[11 June 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I was still living outside Boston when I first heard the Scud Mountain Boys, and, in retrospect, I don’t think I quite got it. I loved their songs, to be sure, and appreciated their slack country twang, even noticed the more pop phrasing of some of the songs as an indicator of what was to come from the Pernice Brothers. But the songs didn’t leech into my bones the way great music does. At least, not just then.
A couple of years ago, I moved to North Carolina, and after someone name-dropped the Scuds over late-night drinks, I pulled out a copy of Dance the Night Away and checked them out again. It took a few listens, but the music opened up to me a little more. I always thought it strange to hear a bunch of guys from Massachusetts playing straight-up country tunes. They were quiet, slow, personal, but also—perhaps most surprisingly—authentic. How could this be? Isn’t country music the sound of the South? Isn’t Massachusetts college rock land?
It turns out the Scud Mountain Boys were not always a country outfit. They started in Amherst, Massachusetts, as a rock band, calling themselves the Scuds. They made a name for themselves in local clubs as a great live act, but regularly found themselves sitting around the kitchen table after shows, drinking and playing old country favorites. Soon enough, they ditched the Scuds name and recorded their first album, Pine Box, at that very same kitchen table. Dance the Night Away would come soon after, released in the same year (1995) as its predecessor. Then Sub Pop came calling, signed the Scud Mountain Boys, and in 1996 they released their masterpiece, Massachusetts.
This is a brief history, to be sure, but there is really only one part of it that is important. The Boys started as something completely different, some rock band that in the end they just weren’t into. And ten years after these records came out, there I was in my small apartment in Greensboro, playing songs like “Silo” or “Penthouse in the Woods” over and over again, and all of a sudden they made sense. Those songs were the sound of a band finding what they had to do, what they couldn’t not do. I left Massachusetts and was settling nicely into North Carolina. I was in grad school, devoting my time to the one thing I had to do: writing fiction. I was also for the first time surrounded by people who shared my passion. And being in that environment made me realize how out of place I really felt in Massachusetts, and how now—perhaps accidentally—I had stumbled upon a place and people who let me do what I loved and shared my enthusiasm for it.
Whereas “Silo” had simply broken my heart before, at that point it started to do something else. It opened up a way of thinking. We all have times where we want to do what the narrator of that song does. Someone or something important to our lives leaves us, and we want to burn everything they ever touched, to futilely try and erase their memory. But, if we’re looking at the scene more honestly, there’s some form of honor in the act. The narrator is clear on what he’ll do (“I’m gonna burn the silo when you go…”), and as the songs goes on the acts get more violent (“I’m gonna hang the livestock when you go…”), but what is clear to the listener and not to the narrator is that these gestures, however grotesque, are totally romantic. He will burn it all down, not only in mourning, but in destructive celebration of the love he’s lost.
How does this apply to me? I’ve never burned a silo, never had someone leave me to try and destroy their entire memory. But it seems to me like Joe Pernice found something about himself with the Scud Mountain Boys. I don’t think he’d burn a silo, or show up on an ex’s front step drunk as hell (as in “Grudge Fuck”), but he became aware of these possibilities in a person. Once you slide into the spot you’re supposed to be in—country music for Joe at the time, fiction writing for me—you start to tap into the most honest of your responses. You remember what it felt like as a teenager when some girl turned you down, how you held onto that pain way longer than necessary, even past when it was real. Part of this is growing up and being honest with yourself, but its hard to do that when you feel out of place or haven’t found your calling yet.
I haven’t heard the rocking Scuds, but I bet it didn’t ring as true as the slide guitar on Massachusetts, or the aching vocals on “Freight of Fire”. The Scud Mountain Boys aren’t great because they play old-style country music—they aren’t anything as derivative as revivalists. They are great because they couldn’t have played anything else. The chemistry of their collaboration, the time and place they came together, the way the drinks were passed over that kitchen table, could only have yielded these three great albums.
And the best part? After that, Joe Pernice walked away. He’d done it as long as he could, but he felt the Britpop slipping into his melodies. He called up his brother and wrote and recorded Overcome by Happiness and the Pernice Brothers were born. And for me—having realized I love Boston right where it is, and prefer to sit on porches in the southern summer steam, drinking beers and talking about George Jones or the Flying Burrito Brothers—I feel like I can see the change coming. Like I’ll know when to leave this all behind. And in my writing, I know now when I’m being honest with my characters. I know that if they show up on that front step drunk, it is because they have to, because they don’t know what else to do, not because I want them to.
I would love the Scud Mountain Boys without all this connection. “Silo” would be one of my favorite songs if I still lived outside Boston. I would drunkenly sing the chorus to “Freight of Fire” at four in the morning in a friend’s apartment even if I didn’t write fiction. But my love for them just wouldn’t be this authentic, it wouldn’t get deep into blood and bone. I wouldn’t flat out need these songs. I wouldn’t feel that when loss comes, as it inevitably will in some form, I’ll know just how to burn the silo. Thanks, Joe.