The Prickly Charm of the American South

04 Mar 2024

Cucklebur & Co. crafts Southern stories that explore the complexities and warmth of the region

By Jade Neptune

Much of what comes from the storytelling of local creatives Jeff Jones and Sydney Penny boils down to the same sentiment: even if you don't know the name of it, you know
the feeling.

If you go stomping through the thick, tall grasses that are strewn across the American South, you'll find them, caught at the seam of your socks, tangled in your knotted hair, or clinging to the hem of your jeans. You'll feel them first – a stinging sensation that resembles the bite of many other distinctly southern culprits like mosquitoes, sand spurs, and chiggers but belongs to only one: a cocklebur.

“It latches onto you and it just never lets go!” says Jeff Jones, better known locally as “Jonesy,” the president of Cucklebur & Co. “Anyone who has ever hunted, gone fishing, ridden horses or spent time out in nature has encountered a cocklebur. It's about the size of the last joint of your thumb is oval-shaped and has all of these Velcro-like hooks on it and some of them can be very prickly.”

As odd as it may seem for the emblem of a creative agency, there is no denying that it is deeply southern, and is entirely on purpose.

“It's the philosophy and the embodiment of what we want to create, which is to touch people as deeply as we possibly can,” says Jones. “It's deeply interesting, and it's peculiar. It stays with you wherever you go. You never forget about that.”

Cucklebur & Co. is a Wilmington-based creative house of Southern storytelling that produces film, TV, pieces of writing, and other new media. They currently have more than 24 projects in various stages of production, all emphasizing the importance of “homegrown” stories and uplifting local talent. Some of their projects include “The Dishwasher,” a romcom about an unexpected matchmaker, and “The Radio Cowboys,” a musical theater piece about the Western Swing.

But why the South? When creativity and art can take you anywhere in the world, why choose your front porch? They say the answer is simple.

“I think it flattens out the American experience,” says Jones. “And so I think this is a way to dig in and find some richness that we don't want to have lost. Just simply by finding these beautiful differences that exist everywhere, surely. But we [also] just happen to be here. So, these are the ones that we're enjoying and lifting.”

Sydney Penny, Vice President of Cucklebur & Co., shares a similar opinion, even though she has lived all over the world. 

“If you've ever sat in a hotel room in a dark, cold city somewhere, you know what that is, what comes back to you instantly,” says Penny. “It's the food, the warmth, the friendliness, the turn of phrase, just the particular way of looking at life and expressing it.”

They create about the broader Southern United States, but make sure to not leave Wilmington behind in their narratives. 

“It's just a real sense of home that extends beyond your four walls,” says Jones. “It's a sense of community that's integral, I think, to being in the South… This is a town that runs on organizations of people who look after each other, our town, our trees, and our water. It's that deep sense of caring and connection that, to me, has made this home and a place that I just have a deep and abiding fondness for.”

Although the love in their storytelling is palpable and their loyalty to their home pulses through their speech like their accented words, it is no secret that the “Southern experience” has been complicated and painful, for many. Some of their creative work focuses on the Black experience of the American South, or the history of the Native American communities throughout the region. 

“In order to be truthful in art, you have to acknowledge all your strengths and weaknesses,” says Jones. “That is the healthiest way for anyone to present a story or paint a portrait of any kind. But I think that focusing on a single aspect or timeframe of any place is not going to be a truthful image of that. We don't hold back.”

The conversation is massively complicated and sensitive for many, but Jones and Penny view it like anything else: a cocklebur scratching at your consciousness, an unavoidable part of the Southern experience.

“It's something you have to address,” says Jones. “You have to cut that cocklebur out of your dog's hair, out of your horse's mane. You gotta exercise it from your saddle. But you can't do anything about those problems or those pains unless you acknowledge what it is. And we don't hide and we don't cover up or skim over and make everything 'Southern charm.' We're a lot – we're a lot more than that.”

Looking forward, there are many projects on the horizon for Cucklebur & Co., including Penny's debut novel that was recently released, “A Place to Stay” available on Amazon. But no matter where their lives and stories take them, they know they will always come back home.

“I was once told by a mentor of mine, 'You can never come back until you leave,'” says Jones. “We tend to experience the world as a southerner everywhere… Every time I leave, even though I have wonderful, great experiences and gain knowledge and love and affection for other cultures and other places, there's nothing that I've ever experienced like the embrace of the South.”

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