“…and I realized I was holding my breath between songs, like a child going past a graveyard in the backseat of his parents’ car.”
Over the course of the past year and a half I have moved twice. The first time was from the heart of a small city in central Pennsylvania to an even smaller rural town, where I rented a rundown pad above an equally rundown Irish pub on Main Street. It was a strange environment in comparison to the urban settings I had become so accustomed to. There were still such a thing as small mom n’ pop businesses. A total of three traffic lights controlled the inconstant flow of coming and going vehicles. And long freight trains violently shook the immediate homes and businesses about every two hours. In fact, I came to appreciate the freight trains, the sound of them vibrating into the building and up through the floor upon which my mattress lay. Sometimes the high-pitched wail of their whistles woke me at dawn, though only briefly, and it was never long before I slipped back into a contented slumber.
Before long it was time to move yet again, this time about an hour north, to the mountains. I had never lived in the mountains before. Truth be told, I hadn’t quite gotten used to residing in the country yet; so moving to the mountains was a tremendous leap forward for me…or upward, as it were. Deer graze in my backyard. A couple of raccoons have made a home out of my chimney, which poses no danger to them since it is purely ornamental and doesn’t actually vent smoke from an interior fireplace. Woodpeckers peck the shingles of my roof mistaking it for a wooden surface that will eventually yield tasty insects, only to abandon their efforts after a few misplaced attempts. At first I was quite naturally wary of the winding mountain roads that one must travel for nearly a half hour before reaching the entrance ramp to the highway, but now I navigate them undaunted and with a certain degree of exhiliration. Along many of the stretches one cannot go more than a few miles without catching a glance of road kill on the shoulder—some identifiable, some mangled beyond all recognition, and some just stains on asphalt. Ramshackle homesteads, cabins, and independently owned businesses dot the mountainside. And at night ferocious winds howl through the branches of the autumnal trees, causing a shiver to pass involuntarily through my body even though I am warm under my blankets. In many ways this place seems infinitely strange and dark and haunted. What’s more, it reminds me of the feeling I get when I listen to the new compilation I recently got my hands on from Devil’s Ruin Records—Rodentia: The Best of Dark Roots Music.
Something wicked this way comes.
Also over the course of the past year and a half I have stumbled upon and consequently gotten into a lot of roots bands and singer/songwriters, as well as gothic country, experimental blues, bizarre Americana, neo-folk, and so on. It proved itself a natural progression—as natural as such things can be—beginning with bands and singer/songwriters like The Devil Makes Three, Timber Timbre, Two Gallants, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Josh Bond, Pete Yorko, Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots, and Sean K. Preston. Now, partly due to my discovery of Rodentia: The Best of Dark Roots Music, I have happened upon an entirely different breed of roots artist. I mean, when I put the CD in and heard Strawfoot’s “Damnation Way” for the first time, I was hooked. Then came such amazing songs as Black River Brethren’s “Something Wicked” and The Dad Horse Experience’s “Gates of Heaven,” and I realized I was holding my breath between songs, like a child going past a graveyard in the backseat of his parents’ car.
There wasn’t much that could have truly prepared me for the bands on this Devil’s Ruin compilation, not M. Ward, not Austin Lucas, not Raise Up Roof Beams. Not even Rumbleseat or Saw Wheel could have prepared me. The only bands I had heard years ago that could have even somewhat hinted toward such a great and disturbing musical movement would have been Bread and Roses, The Can Kickers, Old Time Burials, and Timber Timbre. Now I am frantically searching through the web for more bands and singer/songwriters like Those Poor Bastards, Reverend Glasseye, Black River Brethren, and The Dad Horse Experience. If I had to put it down in a descriptive way, I would have to say that this compilation reminds me of the never-ending struggle between good and evil, between god and the devil. It reminds me of bedside prayers, nightmares that feel too real, revival tent gospel shows, snake-handling preachers, congregations speaking in tongues and flopping about on the ground, carnies, campfires, taxidermy, shotguns, antique machinery, bibles with well-worn covers, tales of madness, ghost stories, the skeletal remains of abandoned vehicles rusting in the weeds and tall grass, snowflakes falling from an ash-gray sky, carrion birds circling an unseen carcass somewhere in the wilds, churches with apocalyptic signs, salvation and damnation, watching phantom clouds of breath rise from one’s mouth in the chilly dusk, funerals, old six-shooter pistols, dirt roads, and boxes of black and white photographs.
There are some up-and-comers in the roots community beside the mainstays; among them, according the summery at Rodentia’s description page on the web, are Uncle Sinner and Oldboy. Some of the bands stray somewhat from the roots aesthetic to latch onto a more gyspy-esque, carnival sound, like the Bontanica’s song “How,” Warren Jackson Hearne and the Merrie Murdre of Gloomadeers’ “Tales of the Barroom Battle,” The Scarring Party’s “No More Room,” Damn Laser Vampires’ “Graveyard Polka,” and Tarantella’s “Dark Horse.” Then you have the slow, eerie numbers by the likes of Pinebox Serenade and Death’s Head Hearth. All of the songs are grouped into chapters, beginning with I. – Marrow Gruel Victuals, moving very purposefully through II. – Bit, Barrel, & Rain, III. Battle & Reign, IV. – Cloak of Darkness, V. – Revolution: Delusion, VI. – Preston’s Knob, VII. – Descend Into Town, VIII. – Diablerie, IX. – Beseeching Meriham, and ending at X. – Rodentia. Indeed, this is an endeavor based on a scene that is shifting and howling beneath the surface: a book of strange musical experience; an auditory chronicle of sound from the dark roots underground.
Forget all that soul-sick, heartless, plastic pop spat forth from the music industry’s filthy guts, with its predictability, its lack of substance, its recycled feel, and its high marketability. Depart from the same old chords, the same old drumbeats, and the regular old vocal and lyrical noise pollution. Quite simply, it is great, not to mention altogether refreshing, when the music goes from the stadiums and major labels to the basements, the garages, the house shows, and the small venues. Better yet is when the music comes from the mountaintops, the woods, the valleys, and the little shacks in the desolate wildernesses of the world. Even better is when that music contains fiddles, mandolins, accordions, lapsteels, dobros, cellos, washboards, harmonicas, buckets, upright basses, and so on. To be sure, the things that the roots artists of today do with the above list of instrumentation are nothing short of amazing. So pick up a copy of Rodentia: The Best of Dark Roots Music, and give yourself two hours of uninterrupted time to fully experience both discs and all thirty-four tracks.