Black Prairie’s “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon”

Photo: courtesy of Sugar Hill Records and Black Prairie

Portland, Oregon’s five-piece acoustic ensemble Black Prairie, though somewhat of a side project for all involved, has a rather intriguing repertoire of songs, as well as a lineup of seasoned Northwestern songwriters and musicians. Now, I wasn’t exactly privy to that information when I first listened to them on some random online roots podcast a few months back. The truth is that the podcast exposed me to Black Prairie’s version of the traditional roots song “Red Rocking Chair” in all of its dark, somber and eerie brilliance, at the end of which I found myself so impressed that I immediately tracked down their label, the Nashville-based Sugar Hill Records, and expressed my desire to review their debut album “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon.” Even after I’d had “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon” in my possession for a number of weeks, listening to it over and over again as I drove through the rustic mountain town that I call home, I hadn’t realized that three of the five members were from the popular neo-folk and indie rock band The Decembrists.

It was while on tour with The Decembrists that Chris Funk, wanting to experiment more with the square-necked Dobro guitar, spoke with bandmate Nate Query, who was no doubt interested in branching out into other styles of music as well, about the idea of putting together a progressive instrumental string band. The opportunity to do so didn’t present itself until a couple years later, though, and that was when Jenny Conlee, also of The Decembrists, jumped aboard with her accordion, along with two other very talented Portland musicians, Annalisa Tornfelt (Woolwines, Bearfoot) on violin and Jon Neufeld (Jackstraw, Dolorean) on guitar. Finally, the Black Prairie lineup was complete and ready to do some serious songwriting. And that was exactly what they did.

All five members got together for their first practice in the winter of 2007 and were delighted with the results of that initial session. It wasn’t until 2008, when Funk, Query and Conlee had some downtime from The Decembrists, that they really delved into the Black Prairie endeavor with utter dedication. For the most part, the songs that the five bandmates collectively wrote are progressive string instrumentals, sober and earthy compositions that touch on Americana, bluegrass, Appalachian folk, and country, sometimes all at once, at other times in turns. There is something at once both traditional and experimental in their sound…a sound that is rustic, soulful, rootsy, slightly twangy, a bit gypsy-esque here and there, elegant, sometimes old-timey, sometimes modern, but always marked by a clarity and tightness fundamental to each song’s musical anatomy. All of the instruments complement one another…which is to say, the notes and chords don’t so much co-exist in parallel as they interweave and create brilliant musical patterns. And with each member’s consummate skill with his or her instrument combined with the others, Black Prairie have indeed developed nothing less than a remarkably pure sound. Music for music’s sake.

Invented in the imaginations of the band members, Black Prairie is a fictitious town lacking utterly in geographical specificity. Each is credited with having competed at the annual music festival with his or her instrument of choice, where each has done incredibly poorly. Of course, this bit is meant to be an entirely facetious piece of liner note mythology, made even more so by the fact that they are all musical virtuosos, independently and collectively brilliant in their own right.

What’s more, the way these very talented artists collaborate in their songwriting efforts is a rather organic process, taking place in the comfortable living rooms of their homes rather than cramped practice spaces, dank basements and cold garages. That’s one of the benefits of strictly employing acoustic instrumentation, as well as developing percussive playing techniques on those instruments and forgoing drums altogether.

Since getting my hands on Black Prairie’s “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon” I have listened to the song “Red Rocking Chair” more than any of the other thirteen tracks on the album. It’s the slow dexterity with which the song’s string arrangements are executed. But most of all it’s Annalisa Tornfelt’s drowsy, melancholy vocals. Over the years I have heard several versions of this traditional folk song, including that of Appalachian folk artist Dock Boggs’ (only he had referred to it as “Sugar Baby”), and Black Prairie’s is undoubtedly my favorite. In addition to her vocal contribution to “Red Rocking Chair,” Annalisa is featured as a singer on “Single Mistake” and “Blackest Crow,” and both are decidedly better off for it. Tornfelt also shines as a musician throughout “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon.”

