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Down at the Devil's X
"People use words like 'dark', 'desperate', and 'gothic' and 'southern', obviously. I've heard all those descriptions, and compared to the last Dirtball record, this is a party record", says bass player Greg Harrup, of The Shiners' new album, Bonnie Blue.
"When we talk about desperation, we do it in a fun way", adds steel guitar player Travis Charbeneau.
He's got that right.
You may remember Dirtball as the mid-'90s alt.country offspring of the Richmond, Virginia, punk band Mudd Helmut. When lead singer Wes Freed and guitarist Steve Douglas worked with other local musicians (wife Jyl Freed, Jeff Liverman, Peter Headley, and Neal Ferguson) on acoustic, hillbilly versions of Mudd Helmut songs, Dirtball was the result. As David Goodman, author of Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory, describes the band, "Like Southern Culture on the Skids and the Drive-by Truckers, Dirtball's focus is on the 'white trash' lifestyle, especially drinking, carousing, and trouble".
Dirtball had released three albums, Hillbilly Soul (1994), The Well (1998), and Turn Up the Barn (1999), when the band disbanded rather suddenly because of "internal differences". (As Freed puts it, "Dirtball just kind of ground to a halt right when we'd put out our best record".) Further complicating matters were commitments Dirtball had made, commitments Wes and Jyl Freed struggled to meet, hence the creation of The Shiners (who originally went by "Dirtball Jr").
In a recent interview, The Shiners discussed, among other things, how they came to be -- in about a month. According to Freed, "I talked with Steve, our present guitar player who was also the manager of our record label that put out Dirtball records. After a little bit of a discussion, we decided what the hell? We'd put another band together and finish up the shows that were already scheduled". He continues, "That's how it started -- it kinda came out of the ashes, and we started writing our own new stuff and doing some of the old band's material that was covers and stuff".
Steve's wife, Terry, herself an accomplished musician as well as art director at Planetary, also signed on. What began as "We'll-play-a-few-shows-with-you-until-you-get-on-your-feet-and-get-a-few-guitar-players" evolved into something more. As she puts it: "We were having too much fun to leave".
"They learned about 20 songs in two weeks", Jyl says, "and considering that their band Log was pretty much punk rock and both of them worked on electronica at that point, it was a challenge for them, but they excelled". (It's worth noting that Terry not only pulled out her accordion but also picked up the banjo in a very short time. Jyl says, "Terry took to hillbilly music like a duck to water".)
Filling out The Shiners' roster are Greg Harrup (upright bass; Robert Gordon, The Cashmere Jungle Lords), Erin Snyder (fiddle; Deliberate Strangers), and Brian Larson (drums - he's also Planetary's promotions director). Listed as "Reinforcements" are Kirk Rundstrom (of Split-Lip Rayfield) who plays dobro and mandolin, and Travis Charbeneau on steel guitar.
Their name, "The Shiners," works on a couple of levels. First, it references a way of life forgotten in today's world of Budweiser six-packs picked up at the 7-11. "I think the references to moonshine, besides the gettin' drunk part, is more of an homage to old ways and craftsmanship, Southern pride and Southern rebellion", Jill explains. "In a way, it exemplifies all of the above, and has even carried over into modern times". Moonshine also plays a central role in Wes' distinctive visual art, a direct influence on the band's music. You may recognize his work from (most recently) The Drive-by Truckers' Southern Rock Opera or Dirtball's record covers. He's done paintings in addition to flyers and posters, though he's also known for his "Willard's Garage" comic book series which was featured in local 'zines for about eight years.
"In a nutshell", Jyl explains, "Wes has this alternate world, Crow Holler, in his head. It's been there since he was a kid. It's peopled with spooks and moonshiners and old witchy women and The Devil's X Roadhouse". She continues, "Crow Holler is a magical place -- most all of Wes's songs are about Crow Holler in some way".
In Crow Holler, with the exception of two "real" people, Dixie Butcher the Wrasslin' Waitress, and her biker girlfriend Bonnie Blue, the rest of the inhabitants are skeletons, pumpkin heads, hags, animals, and creatures from Celtic mythology.
The mythology continues in Bonnie Blue; indeed, it provides much of the album's thematic richness.
While The Shiners all collaborate on songs, Wes, in addition to lead vocals, assumes many of the primary songwriting duties, a point clear in the songs that cull from "Willard's Garage" (e.g., "Bonnie Blue", "Crow Holler", "Devil's X"). Like his paintings, the songs have compelling visual imagery, vivid colors, and unconventional characters.
As Steve puts it, "The extent to which there's a lot of feeling, a lot of honest emotion is drawn from a lot of visual imagery that comes along first. Wes' songs bring something to the table -- more than likely it came at the same time as a painting or from a painting". He continues, "I have one of his songs hanging in my room. His songs hang on the walls".
Which brings us to Bonnie Blue.
"Obviously the name comes from 'Bonnie Blue Flag'", Wes says, "but it was also the name of one of the comic book characters I had drawn, and I wrote the song about her. Then I did an illustration, and it was working".
Remember, too, there are lots of songs about Bonnie, a kind of "representative woman" (e.g., "My Bonnie Lass", "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean"). This Bonnie, however, with her CSA hat, looks you in the eye from the album cover, subversively holding up a Mason jar of moonshine in both invitation and warning.
The cover and title track foreshadow the album's lyric and musical themes. The song kicks off the record with an acoustic guitar and drum beat; when Terry's banjo settles in and Wes sings, "Bonnie, my sweet Bonnie, you're a jangle when you walk / Bonnie, my sweet Bonnie, I shiver when you talk / I can see by the eyes in the back of my mind you come from a place that knows cryin'", and Erin's fiddle enters the mix, there's no turning back.
