiment#comments

    I was so excited to find it because I had just had the same conversation with a close guy friend the other night.

    Just glad I am not the only one who feels that way.

    • Hi Nicole,

      Yes, that’s me! That series was so much fun to write, although the introspection it prompted wasn’t always fun. For what it’s worth: Since then, I’ve dabbled in online dating several times (I think that series is actually what inspired me to do so), dated a lot more, addressed some of the thought patterns and insecurities that the “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” mentality had brought up for me and eventually met my boyfriend on match.com. That is most certainly not to say I’ve got it all figured out, but I still stand by (and recommend!) that Henry Cloud book. It spurred me on to a lot of growth in how I think about and deal with relationships.

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  3. robert

    Enjoy your magazine and interests. But what qualifies you for writing a book about the early days of the music scene.

  4. Peter Nickols

    Hello – I hope you don’t mind if I call you Carla Jean. I’m Peter Nickols from the UK. I obtained details of your web-site from your very interesting book “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio” which I recently purchased. Together with Guralnick, Hoskyns, Fuqua and Hirshey’s works, one could group your work to virtually create something of a southern (and particularly Shoals-related) ‘bible’, I feel.

    Whilst I have never actually got round to writing a full book for publication, writing (especially about what I still call black American popular music) has been an almost life-long hobby (sometimes paid sometimes not). My main interest is classic-era 60’s and 70’s soul music although I am also very keen on earlier R&B and blues as well as black American gospel music. I have compiled many CD reissue-compilations in these genres over the years, usually also contributing the sleeve-notes. I ran a “Vintage Soul” fanzine for a while just pre the internet ‘explosion’ and in the late 80’s I ran a specialist radio show on local radio for several years here in the UK featuring soul, blues, R&B and gospel.

    More recently I have contributed to several related web-sites, especially to the Sir Shambling deep-soul site as ‘deep soul’ is absolutely my own favourite style within the soul music field.

    With the advent of your own latest work, of Fuqua’s updated book “Muscle Shoals”, of UK Ace Records’ on-going comprehensive release of Fame material, of the recent Muscle Shoals documentary film and of Rick Hall’s upcoming bio (which I have currently on pre-order), I feel Fame (and MSS) are (justifiably) getting plenty of long-overdue attention right now.

    However, some years ago I decided it was time that someone also gave some attention to Quin Ivy’s productions out of his original small Norala Studio and then his improved new studio which would eventually be bought by David Johnson and run from 1973 as Broadway Sound. Now, I have never visited Alabama nor interviewed directly any of the ‘main players’ (although I have had e-mail connection with several) but I duly set-to via my extensive music-book and magazine library and also record and CD collection, spent months researching still further on the web and consulting with a few similarly-interested friends/fans and came up eventually with a “Quinvy Story” for the specialist Sir Shambling web-site (Sir S. being John Ridley, a long-term friend of mine, a very knowledgeable enthusiast and the owner of the biggest ‘real soul’ 45 collection that I know).

    All of this I hasten to add was a ‘labour of love’ – no remuneration of any kind was involved and I therefore freely used any reliable sources I could find, giving acks. where possible below each entry. the piece was simply written by an enthusiast (me) for other enthusiasts to hopefully enjoy and perhaps to increase their knowledge of the subject.

    A link to the articles page of the site is here, if you are not already familiar with it.


    My and other people’s contributions in terms of general soul articles, potted bios of soul artists and also my multi-part Quinvy ‘saga’ can be found by scrolling – and browsing – the page. I have also written many CD reissue reviews for the same site which can be found elsewhere on it.

    However, my main reason for writing to you (apart from congratulating you on your book) is to say that I am now part way through a very much more in-depth look at Quinvy, its ‘characters’ and its output than that which appears on the web-site. Also, there are several errors now identified in the piece, plus many ‘updates’ which have come to light since I wrote it (some already shown on the web-site pages of the story, others not) and these are now being chronologically incorporated into my fuller tale. At present I store what I have written thus far in Word documents on my laptop (suitably backed-up) and my intention at the moment (when the work is finished, which won’t be for many more months yet) is to just make it available free-of-charge to anyone interested. This is (a) because it’s how I want to go with it and (b) it is – I readily admit – a deliberate attempt at ‘overkill’ of the subject with much discographical and biographical info contained actually within the main text so that it will appeal chiefly I suspect to record-collectors and people already somewhat knowledgable about and involved in the subject – particularly Shoals-area soul music released between circa 1965 and 1973 (the period of existence of Quinvy). I can and have edited both my own and other people’s work in the past and I know that what I am now writing would never get published in book form in such a detailed ‘overkill’ fashion by any publisher – it would have to be made much more general-reader-friendly and would have to be drastically edited-down; however that would simply defeat the object of my desires so I choose to go the way I’m going!

    If the original work, however, should interest you sufficiently, I was simply wondering if you would be interested also in seeing the final fuller work when finished and whether you know of anyone else in your circle of friends or acquaintances who would also like to see it. The one thing I want to underline yet again though is I do NOT want anybody claiming breaches of copyright over photos or quotes used in the piece – I have tried to ensure I have a full acknowledgement section in the piece (and can add further names or web-addresses to that section if/when anyone notes an omission) but my view quite simply is that as I have no intention of making a penny from the work, everything ‘out there’ is fair game (with due acknowledgement) in the interests of simply trying to tell (for the first time anywhere) as full a story about Quinvy as I can.

    Hope I haven’t bored you with this long epistle.

    Best wishes anyway. Peter Nickols.

  5. Hi Carla

    Thanks for your book. I am seeking to create a rhythm section with the advise of a friend in London, UK – do you have any musical contacts in London that may help?



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