Conlee’s accordion serves to lift the music up somewhat, preventing it from getting too lugubrious, while Query presides over the low-end of the compositions with the thick strings of his upright, doing his part for the rhythm. Neufeld’s acoustic guitar playing surrounds it all, shifting back and forth from light picking to solid note-work and chording. Funk’s presence is a guarantee that every song’s structural fortitude remains intact and is built upon with both vision and skill. If ever specific artists were meant to come together to form a musical partnership of acoustic string instruments and occasional vocals, Black Prairie would be it.

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Molly Gene One Whoaman Band

"Hillbilly Love" by Molly Gene One Whoaman Band

From the depths of the one-man band underground there has emerged an undeniably impressive female singer/songwriter — a one-woman band, rather — whose dirty blues and raw country sound is quickly earning her a place among the more notable artists of that particular movement. Molly Dyer, better known as Molly Gene One Whoaman Band, is a down-home young woman, all cowboy boots and t-shirts and flannels, all soul and grit and fire. Her bottleneck slide technique is reminiscent of the old blues greats, though with a rock ‘n’ roll edge. Her raspy whiskey and cigarettes vocals, which do not come across as androgynous but remain entirely feminine, join together with her big plugged-in guitar sound to form songs that are as wicked as a desert rattlesnake, as sharp a straight razor, as fiery as a sip of backwoods moonshine, as sultry as summer nights in the Deep South, and nearly as sexy as Molly herself.

Based out of a small town in Missouri called Warrensburg, Molly Gene is one of the more talented of the handful of one-person bands located in the United States. That is to say, not only is the one-person band scene dominated by males, it is also much more prevalent in Europe than anywhere else in the world. But as a one-woman band from the States, Molly does remarkably well. In fact, she does better than that, since she can hold her own beside artists like Bob Log III and Ben Prestage, among others. And Bob Log must have seen that in her from the start, or he wouldn’t have invited her to accompany him on tour this past summer.

If Molly’s sound lands at one of the ends of today’s one-man band spectrum, it would be the same one where such artists as Bob Log III, Honkeyfinger, Possessed by Paul James, Phillip Roebuck, and Reverend Deadeye belong. And that becomes quite clear while listening to her songs, too, really listening to her songs and taking in every chord, every note, every slide bit, every pronounced boom and tap and jingly beat of her foot drum setup. One gets an especially good sampling of her sound from her new album, her second full-length release titled “Hillbilly Love” on Solid Audio Productions’ label, which was released this past spring just before she went on tour with Bob Log III.

“Hillbilly Love” is an eleven song album with superb recording quality and some of Molly’s best material to date. The CD comes in a gatefold case, on the front of which is a photo of Molly sitting outside in an old chair in some backwoods setting, looking for the world like the country gal she truly is in a sleeveless top, black mini skirt, red knee-high fishnets and black high heels, holding a double-barrel shotgun in one hand and a jug o’ hooch in the other. And with songs like “Bumble Bee,” “Ain’t Goin’ Home,” “My .22,” “A Whoaman’s World,” and “Dancin’ in the Graveyard,” “Hillbilly Love” is bound to end up alongside the more important one-man and one-woman band albums in music’s recent history.

Speaking of Molly Gene’s tour with Bob Log, I had the pleasure of seeing her perform at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, New York. It was quite a day leading up to that point, however, and my traveling companions and I nearly missed the show altogether. That was due to the traffic-choked highway going into the city, and then almost getting arrested at the Holland Tunnel. Though we weren’t arrested, our vehicle was impounded, and we had no choice but take the pathway into Manhattan from Jersey City. It was hot. Too hot. And there was a light drizzle coming down, making the day all the more humid and intolerable. Eventually, after a lot of walking and more than a little sweating, a stroke of good luck: we scored a ride from Manhattan over to the venue in Brooklyn. Even though we had a difficult time getting there, we arrived just in time to catch Molly starting her set. To be sure, her songs sounded just like they did on the album, only overflowing with the raw energy that comes only from live performances. Her stage needs are minimal, as she only brings a guitar, a harmonica, a Farmer foot drum setup, and her voice. Still, her sound is a big country and blues sound, definitely something that one-man/woman band purists can sink their teeth into. And I left the venue that night with what I was no doubt a lasting impression of Molly Gene One Whoaman Band, and even after I had experienced the absolutely incredible Bob Log III set.

