A musical tour of the Gothic South

Southern Gothic, that overused and much abused term for offbeat happenings below the Mason Dixon line, is seemingly more popular than ever with the general public. From the “True Blood” and “True Detective” TV series’ to award winning films such as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and author Cormac McCarthy’s general acceptance as one of the world’s greatest writers, the Southern Gothic brand seems as healthy and vital as ever.

The South has always been a land ripe with Gothic themes: murder, greed, guilt, incest, secret societies, religion, and a suspicion of outsiders combined with the grinding desperation of poverty and an almost fairy tale sense of the weird and grotesque. The best Southern Gothic art often works under the assumption that the South is a land haunted, literally and figuratively, by the past, by sins unatoned for, and most powerfully, by slavery. Decay, the majestic rot of a land unable to advance, out of synch and all but impenetrable to outsiders, is a theme played out again and again in these works.

As is true with other art forms, Southern music also has a rich and varied history in the Gothic tradition. Taking inspiration from writers such as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O’Conner, as well as the classic noir cinema of “Night of the Hunter” and more recent films like “Southern Comfort” and “Winter’s Bone,” some of the finest music to come out of the South in recent years has delved into the regions seemingly endless reservoir of the bizarre and anachronistic.

In the wrong, overly earnest hands this music can quickly descend into parody, a parade of laughably clichéd grotesques with all the depth of a poorly scripted cartoon. But when done by musicians with an ear for the surreal and intricate beauty of the region, the results speak for themselves.

Maybe the best description I’ve come across for the Southern Gothic sound is found in author Charles Frazier’s masterpiece about the Civil War-era North Carolina highlands, “Cold Mountain.” Writing about a particularly moving piece of old time mountain music, Frazier notes: “When the minor key drifted in it was like shadows under trees, and the piece called up something of dark woods, lantern light. It was awful old music in one of the ancient modalities, music that sums up a culture and is the true expression of its inner life.”

As a tribute to the South’s enduring weirdness and dark ambiguity, here are five of my favorite Gothic albums.

Gris-Gris (Dr. John): The debut album by piano ace Mac Rebennack, in which he fully embraces for the first, and probably last time, the character of Dr. John, a voodoo root doctor from the 19th century. What he conjures is a wholly unique, mind altering gumbo of New Orleans rhythms, psychedelic rock, and Creole juju that sounds as disarmingly strange today as it did upon its release in 1968.

Dixie Fried (James Luther Dickinson): Occupying a musical Twilight Zone somewhere between the Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street”, “The Soft Parade” by the Doors, and Tom Waits’ more off-beat efforts, this record by the late Memphis producer and musical raconteur offers the title track’s gospel rockabilly take on Carl Perkins’ classic tale of drunken redneck madness; a Jim Morrison-esque spoken word version of Bob Dylan’s unsettling homecoming tale, “John Brown,” and the hillbilly funk of the obscure vaudeville piece “O How She Dances.” Filled with more soul, grit and mind-numbing weirdness than any 10 records you care to name, it stands as both the summation of everything that makes Southern music special and a grand, rollicking party for all the dead bluesmen, war vets and Old West gunslingers who move through its songs like guideposts to the end-of-days decades to come.

In an Airplane Over the Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel): Populated by an unlikely cast of holy rattlesnakes, shape-shifting ghosts and two-headed boys trapped in jars, this disturbing, hauntingly melodic song-cycle rewards the kind of repeated listening most so-called music fans no longer have the patience for. This Athens-based band is definitely an acquired taste, but “In an Airplane Over the Sea” is well worth the effort for anyone interested in what Bryan Wilson of the Beach Boys may have conjured up had he been a deranged, Southern commune dweller instead of a burnt-out California-bred man child.

Fables of the Reconstruction (REM): Everything about this 1985 release by another Athens-based band, REM, hints at the mystery lying just beneath the surface of the Southern landscape and the dry facts of history, from the titles reference to the transformation of the South following the Civil War to the album’s artwork, which features images of burning books and a Salvador Dali-like swinging pendulum. But it’s the music that ultimately lends this album its Gothic otherness. From the opening shock of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” with it’s unnerving three-note riff and images of “a Man Ray kind of sky” onward into the dense train mythology of “Driver 8” and the foreboding character portrait of “Old Man Kinsey,” REM paint the South as a land composed as much of dreams and freak coincidence as the hard fabric of reality.

Complete Early Recordings (Skip James): Robert Johnson gets all the press, but this early Delta bluesman cut just as hard and strange in his prime. Utilizing a haunting, open D-minor guitar tuning and intricate fingerpicking, James was a musical virtuoso whose recordings from the early 1930s are idiosyncratic even among the obscure blues numbers of the day. Rising through layers of pre-digital murk, songs such as “Devil Got My Woman,” “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” and “22-20 Blues” are spine-shivering in their depictions of the violent, rollicking life of an itinerant musician in the pre-Civil Rights South. Voiced in James’ high lonesome wail, they stand as some of the strongest blues ever conjured.


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