America's Lesser Known "Mafia" Families Get Spotlight in Two New Podcasts
iHeart Media's "Cornbread Mafia", and C13 Original's follow up season of "Gone South" released within weeks of each other this fall. Each examine the gritty, dark history of the Dirty South's homegrown organized crime networks.
Gone South, Season 2: The Dixie Mafia + Kirksey Nix Jr
If you ever watched the show Justified that ran for a few seasons on FX up until 2015, you might recall how some of the later season's plot revolved around a criminal named Charles Qualres. Qualres, played by Neal McDonough, was an flashy out-of-towner who had come to rural Kentucky's Harlan County to settle a business depute involving pill mills that had boiled over between the faction of the organization that he represented, and a local group of criminals called the Dixie Mafia. It was a good story, Justified was a good show, not great but good. That was the first time I had first heard of the Dixie Mafia, which led me down an adventure through the internet rabbit hole to find out more.
Most people will associate organized crime groups with the mafia, Mexican cartels, and shadowy Russian arms dealers. Names like El Chapo, Lucky Luciano, Semion Mogilevich, are the figures past and present that have come to represent the face of these organizations.
The truth is, the Dixie Mafia was not really much of a Mafia at all, certainly not like the Italian La Cosa Nostra with their strict hierarchy, weird ritualistic induction ceremonies, and ethnic requirements. It might even be a stretch to call them "organized" at all. Regardless, in the sense they were a group of sometimes sophisticated criminals that would, on occasion, work together and commit brazen acts of burglary, murder-for-hire, kidnappings, and various other high profile crimes, they certainly were what law enforcement agencies would call an organized crime group.
Gone South's second season focuses on Kirksey Nix Jr. The son of two highly accomplished lawyers, Kirksey Jr broke bad in his teens and leveraged his charm and connections in Casinos across the Southern Plains to create a name for himself as modern day outlaw. I don't want spoil too much, but like most criminals Kirksey finds himself behind bars, but refuses to allow steel bars prevent him from running hustle on unsuspecting victims.
If you want more podcasts like Gone South's second season, check out "In the Red Clay", which focuses on another member of the Dixie Mafia, Billy Sunday Birt. I also highly recommend the iHeart Media produced podcast Fight Night, which revisits one of the biggest heists in American History that took place in 1970 Atlanta at an after party filled with people leaving a Muhammad Ali match. According our anti-hero Kirksey Nix Jr, the perpetrators of this act may have had direct ties to the Dixie Mafia.
UPDATE AS OF 11/18/2022
Folks, It appears the podcast is on hiatus. The twitter account of the audio agency that takes credit for producing the podcast series, Goat Rodeo DC, claims in a twitter post that their partner iHeartMedia has pulled it off all streaming services. I hate to speculate, but let's speculate. First of all, I found it somewhat odd that this podcast's flagship advertiser was a company called "Cornbread Hemp", a company that was founded by Jim Higdon, one of the people frequently cited by the narrator of the podcast as the founder of the Cornbread Mafia. To say that Cornbread Hemp is just simply an advertiser would be putting it lightly, it's pretty much impossible to listen to the couple episodes now previously available without hearing their name dropped, it is literally the only ads you'll hear on the podcast. While it's true that podcasts usually do not undergo the same editorial scrutiny as the work published by the New York Times or WAPO, I still can't help but wonder if iHeartMedia wanted to distance themselves from the project given this seemingly obvious conflict of interest by the creators and those funding the project.
As of today, the Cornbread Mafia podcast currently has 2 episodes out, I've already got an alarm set for when the next one drops. Largely based on the book written by journalist James Higdon, titled "The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate's Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History" published in 2013. It's presumed that Higdon published the book while in direct contact with Cornbread Mafia founder Johnny Boone as he evaded authorities. Boone was eventually arrested in 2016 after 8 years on the run and sentenced to 57 months in prison.
At it's peak, the Cornbread Mafia was said to be distributing their highly sought after strain of "Kentucky Bluegrass" in upwards of 20 different states with 30 to 40 members of their posse. As someone who grew up on the West Coast in the early 2000s where by this time, growers from BC and California's Emerald Triangle region had a complete chokehold on the national marijuana markets, its hard to imagine a red-state like Kentucky as once being a powerhouse in the underground cannabis economy.
New episodes drop each Tuesday. And you can buy a copy of James Higdon's book here.