If you were to ask Molly to describe her music, she would invariably tell you that it is “folk, blues, and booze.” And if you to ask her to include you in her line-up, she would invariably say, “No, you cannot be in my band.”

After listening to “Hillbilly Love” over and over, attending the show in Brooklyn, and carrying on a rather infrequent correspondence with Molly Gene, I finally got the chance to interview her recently. The contents of that interview have been included her in this piece for you in their entirety.

To give my readers a better idea of the artist I am interviewing I like to begin these pieces in an introductory fashion. In other words, who is Molly Gene One Whoaman Band, not just as a singer/songwriter but an individual, as a human being of this mad world in which we live?

Well, I was born in a town called Warrensburg, Missouri, and I grew up on a farm about ten miles north from there. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Florida Keys, where I hope to move after completing my degree in Interior Design.

There aren’t a whole lot of women involved in the one-man band community, let alone in roots music, or the country and blues scene rather. What is it like being a woman in a male dominated area of music? And how do people usually receive you at shows and other such events as such?

I think it’s great being a one-woman band. I always get excited when I see female musicians. People are usually surprised to hear my raspy voice because my speaking voice is so high-pitched and girly sounding. I can’t seem to control either one. Something about playing music possesses me.

This past summer I attended your show in Brooklyn, New York with Bob Log III…which was absolutely fantastic, by the way. You sounded truly phenomenal. What was it like to tour with the great Bob Log III?

Ha! Did we meet? Maybe we did and I didn’t know who you were. Touring with Bob Log was great. It was my first tour and it went surprisingly smooth. Bob is one of my great musical influences, so touring with him was an amazing experience. It was fun playing for such large crowds that got so excited about my music. Felt like I was doing something right. I didn’t want to come home.

Your second full-length album “Hillbilly Love” was only just released this year on Solid Audio Productions. As someone who has had the pleasure of listening to the hell out of it for several weeks now, I would like to know: What prompted you to embrace that dirty country and blues sound that you’ve been spreading around for a little while now?

When I first started playing guitar I was about fifteen and played mostly folk stuff. Started playing harp with a rack and learning lots of Bob Dylan tunes. As time went on, I got my Farmer foot drum and thought I should go electric since I added the drums. After I moved back to Missouri from the Keys I was determined to start another band but I didn’t really know anyone. I thought, “Well maybe I’ll just rock the ‘one whoaman act,'” since I was already playing three instruments at one time. This gave me the opportunity to strictly play what was inside of me and wanted to come out. And what came out was the blues. I didn’t know that was going to happen, but I’m glad I found out about it. Fred McDowell has to be one of my favorites, a great inspiration. I listen to many different genres of music but the Delta Blues is the real music, in my opinion, the music with the most emotion. Those men didn’t just tell stories, they told true stories of the terrible things they were going through. I cannot imagine living everyday of my life being thought of as worthless because of the color of my skin. As a white woman I’ll sing the blues proud, telling their stories so they don’t die.

The past few years have seen a rather large increase in one-man bands the world over, particularly in Europe and South America, as well as a few here and there in the States. What are your thoughts on the one-man band movement? And…which one-man bands would you say to watch for in the months and years to come?

Man, I want to tour Europe! I talked about going next summer with Midnight Ghost Train. This one-man band movement might also have to do with the economy…maybe. I know when I started playing by myself and not having to split the pay, I didn’t really want anyone else in my band. Kinda mean, I guess…but mama needs a new pair of shoes!

I would have to say, check out Reverend Deadeye for those who haven’t. As far as getting a full sound through foot percussion, I am just amazed. Many one-man bands have those simple boom tat sounds, but he has really got some great fills with his feet.

What have been some of your most memorable touring/gig moments so far?

Austin, Texas…at Emos. One of the most energetic crowds I have ever played for. I got a lot of bras thrown at me, too. Good times.

In Washington DC, Bob and I played this little tiny room with no windows in the middle of July. It was an eighty-eight max capacity room and they shoved a hundred and thirty people in there. It had to have been well over one hundred degrees in there, and people were passing out left and right. I remember playing and blacking out ’cause it was so hot. I just kept playing, but I couldn’t see anything. It was good for me. I don’t know how Bob did it with the helmet and bouncing girls on his legs. He is my hero!