The Shiners' music reflects a clear identification with the Southern rural working class -- in fact, it's apt to compare this to the folk music of the '60s and '70s that reacted against sappy, happy pop music. As country music becomes more homogenized pop, appealing to the largest possible demographic, The Shiners refuse to conform. Although they rely mostly on bluegrass instruments and a folk ethos, the driving sound owes as much to punk as it does to bluegrass, creating a heady mix.
It would be easy to compare The Shiners to a good batch of homebrew, the moonshine that recurs in Wes' art, but it's more than that. Wes' voice, raw and upfront, connects the South's past with the present, all filtered through the mythic world of Crow Holler. Jyl's tight harmonies, then, provide the voice of family, and the rest of The Shiners' sound is the complex, diverse roots of the South and its music.
Take, for example, "The Bridge", an album highlight written primarily by Steve and Terry. The song tells the story of a wounded soldier, high on laudanum, desperately trying to get home.
"It really came together when Erin started playing [fiddle] more", Steve says. "I wanted one that would really get that bluegrass fiddle. I worked on the riff for a long time, so I was trying to figure out the song and structure of it. And, literally, the way that it came about, the title, was because . . . I was working on the bridge part, and then these ideas came into my head". He continues, "We had the story -- it was something I could just see happening. I've seen movies with these soldiers trying just to get home. In any war, there are soldiers that are far from home and get tired of fighting and are ready to go and get back to their comfort -- and their comfort may not even be there waiting for them. . . . The lyrics fell into place".
He's referring to lines like "Now I'm on the run with my laudanum and my gun / Headed for the bridge that leads me home / Don't know if I'll die or make it to the other side / Will my homeland be the same", words sung by a soldier who's been shot while trying to cross the bridge that will bring him home.
"That was sort of a Shiners version of bluegrass and kicking a little harder. And to be very honest, it was inspired by Split Lip Rayfield -- that Midwestern desperation", Steve says.
"We Won't Break the Circle" addresses similar themes though the mood is different. Greg Harrup says of the song's inception, "Wes and I were working together -- we were painting, oil painting -- we were talking about our families and stuff. We're from rural areas". It's difficult to ignore echoes of The Carter Family's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" as The Shiners sing lines like "My granddaddy taught me how to live off the land, grandma took me to the church to pray / They told me one day I'd understand and when I did I'd find the way". But there is a political reality, a subversiveness, here that the Carters lack. As The Shiners put it, "We won't break the circle, we're just trying to get by".
Rounding out Bonnie Blue are songs like 'The Rodeo Clown", a waltz with some fine accordion work from Terry, as well as "Plowman's Song", "Los Gatos del Fuego", and "Conjureman", all magical with skeletons, coyotes, and a hoodoo man.
Bonnie Blue officially ends with "Devil's X". In true bluegrass tradition, each of The Shiners steps up to the microphone, creating another family circle. They tell of the Devil's X Roadhouse where Rev. Strawboss is preaching, though this clearly isn't the kind of church most Southern Baptists look for. But it's just right for The Shiners, who resolve rather neatly the "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning" conflict that has defined country music: Meeting in a bar, the band's enthusiasm reflects true joy as they, in call-and-response fashion ask, "What kinda church meets in a roadside bar? / The one that takes communion from a Mason jar!"
But to stop at "Devil's X" is to miss some of the most compelling material on Bonnie Blue: the hidden track of "I'm a Good Old Rebel", a song written in 1968 by Col. Innes Randolph, CSA.
The song found its way onto Bonnie Blue because of The Shiners' involvement with Jim Stramel's independent film The Thrillbillies -- in fact, band members appeared in the film and added material to its soundtrack. Stramel knew that he wanted "I'm a Good Old Rebel" to play over the closing credits and tried to get everyone on the soundtrack to record a version of the song. (In the end, four were able to contribute.) But The Shiners decided to add it to their record as well, including it as an unmarked track to keep from competing with the version on The Thrillbillies.
"The song carries a great deal of history", Wes says. "Keep in mind it's written by a man who's just spent four years fighting, defending his state and losing. And when we recorded it, we recorded it here at Steve and Terry's house, which is, like, a stone's throw away from the Hollywood Cemetery where there -- I don't know -- there are 15,000 or 17,000 unmarked Confederate graves". (It's worth adding the George Pickett, JEB Stuart, and Jefferson Davis are all buried there.)
Steve adds, "We recorded it right around Halloween, and it was like we were all possessed by it -- by Confederate ghosts. But the song wasn't necessarily our hearts; it's the way somebody else felt, and we can understand how he felt".
The Shiners recognized, however, that some folks might not understand the inclusion of this fight song with its slow military march cadence and resigned, almost funereal timbre.
"Of course, we were a little worried because as we were finishing up the recording, everyone decided to start putting American flags up because of what happened in New York. We were a little worried somebody might take it wrong", Steve says. "Some folks said maybe we shouldn't put it on there, and we thought about it, and we said, 'No, President Bush said you're supposed to go on with your life as you were going to do', so we went on and did what we were going to do originally".
So what's up next for The Shiners?
The band's already well into their second album, and they plan to finish by Halloween. "We've got a boatload of new songs coming in", Steve says. "We didn't rest on our laurels". In fact, during the interview, The Shiners were good enough to share part of a new song, "Bottle Full of Heaven", described as "hot off the press, typed 20 minutes ago" -- and it foreshadows a Shiners record to anticipate.
As Steve explains, though, the band's not in this to be rock stars: "We're having a good time with it because we really are all good friends that have a good time together. The underlying factor, and it may not show with all the darkness, is that we really are having fun".
"The gist of it", he concludes, "is that redneck girls love honky-tonk men".