A modern take on the music of ‘old, weird America’

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The term “Americana” is one that gets tossed around quite a bit these days, usually in reference to music, hovering somewhere just outside the mainstream, that embraces aspects of traditional country, folk, blues, bluegrass or rock and roll. While musicians as talented and diverse as Jason Isbell, Gillian Welch, and Old Crow Medicine Show have been welcomed under the Americana umbrella, other artists with visions either too idiosyncratic or unsettling have been left stranded in the genre-less neither regions of the music business.

Athens-based musician Don Chambers, who performs as a solo artist and with his band Goat, is clearly obsessed with the same seam of old-time music as many of Americana’s most popular acts. Yet Chambers seems to inhabit a world that’s far stranger, less rooted and more prone to upheavals of sound and meaning.

American roots music filtered through a warped stained glass window, the ruckus Chambers and his willfully untraditional cohorts create incorporates banjo, pedal steel guitar, blues rhythms and country-folk melodies. But Chambers’ version of roots music also includes 1970s punk and hard rock, ’80s avant garde jazz skronk, and the droning trance music of the Mississippi hill country. Combined with a lyrical bent toward Southern Gothic exotica, the influences merge into a loud, visceral, and at times oddly beautiful noise far removed from the polite musings of Chambers’ more commercially successful contemporaries. This is music to satisfy the id as well as the superego, often at the same time.

Over four albums with Goat and several solo releases, Chambers has proven himself the spiritual kin of American eccentrics like Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, William Burroughs, and Rod Serling. He’s also tapped into the raw, otherwordly spirit of early twentieth century country artists Doc Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb, two of the finest purveyors of music that captured what journalist Greil Marcus famously described as the “old, weird America.”

Chambers is certainly capable of surreal observations, like this verse from “Friar’s Lantern”, about two friends seeking the source of a ghostly light over the Louisiana swamps:

“Ghosts and dogs rustle in the pines,

And hum in the underground pipelines,

Adam flashed his headlights on deer meat strung up in the vines

Blood on the Texas Gas pipeline sign”

But he can also snap off a hard-eyed ode to stubborn perseverance, as in “Straighten the Bones” off 2011’s “Punch Drunk”:

“He found himself falling flat against the world, arms pinned back, his face took the full weight,

He took that as a dare, he took that as a dare got up, chin out, arms back,

He dove forward, he wanted to see how the world reacts — it flinched.”

In interviews, Chambers has talked about growing up in the small town of Florence, S.C., where he attended a Southern Protestant church four to five times a week. During his early teenage years, he  was allowed to listen to little besides white gospel music and the occasional Johnny Cash song. That background often finds its way into his music, in the form of repurposed Biblical imagery and close harmony singing. But Chambers has also grabbed hold of those other, forbidden sounds with a fury.

I once saw bluegrass great Ralph Stanley perform before a crowd of politely enthusiastic tourists at an elegant, mid-sized theater. Stanley played up the part of the affable legend for much of the show, turning over large sections of the performance to his supporting musicians. But during the last 15 minutes, a strange light came into the old man’s eyes and he raged as fiercely as any rock performer I’ve ever seen. The aggressiveness of his attack, not to mention his off color jokes, left many in the crowd visibly stunned.

There’s that same feeling in the music of Don Chambers, a man who embraces the sounds of the past while simultaneously taking a clawhammer to the very notion of “traditional” music.

Chambers and his bandmates may never be as well known as the current darlings of Americana, but I’d wager their art will eventually seep down into the rich loam of this country’s musical landscape, buried treasure for those with ears for the ancient and eyes for the future.

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