Are you involved in any musical projects other than Molly Gene One Whoaman Band?

Not at the moment.

What are some of your favorite bands and singer/songwriters, past and present?

Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir is my all-time favorite band. I want them to play at my wedding. Not that I’m planning on getting married anytime soon…ha! Son House, Rev. Lois Overstreet, Memphis Minnie, Blind Lemon, Clutch, Bob Dylan, Rosetta Tharpe, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band…man, I could go on forever.

What’s next for Molly Gene?

At the moment I am going to finish my degree in Interior Design here at UCM. I know as soon as I get done I’m just gonna go on tour forever so it seems silly. But I do want to design Rock star RV’s and I would like to design Hospitals. Hospitals suck and are unpleasant. If I could at least help the function and aesthetics of the place I would feel like I was helping people and their experience would be that much more enjoyable. I want to do everything at one time. That’s always been my problem.

*Photo by Kathleen Harkins (Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, New York City, in July 2010)

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“Feed the Family” by Possessed by Paul James

courtesy of Slowboat Films

If I were to make a list of the twenty most important singer/songwriters of our time, John Konrad Wert, better known under the moniker Possessed by Paul James, would undoubtedly be among those at the very top, if not the topmost artist. That is taking into account his powerful live performances and his available recorings, including his latest album on Hillgrass Bluebilly Records titled “Feed the Family.” Though a bit more polished in terms of production than Wert’s previous recording endeavors, “Feed the Family” still has all of the raw, primal, soulful, and from-the-gut folk and blues elements we have come to expect from him. Of course, it is not just this one release that makes me consider Wert one of the most important singer/songwriters of our time; it’s that he is in fact a master songsmith who, with little more than a few notes, the stomping of his foot, and his strong voice, can whip a song up into a sweaty frenzy of musical genius, making one’s heart pound just a little faster and one’s head spin just for the listening. It’s not just the frantic dexterity with which he plays his acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle, but the wild passion with which he pushes forth his crazy vocals, with grunts, yelps, growls, a bit of crooning, and so many tremulous utterances, at times so absorbed in the song that he unleashes lines of unintelligible lyrics in fits of intense delivery almost as thought he’s…well, a man possessed. This is typical of Wert’s live shows, where he is decidedly at his best. After all, he is definitely one of those singer/songwriters who are meant to be seen live, preferably at a smoky rundown dive off of some long stretch of country road

When it is time for John Konrad Wert to take the stage he is not only playing a bunch of songs for the audience, he is turning himself inside out, revealing himself as human beings seldom do. It is apparent that he is doing it just as much for himself as for the people who have come to see him play. He is exorcising his demons. He is facing the things that trouble his soul and haunt his mind and break his heart. He is overcoming something…quite possibly himself, among other things. He is rejoicing and lamenting in turns. He is experiencing the transcendence that only comes through song. It’s the great resounding hallelujah of life. It’s the religion of love, as love drives this man. It’s the song. In a magnificent blur of sound and movement, you see him transform right before your eyes from a man into a song. The song pulls you in, makes you part of it. You are also part of his congregation, not as a follower but an equal, a man or woman invited to feel the song as he feels it, to rejoice and lament with him. It is real life music, which is truly hard to come by these days.

While Wert presently resides in Boerne, Texas with his wife and son, he was born into a world quite different from the one he has known for much of his adult life. In the swamps of Immokalee, Florida, John Konrad Wert entered the world. As the son of a Mennonite Amish family he didn’t receive much influence from the outside world…that is, not until he went off to college, where he received a grant and traveled to North Africa to study art and music. At that point he really began to open his eyes to the world outside of the church in which he came up. Having returned to the states, Wert moved around from city to city, busking for nickels and dimes here and there. But it wasn’t until he met his wife-to-be, while he was living in a van in New Mexico, that the songs that had been taking shape inside of him began really pouring forth. Later, using significant names from his family tree — his grandfather’s name (Paul) and his father’s middle name (James) — Wert developed the moniker Possessed by Paul James, which he first used in 2005 at a little underground gig in Austin. Since then he has toured extensively and shared the stage with some of the most notable of today’s bands and singer/songwriters. He has also worked with Shake Your Ass Records and Voodoo Rhythm on past releases. These days, as a new father, Wert has considerably shortened the range of his touring circuit, opting to stay close to home and rarely leaving Texas and the surrounding states.

