Madison, Wisconsin’s gothic country duo Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister have just released their fifth full-length album as Those Poor Bastards, “Gospel Haunted.” With eleven ungodly new songs to follow up the very well received “Satan is Watching” album from 2008, these two miserable sinners have further solidified their positions as spokesmen for the damned. In fact, they seem to have taken off with “Gospel Haunted” where “Satan is Watching” left off, preaching the end time message to a background of dark, rustic, old-timey song structures, and offering up wretched narratives on the trials and tribulations of life over nihilistic blues, gospel trash, and death country.
Tribulation Recording Co. is Lonesome Wyatt’s answer to the disagreeable shackles of the highly corrupt corporate music machine. With DIY ethics and independent practices, Wyatt and The Minister have always released their albums in this non-corporate, anti-commercial fashion. Never bowing to the capitalist ways that typically govern the production and distribution of modern humankind’s countless endeavors, artistic and otherwise, Those Poor Bastards have disengaged from the machine and created their own way. And that way has led to the Tribulation label, on which they have released Those Poor Bastards’ “Country Bullshit,” “Songs of Desperation,” “Hellfire Hymns,” “The Plague,” “Satan is Watching,” “Abominations,” and now “Gospel Haunted” and a three-song 7” titled “Gospel Outtakes.” In addition to Those Poor Bastards’ recording projects, Tribulation has also been the vehicle for a few of Wyatt’s other projects, such as Lonesome Wyatt & the Holy Spooks’ “Sabella” and Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke’s “A Bitter Harvest.”
While the whole of “Gospel Haunted” is a decidedly worthwhile contribution from a remarkably talented band, it doesn’t just show the consistency we’ve heard from them in the past, but an impressive degree of musical evolution. “Gospel Haunted” begins with one of the best songs on the album, “Glory Amen,” and ends with another one of the album’s best songs, the twelve-minute “Ill at Ease.” And if one were to place this album among their other releases based on the strength of the sound, lyrical content and overall composition, one would no doubt insert it somewhere between “Songs of Desperation” and “Satan is Watching.” At least that’s where I would put it.
Those Poor Bastards own a unique sound that only touches the edges of traditional roots music, a sound that repeatedly smashes the molds that have shaped country and blues for nearly a hundred years. It’s a sound that was decidedly born too late, for it seems to long for a time its creators never knew, a simpler, more primitive time. Rather than commit itself entirely to the time in which we presently live, their sound finds itself treading through the stinking gutter of a Depression era alleyway, only to sit amongst other lost souls, all of them sitting around a mighty fire burning in the guts of a metal waste container. They proceed to pick up guitars, banjos, fiddles, buckets for percussion, and various other instruments, some homemade, some not, and play song after song as if their very lives depended upon it. And throughout the night it evolves into a sound as dark as a winter night, as sharp as a rattler’s fang, as vicious as a meth lab guard dog, as bizarre as a pack of sideshow carnies, and as full of fire and brimstone as an evangelical preacher of the South’s sweaty Bible Belt.
For whatever reason, I can imagine Wyatt and The Minister meeting by chance at the same crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become one of the greatest bluesmen of his time. But when the devil offered the duo a similar deal, they declined, saying they didn’t want to be the best old-timey roots and gothic country band of their time. Instead, they claimed they wanted to gut country music like a slaughterhouse pig. They wanted to make kill-yourself-blues, transform gospel into anti-gospel, and tighten the gallows man’s noose around roots music’s neck, give it a push, and watch it dangle limply below the platform. They wanted to be prophets of country doom.
Lonesome Wyatt (guitar, vocals) and The Minister (banjo, bass, and other instrumentation) have put together a style of music that introduces a level of anarchy to the tame country music of the mainstream, more for the the working class proletariat than the upper order of the hierarchical pyramid, more for the sinners than the saints, and more for the less desirable end of so many additional worldly contraries. Those Poor Bastards also stand tall beside their contemporaries as one of the more respected and appreciated bands of broken-down blues, old-timey roots, graveyard folk, and primitive gothic country. In fact, musician and singer/songwriter Hank William III, with whom Those Poor Bastards have collaborated more than once, was once documented as saying, “Those Poor Bastards are the best gothic country of I have heard yet to this day.” And I am quite sure many others feel that way too.
To get a better idea of Those Poor Bastards’ sound, imagine someone reading William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell aloud to the sounds of a scratchy old record spinning under the worn needle of an early 1900’s phonograph, funneling music akin to that of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, The Dead Brothers, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, and Blind Willie Johnson all packed tight and cranked through a beef grinder together. What comes out is slapped down on a hellfire griddle for but a second or two, and then served rare and bloody, while fat black flies buzz desperately about, all as impossibly hungry as those who waited in the long bread lines of the Great Depression. All this, while you sit in a ramshackle cabin just outside the limits of some strange town in the Deep South, surrounded by creaky wooden boards, a rusty horseshoe hung superstitiously above the doorway, frameless black-and-white photographs on the walls, a battered Old Testament Bible on the table, a double-barrel shotgun on hooks above the mantle, ghostly dust particles floating through the orange shafts of late afternoon sun, your lover passed out drunk on the floor, broken-down farm machinery, a cigarette burning between your own tar-stained fingers, a mason jar half filled with country moonshine, redneck brothers pummeling each other in a fistfight on the lawn, and howling through the pines a wind that sounds almost like children screaming…oh, and a shovel propped up just outside the back door in case you have to bury someone come morning. In this story, the wolf always gets the sheep, the romance always fails, the faithful find themselves abandoned by their God, the crops are never harvested, and the carrion crows always tear at the hide of the roadside carcass.
An exceptional lyricist, Wyatt continues to offer up his backwards spirituals, demented narratives, strange experiences and sideways observations, fears and failures, ever telling the tales of doomed characters in a doomed world, where nothing is as it seems, and where, if one were to simply take a peek through the keyhole of the door that’s been locked the whole of one’s life, one would then see the world behind the world, finally, where the scales are tipped in favor of darkness over light, damnation over salvation, otherworldly over worldly, abnormal over normal, and depravity over virtue. Wyatt and The Minister don’t just write and sing about these things, they live them. That’s what one calls being true to one’s art.
On Those Poor Bastards’ “Country Bullshit” EP, Wyatt sang, “This is country music as it was meant to be—raw and bleeding.” And if that was his goal all along, then I dare say he has succeeded several times over.