Where the Thunderclouds Are Rolling

Baroness, Sludge, and Southern Rebellion

by Beth Winegarner

15 July 2012

 

Be proud you’re a rebel

“What our Southerner required…was a faith as simple and emotional as himself. A faith to draw men together in hordes, to terrify them with Apocalyptic rhetoric, to cast them into the pit, rescue them, and at last bring them shouting into the fold of Grace. A faith, not of liturgy and prayer book, but of primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice—often of fits and jerks and barks.”—W.J. Cash

If Baizley’s artwork poses a sharp reminder of nature’s power in the 21st century South, Baroness’ music—and sludge in general—provides the soundtrack for southern liberals’ rejection of the increasingly powerful juggernaut of Republicanism and the religious right.

Southern music has given a voice to the disempowered since Robert Johnson sang, “I’m a hard workin’ man, have been for many years / And some cream puff’s usin’ my money.” At the end of the 1960s, desegregation shook every corner of the South. In response, southern Republicans concentrated their strength. Young, liberal white southerners—men in particular—were left wondering if they had a place in society.

In the 1970s, southern rock gave them their answer. Bands such as Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd demonstrated progressive racial and political views, particularly through their lyrics. The Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band performed at fundraisers for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. Carter, from Georgia, was the last Democrat to win the majority of the South.

In recent years, as the country has been divided into “red states” and “blue states”, this part of the nation has only gotten redder. The alienation of southern Democrats gave rise to a parallel movement: the Christian right, driven by the spreading of evangelical megachurches, particularly by Southern Baptists. Its quarterbacks include Viginia’s Pat Robertson and Georgia’s Newt Gingrich. Even some of the South’s music rebels have grown conservative; Skynyrd is slated to play this year’s GOP convention.

By the turn of the 21st Century, the South had become such a stronghold of conservatism that its political views were out of synch with the rest of the nation. A 1999 poll showed that 56 percent of southerners supported integration, compared with 71 percent outside the South, according to Cobb. In 2002, about half of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, an idea backed by two-thirds of southerners.

Such rapid, dramatic polarization could only produce a new southern rock, this one much harsher and less commercial. Liberal, open-minded kids growing up in an increasingly conservative South needed something more rebellious to embrace. Sludge metal provides just the ticket.

In CT’s mind, there’s no question that the heavy, gritty sound of southern metal developed in direct response to the rise of conservatism: “That whole scenario is the reason. I think that has everything to do with the music getting harder and harder. Now, as we get older, we might not blatantly say we hate these fuckers like we used to, but when I look at our lyrical content, it still comes from the same place.”

Baroness - Yellow & Green in studio

Raise your voices

Music—particularly in the South—has always brought people together, whether it was gospel in the rural churches or country in the honky tonks, Evans says. Sludge gives young southerners a way to rebel against the dominant culture. It also gives them a tribe of protection where their perspectives and political views matter. Metal inspires the kind of reverence in its fans normally reserved for religion. If the faith of the South is one of “primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice—often of fits and jerks and barks,” as Cash put it, the only response can be music that matches that faith’s intensity.

Sludge metal surely fits the bill. It trembles with the spirit of the South, its brutal heat and wild nature. This is where the workaday southerner’s music—the blues, country, jazz, and southern rock—melts together in metal’s crucible. Sludge’s doom and dirges sing the darkness in the heart of the South, while its brighter melodies celebrate the bounty only this fecund land can provide.

Southern metal bands preach their own gospel, one that elevates the individuality and defiance that has always set the South apart. “Raise your voices…breathe in choruses,” Baroness’ music urges. Sludge gives young, restless, liberal southerners a chance to do just that.

And Baroness—with its unwavering sense of place, its hands in the fertile soil, and its lush, wild, unsettling art—gives a face and a voice to the gospel of sludge.

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