[31 March 2010]
Early in its history, The Oxford American: The Southern Magazine of Good Writing was just as likely to print a picture of an alligator wrestler or a snake handler as it was to devote a few pages to Eudora Welty. Such peeks behind the region’s modern facade would inevitably be followed by letters to the editor claiming that yes, we all know such things exist in our modern South, but we shouldn’t be going down those dusty back roads if we want to redeem our image.
I, for one, tend to love the South’s characters, even though I know some people view the South as a Groundhog Day / Hee Haw / Deliverance mash-up where we white folks wake up, spend 16 hours spitting racial slurs and ogling our cousins, go to bed, and wake up to do it all over again. Those preconceptions will probably die, though, only when the South becomes just like everywhere else in America —now, that’s quite a double-edged sword.
I’ve lived in the South all my life, and it’s looking more and more like I’ll die here, as well. Growing up, I warmed the pews of a prominent Baptist church as a pompadoured preacher told us that Jesus didn’t really turn water to wine because it didn’t have time to ferment, and where our Sunday School teacher scared the living hell out of us by claiming that we took a flail to the bloodied body of Christ whenever we cussed. My neighborhood contained a white clapboard house with Bible verses painted in red on every square inch of the exterior. As kids, we convinced ourselves that the owner had converted the living room into a giant rattlesnake pit.
My high school taught vocational subjects like brick masonry, shop, and auto repair, and we received our fair share of scorn from the uptown high school that housed all of the doctors’ and lawyers’ kids. We learned a behavior of defiance that didn’t always manifest itself in the most mature ways during high school basketball games (but since the other school’s students held up signs reading things like “The rich always win”, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it).
Even today, I still feel a tie to that high school and to the working-class neighborhood where I grew up. There was a sense of community that balanced looking out for our neighbors with letting folks take care of their own. I still get the shakes, though, when I think about that church, sometimes.
As I get older and travel through an increasingly homogeneous country, I value more and more the South’s flavors and traditions. I readily admit that regionalism has its problems, but I’m not entirely ready to see it chucked wholesale out the window just yet. Neither, apparently, are the Legendary Shack Shakers or Southern Culture on the Skids.
It might seem strange to lump those two acts together. Southern Culture on the Skids opt for a good-time vibe that’s equal parts Dick Dale, Tony Joe White, and Creedence.The Shack Shakers come across like a manic rockabilly band torn between Heaven and Hell. Southern Culture’s most popular songs leer and grin as they equate sex with food (snack crackers, banana pudding, biscuits, etc.). The Shack Shakers, meanwhile, exist in a shadowy world of haints, religious fervor, and “what we do with our own is our own damn business” pride.
Southern Culture has a new album coming out soon, which I didn’t know until I saw them live recently. The new songs were quite good, showing that the band hasn’t lost its touch. Even as Southern Culture abandons some of the kitsch for which they’re known (no tossing of fried chicken to the crowd, this night), their songs continue to mine rich veins about trash-burning neighbors, dog-claiming roads, and yet more food. No one’s going to accuse Southern Culture of pushing any envelopes, but after nearly 20 years, they seem poised to ease into a sort of elder statesmen status.
For me, at least, there’s a familiarity in much of their music. I’ve known several Mr. Haney-like “entrepreneurs” to match their corn-and-porn dealin’ “King of the Mountain”, drive past a cluster of privacy-fenced “Cheap Motels” on my way into town each weekend, and believe that a good dose of homemade macaroni-and-cheese and fried chicken is a delight so decadent it shouldn’t be allowed for post-church Sunday dinners. Don’t even get me started on the banana pudding.Southern Culture on the Skids sounds just like home.
For their part, the Shack Shakers radiate piss and vinegar as they navigate a dark and unique Southern Gothic world. Over the course of six studio albums, Colonel J.D. Wilkes and company have refined a portrayal of the South that’s more Flannery O’Connor than Lynyrd Skynyrd, more dark night of the soul than juke-joint Saturday night. Wilkes, who was born in Texas and raised in Kentucky, brings a carnival barker’s angle and a fundamentalist’s fervor to his songs.