Since receiving my copy of “Feed the Family” I have listened to it all the way through several times. Truthfully, I cannot get enough of it. My song preferences on the album are “Four Men from the Row,” “Feed the Family,” “Shoulda’ Known Better,” “Texas Rose,” and “Color of My Bloody Nose,” though I consider them all valuable contributions to the music of today.

If you would like to get an in-depth look at John Konrad Wert (a.k.a. Possessed by Paul James), both the artist and the man, you could always go to the Slowboat Films website and watch the documentary titled The Folk Singer. Truth be told, it’s a very powerful film, full of highway philosophy, friendship, emotional and spiritual struggle, personal demons, faith, social and political commentary, and above all the music. In the filmmaker’s own words, the film is A Tale of Men, Music & America. And that is indeed what it is. Much of the film is centered on Wert’s inner turmoil at the imminent arrival of the baby boy with which his wife was pregnant at the time, being torn between continuing to follow the path of music or embracing the nine to five nightmare of the workaday world. To be sure, a more conventional lifestyle and profession would have aided him greatly in supporting his growing family. But at what cost? You see, there is little doubt in my mind that Wert was meant to write and play the songs he has given the world so far, and to have stopped at that point would have been akin to a sort of death of the soul, as well as a funeral for the muse that had served him so well over the years. As we can tell from the release of “Feed the Family,” he is still at it, still making music for a world that needs it just as much as he himself needs it. He is evidently compelled to take this thing all the way, to follow the path that has been laid before him. Throughout the film Wert also meets up with some very notable singer/songwriters of the folk, blues and rock’n’roll underground, such as Scott H. Biram, Tom VandenAvond, Reverend Deadeye, and Ghostwriter. One of the songs on Wert’s new album was recorded during the filming of The Folk Singer, “Oh to Rhythm,” and one can actually hear the running water of a nearby river under the music, which only enhances the rootsy field recording sound of the song. All in all, The Folk Singer by Slowboat Films’ M.A. Littler is a must see for folk and blues music enthusiasts, as well as those who are as utterly confounded by the human condition as the rest of us. I assure you, you will not walk away unaffected by it.

As a music writer, this is probably the most biased piece you are likely to see from me. Music is wholly subjective, though. It is not like reporting on economics or the weather. There’s nothing superficial about it. You cannot stick to the facts, since it’s not so much about factual things as it is about the things we feel, the things that moves us, the things that speak to that innermost part of our beings that knows certain pieces of music to be ineffably important and meaningful. And personally, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where that wasn’t the case.

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Something wicked this way comes…again!—The Best of Dark Roots Music, Volumes II, III, & IV

Rodentum: The Best of Dark Roots Music, Volume IV

courtesy of Devil's Ruin Records

Just in time for the end of the gloomy season, the folks at Devil’s Ruin Records are preparing to release their continuation of the Dark Roots Music compilation series, with not one but three more volumes: II. Rodentagogue, III. Rodenticide, and IV. Rodentum. Though the new additions aren’t quite as extensive as their predecessor, Rodentia: The Best of Dark Roots Music, the two-disc release that spawned the series, the content is equally impressive. Then again, while each of the new releases are home to between fourteen and eighteen tracks, Rodentia featured thirty-four songs by thirty-four of today’s finest roots bands and singer/songwriters, such as Strawfoot, O’Death, Black River Brethren, Reverend Glasseye, The Dad Horse Experience, Uncle Sinner, and Those Poor Bastards. The three new volumes, however, feature a number of different artists, some on Devil’s Ruin Records, some not.

