The Dead South 2024
Photo: Morgan Coates / Six Shooter Records

The Dead South Return with a Dark Bluegrass-Adjacent LP

The Dead South’s Chains & Stakes picks up where their last LP, 2019’s Sugar & Joy, left off. These 13 tracks lean toward hard-edged bluegrass and dark stories.

Chains & Stakes
The Dead South
Six Shooter
9 February 2024

The Dead South last surfaced in 2022, when they released a pair of covers EPs called Easy Listening for Jerks (Parts One and Two). Part one featured the band playing folk classics, taking songs like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Keep on the Sunny Side”, and bringing out the lyrical and musical darkness that aren’t often emphasized in those tracks. Part two consisted of modern covers, where the Dead South took on the Doors (“People Are Strange”) and System of a Down (“Chop Suey”), among others. Interestingly, here, they mostly just transposed the songs to their acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and cello lineup and played them straight.

Rather than taking direct inspiration from the covers EPs, though, Chains & Stakes picks up where their last full album, 2019’s Sugar & Joy, left off. These 13 tracks lean toward hard-edged bluegrass and dark stories, with the occasional more upbeat song mixed in and some short but exciting instrumentals. Also, guitarist Nate Hilts is back as lead vocalist after the EPs passed those duties around to all four members.

The opener, “Blood on the Mind”, begins with a bluesy, ominous acoustic guitar riff and Hilts threatening to “throw you in the river someday.” After this intro, the Dead South enter, and the tempo becomes a lively but still decidedly minor-key bluegrass song. The chorus asks, “What did they put in the water / That we’re drinking every night?” The rest of the song involves threats, dead bodies, and paranoia. Yet because the band is skilled and the mandolin and banjo picking is quick, the song doesn’t feel as dark as its lyrics.

“Yours to Keep” is more relaxed, featuring a catchy walking banjo line and strummed guitar chords. Yet the lyrics continue the dour mood, opening with a person stumbling drunk and injured from the scene of a crash. From there, the song goes on to talk about trauma and regret, anchored by the chorus, “You won’t make it / Take it / You cannot sleep / Living day to day / It shakes you / They struck you deep.”

There are some tracks here that aren’t as overtly grim. “Tiny Wooden Box” concerns receiving an ad for burial services that leads to a reflection on people who have departed. “A Little Devil” is a little more oblique, but it seems about pining for someone who doesn’t reciprocate your love. As usual, the Dead South keep the music moving along and engaging, making everything they do highly listenable. Subject matter-wise, Hilts’ gruff baritone voice is well suited to tales of violence and despair, so it makes sense that the Dead South lean into that.

“20 Mile Jump” offers a relatively simple narrative against a gratifying high-speed bluegrass workout. Hilts sings about going out for milk, explains that because the store was out of milk, he got bourbon instead, and “Now I’m coming home drunk to you.” It turns out, though, that she’s not interested in him when he’s drunk, which is apparently most of the time. It fits in with the Dead South’s early 20th-century cosplay that a song about alcoholism would be one of the most fun on the record, even if that seems a bit questionable today, 100 years later.

“The Cured Contessa” is Chains & Stakes‘ most overtly upbeat track. Colton Crawford’s happy banjo and Hilts’ bright vocals drive the song. On its face, it’s a rollicking story about the joy of making breakfast for your partner. If that’s so, it’s a nice change of pace but about as weighty as a feather. However, it seems instead to be a double entendre song built around the phrase, “morning meat”. Between repeating the phrase three times and the line “We’ve got a little more on our plate / In more ways than one,” there’s just enough here to get frustrated that the rest of the lyrics don’t really work as double entendre. This is a case where muddying the lyrical waters is a detriment to the song. Either leave it as a maybe too-simple song about breakfast or go full Bloodhound Gang and really lean into the sex metaphors.

“Son of Ambrose” seems like a biographical account of Hilts’ (or one of the other members) grandfather told in the first person. The first couple verses cover his life up through marriage and having five kids. Musically, the song is lively, and includes a bowed cello solo from Danny Kenyon, who usually functions as the Dead South’s de facto bass player. It stops dead for the third verse, which skips to 1977 when the narrator recounts his death. After declaring, “Just remember, I love you all so much”, it picks back up and reiterates its earlier, happier moments.

The record’s three instrumentals each serve as transitions or at least change-of-pace songs, and each is quite distinct. “Where Has the Time Gone” is a moody, almost contemplative solo acoustic guitar track. It brings the album’s feel back down after “20 Mile Jump”. “Clemency” again features bowed cello with guitar accompaniment from Hilts. It’s more overtly mournful and bridges the gap from the bright “Son of Ambrose” to the dark, acoustic rock of “Completely, Sweetly”. Finally, “Yore” is a banjo solo that seems almost like a short classical piece. It’s a creative use of the instrument that’s unique on the album.

After “Yore”, Chains & Stakes closes out with probably its darkest song, “Father John”.” It’s a slow-paced folk track, essentially a murder ballad. Father John kills a lot of people in the name of God, but he’s charismatic to the point where “Every word he said / The people ate out of his hand,” so he essentially gets away with it. It feels heavy, but it’s effective. With its mentions of “young boys” and “on the other side of the mountain’s where they’ll stay”, my mind went to the recent revelations of how badly First Nations people in the Dead South’s home of Canada were treated at government-sanctioned boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.

After stretching their sound for Easy Listening for Jerks, it’s interesting that the Dead South returned to their dark bluegrass wheelhouse for Chains & Stakes. In the wake of the pandemic and temporary lineup shuffles, it makes sense that they wanted to get back to where they’re comfortable. It helps that the Dead South are excellent in their wheelhouse, so this is a very successful record for them.

RATING 7 / 10