Listening to the Shack Shakers on disc, or seeing them live, is to witness a force of nature as Wilkes sings and dances like a man possessed and the band pummels you with one visceral song after another. Granted, a good portion of the band’s persona is theatrics, but it’s all in the service of a vision that’s become more focused and deliberate with each album.
Their newest, Agridustrial, ups the ante on the Shack Shakers’ musical relationship with the South. As the title implies, the record focuses on the clash of the agrarian and the industrial, of the traditional and the modern. The press release even starts with a long quote from Donald Davidson circa 1930 that implores readers to reject a “synthetically imposed” national unity in favor of regional identities.
Davidson was a member of the Southern Agrarians, whose collection of essays I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition is considered by many to be essential reading on the character of the South, whether for its problematic racial politics (written as it was during Jim Crow and within living memory of slavery) or for its idealized (some would say naive) views of the rustic life. In these times of economic turmoil, when our systems are turning on us, Agridustrial aims to be a soundtrack for the mood of the entire country, not just the South.
Sonically, the Shack Shakers have made several changes since their last disc. Former Jesus Lizard Duane Denison replaces long-time guitarist David Lee, and brings with him a buzzsawing, often percussive guitar style. Coupled with Mark Robertson’s upright bass and Brett Whiteacre’s relentless drumming, the Shack Shakers sound meaner and leaner than ever. Additionally, the band recorded the sounds of a blacksmith’s forge—hammers, chains, anvils, tongs, and the like—and use those sounds to great percussive purpose throughout Agridustrial. In fact, the clanky “Hammer and Tongs” might be the most relaxed and swingingest track the Shack Shakers have ever recorded.
Like any Shack Shakers disc, you have a mixture of songs informed by religion (“Sin Eater”, with its rampant harmonica, runaway locomotive bass, and screams of “feed that evil when you starve the soul”) and history (“Night Ride” is about a group of vigilantes in the early 1900’s, while “The Hills of Hell” recounts tales of two Kentucky crucifixions). Wilkes’ singing and harmonica playing are as edgy and insistent as ever—he still sounds like he has the angry ghost of Slim Harpo trapped in a mason jar—while the band ventures past their blues/rockabilly template into moments of thrash and industrial. Denison’s use of “prepared guitar”, in which he sticks foreign objects between the strings, also contributes to the album’s tense undercurrent.
One of the Shack Shakers’ strengths is that a particular album’s agenda never gets in the way of the music. There’s always a level on which you can enjoy a Shack Shakers disc as the sound of a bunch of supposed hellbillies going nuts. That’s definitely a plus when you consider the dark themes that run through much of the Shack Shakers’ music. As a celebration of the Gothic South, these songs often feature bad people doing bad things, and it’s not a big jump for a listener to view those acts through the prism of the South’s problematic past. Or maybe that’s just my own baggage.
Usually, there’s an ambiguity that hides the band’s true feelings on these subjects, and that’s for the best, since the Shack Shakers’ music often allows the listener to lay their own interpretation on top of Wilkes’ lyrics. I’d never hazard a guess at Wilkes’ politics, and apart from overall themes regarding the evils of industrialism and homogenized culture, there’s not much there on which to hang an interpretive hat.
Maybe that’s what makes Agridustrial‘s last proper song, “The Lost Cause”, such an enigma. Is it a sincere ode to a once proud South that was decimated into, as Wilkes puts it, fields of skulls and chimneys standing like gravestones for houses? Revisionism? Sarcasm? Or is Wilkes adapting the song’s themes and provocative rallying cry of “Sic semper tyrannus” for a larger purpose: beating back the cultural forces that threaten to sand down the uniqueness of each and every region in the country?
Few would consider the Shack Shakers—or Southern Culture on the Skids, for that matter—to be Southern rock bands. Maybe we should. In both cases, we get songs that play on some stereotypes, but they also show real fire in their belly in the face of creeping sameness. That’s something that never loses its value, even if some folks might wish they’d act a bit more “civilized”.