On Rodentagogue, Volume II, you will hear songs from the likes of JB Nelson, Munly & The Lupercalians, and The Sad Bastard Book Club. On Volume II, Rodenticide, you will hear songs by Black Jake & The Carnies, The Resurrectionists, Sean K. Preston, The .357 String Band, and Rainer Hass. And on Rodentum, Volume IV, you will hear songs by Dimestore Troubadours, Murder by Death, Pete Yorko, Muzza Monroe & The Lushous Strings, and JB Nelson & The Chainsaws. These are some of the most well compiled volumes of roots music I have ever encountered, with some of the best gothic americana, gypsy, insugent country, bluegrass, hillbilly troubadour, blues trash, and neo-folk bands and singer/songwriters to be found in modern underground music.

Each of the new volumes features magnificent artwork, all of it unquestionably befitting of a dark roots series, with angels and demons, holy experiences and biblical depictions, as well as rustic imagery and an assortment of other visual oddities. Huseyin Ozkan, a rather young artist from Turkey, provided the artwork for Rodenticide. Gromyko Semper, a Filipino surrealist, did the Rodentagogue art. And Eddie Obituary contributed all of the other pieces to the volumes.

Rodentia (ro′den·cha) —
The mammalian order consisting of the rodents, often known as the gnawing mammals. This is the most diverse group of mammals in the world, consisting of over 2,000 species, more than 40% of the known species of mammals on Earth today.

Truth be told, I can only speculate on why this series of compilations stems from the term rodentia. What I have come up with is that many people no doubt associate rodents with subterranean species of vermin, such as the huge rats that scurry about the New York City subway tunnels, the sightless moles they sometimes find dead in the corners of their basements, the small mice that nest in their walls, and so forth. Just like the bands and singer/songwriters on these dark roots compilations, rodents tend to exist underground as well. Hence the association is made. Perhaps I am way off base. Then again, maybe not. Either way, the titles of these albums have caused this question to incessantly nudge at the gray matter of my mind, and thus I was compelled to speculate. Of course I could have probably asked Devil’s Ruin Records about it. But sometimes our own interpretations serve us well, are more fun, or at least keep us thinking.

When I wrote the review on the first volume, Rodentia, I was writing with the whole thing still fresh in my head…or should I say in my ears. Upon my first listen to it, the only way I could describe it was by saying, “…and I realized I was holding my breath between songs, like a child going past a graveyard in the backseat of his parents’ car.” It was true, too. I did feel that way. And I feel that way still.

Also in my first article on this subject, I couldn’t help but go over the description of the compilation’s content in terms of mental images, feelings, and strange goings-on, like the never-ending struggle between good and evil, between god and the devil. It reminded me of bedside prayers, nightmares that feel too real, revival tent gospel shows, snake-handling preachers, and congregations speaking in tongues and flopping about on the ground. Also…carnies, campfires, taxidermy, shotguns, antique machinery, bibles with well-worn covers, tales of madness, and ghost stories. And…the skeletal remains of abandoned vehicles rusting in the tangled weeds and tall grass of a ramshackle property, 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, freshly dug graves, old six-shooter pistols, dirt roads, and old cigar boxes filled with black and white photographs. All of those things, and more.

Some of the songs on these volumes have slight attachments to the modern world, each with its own place in the world of cities. But most of the songs come from the half forgotten places, the places without streetlamps burning through the night, places that still have dirt roads and a fair degree of mystery and strangeness. These are rural songs…songs from the backwoods, the swamps, the mountains, the country, the hills and hollows…from the desert wastelands of the dusty West, the sweaty humidity of the insect-bitten South, the frozen grounds of the rocky North, and the seemingly never-ending pine barrens of the gloomy East. Indeed, these are the secret places through which one can hear the fiddles, mandolins, and harmonicas, the acoustic guitars, banjos, and dobros, the jugs, jaw harps, and washboards.

If rock’n’roll is the Devil’s music, I can’t even imagine the deity that presides over dark roots music.

So get ready, because something wicked this way comes…again!

(This review originally appeared in The Philadelphia Examiner and No Depression Magazine back in March of 2010)

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Something wicked this way comes—Rodentia: The Best of Dark Roots Music

“…and I realized I was holding my breath between songs, like a child going past a graveyard in the backseat of his parents’ car.”

courtesy of Devil's Ruin Records

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 RecordsRodentia: 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.

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Those Poor Bastards release fifth full-length album, “Gospel Haunted”

Prophets of Country Doom

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.

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