“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. - Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
O’Connor was notorious for her descriptions of the “Christ-haunted South” and all of its facade of righteousness, while, beneath it all, was the grotesqueness of sin and distorted creatures. The above quote is at the crux of all vain questioning of humanity toward God and his mysterious will. It concerns the ugly glory of Christ’s sacrifice for the enemies of God, who did nothing, in themselves, to merit God’s favor. This is also at the crux of the curiosity that is the gothic americana musical genre. A genre that finds its origins in the winter-covered landscapes of Denver, Colorado. It is a curiosity, indeed, that this Appalachian-bound, doom-and-gloom sound should come from somewhere outside of the Deep South, where hell and damnation sermons and snake-oil salesmen abound. Nothing sums up the tone and feelings of gothic americana better than the documentary, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which contains talents from my own exploration and others that would fit squarely within the genre itself.
I re-watched that documentary which has a surreal quality to it much like the music the viewer’s travel companion, Jim White, makes (and that gothic americana makes, broadly-speaking). He becomes our eyes so that we make look on the South in a way that is contemplative, empathetic and understanding, while, at the same time, not depleting the blatant difficulties inherent in that culture. If you have read any quality American history then there should be some awareness of the complexity of the interplay of religion and the brutal sins and self-perpetuating ghosts of the South. Jim White, himself, was a transplant to the South from southern California and he, too, recognizes that he is not a true Southerner, but he is empathetic to the complexities of that world and the messy spiritual qualities inherent in it. I am weaving my year-end gothic americana reflections through this documentary, because it defines the messy spirituality that haunts gothic americana music. It gives us eyes to see and understand.
One must understand something about gothic americana music before endeavoring to experience it. First, it is drenched in Christian allegory and imagery, so much so that, at times, it could easily turn off the most narrow-minded of atheists and agnostics, those who refuse to even see and benefit from the narrative beauty of the story of Christ and the mysteries inherent in it. Second, this is not “Christian” music. All of the artists in the genre are not appropriating the imagery in their music as evangelistic propaganda. They, instead, are endeavoring to appropriate the imagery as a medium for lyrical depth and atmosphere. David Eugene Edwards (who, also, makes an appearance in Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus) seems to be the main musician in this genre that holds, devoutly, to the propositional truths of Christianity. And, finally, there is a certain element, or negative approach, that appears in this music which society, in general, shies away from: a low understanding of humanity’s anthropology. People are not viewed highly in this music. Most of the time, there are images of sin and corruption that litter the landscape of this music. With the exception of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand (and, possibly, a couple others) , there is not much hope presented in response to the worst of humanity. Don’t expect hope in most of this music.
This is also to say that this music will not be for everybody. Matter of fact, it has the potential to really polarize opinion between people. It is not always enjoyable music without putting some time and work into enjoying it. And, like I said above, these troubadours are not out to make people feel good about their situations and their world. If you are not feeling a weight or burden after listening to most of this music, then, I would presume, you are not really listening. I find that I am often melancholy. My range of emotions is not terribly wide. My happiness is always tinged with worry, concern, burden and the presence of a dark cloud. This often displays itself in my interests as well and the people I tend to have friendships with. I tend toward a darker tint on life, faith, and relationships. It would not surprise me at all if I was found to have clinical depression if I were tested. All this to show why this music appeals to me on both a musical and internal level. I get it; it makes sense to me. The down side of that is, in the wake of this genres lack of hope, it can feed my melancholy and dark bouts in some very negative ways. It can turn me too far inward and make me feel as if being depressed and melancholy is the way things should be. It conflicts with my Christian faith; the gospel of grace tells me that things are not what they should be.
So most of this music speaks truth, but that truth burdens. There is no grace to accompany it. And that is why David Eugene Edwards should be a central figure in the scope of gothic americana music. It is hard for anyone to argue against DEE’s importance to the genre; in both origin and it being sustained. Now, this is not to say that there are not other important figures, like Jeffrey-Paul, Jay Munly, and Slim Cessna, but there is something about DEE that gives the genre its heart and impetus. At this point, other gothic americana fans will probably say that I am giving DEE central place because we are brothers in faith. We are working within the same faith framework. And I will not deny that this element plays into it, but to say it is the only reason is to not know me. And if you want to be shown the truth of that then you have to interact with me, otherwise no argument I give will convince. DEE is central to this genre. That is just the way it is.
The works of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand (which entails twelve full albums and various live albums and individual songs) is a monolith. One cannot deal with gothic americana without dealing with the various incarnations of DEE. Not only that, but his presence is found on the works of other bands in the genre (aka “Whitewashed” on Lilium’s Short Stories and “Dar He Drone” on Jay Munly’s Jimmy Carter Syndrome) and those are standout tracks in every instance. Something about DEE pushes out the best of all of those he works with. He is central also because, in his music, he is not satisfied with the truth of the human condition alone; like the rest of the bands seem to be. He doesn’t offer easy answers or Christian sentimentality; instead he sees the need for hope for something to save us outside of ourselves. He understands the inconsistency inherent in our nature. We often see the failures, corruption, rebellion and, even, sin of man (not always our own), and, yet, we think that something in us or in man can fix the problem. This is the inconsistency that has at the very basic level kept me from ever denying the Christian faith—though I am full of doubts—and I see that solution in everything that is not the gospel; the grace of God. This is something that DEE gets, also, and, though he finds compliment with the dark tone of the rest of the bands in the genre, he sees the hope of Christ in it all. The only thing in the world that doesn’t come from us on one level or another.
The brilliance of all of the incarnations of this music whether it be in the original manifestations in Denver, CO or if it is in the descendants of the sound coming from all over the country is its imagery and tone that would make good fodder for the host of post-apocalyptic films out there. Much like The Police did for mainstreaming Reggae into the realm of rock, gothic americana does for bringing bluegrass and Appalachian influences into the realm of folk music. This music often reminds me of some Appalachian ram-shackle cabin out in the sticks with older, bearded men with banjos and younger men sipping some moonshine coming straight out the pipe. The poverty, Pentecostal religion, and folk mythology interplaying and weaving together in a dark and mysterious mystic river flow. Gothic americana taps into that mystical and truly unexplainable relationship between human nature and faith in the woods of the deep South.
This music is important to me in so many ways. There is something in it that fills in the words of the writers of the South like O’Connor, Percy and Faulkner. It is a music that expresses the contradictions of the South so well. It truly is Christ-haunted, the Christ story is all over the blueprints of the music, but it is distorted to the point where it has no power and no grace to give to the undeserving. Much like the religion of the South, Christ is almost unrecognizable beneath the schemes and corruption of the Pharisees and the prodigals. Most of this music comes down on the listener like the holy Law comes down on those who cannot live up to its demands. The music is condemning and does so in a way that misappropriates the Christ story for their purposes. If Christ was more than a ghost in the South and in gothic americana then grace would ultimately shine through it, but that’s not the South; so if gothic americana showed grace (and, like I said before, it often does in the music of DEE) then the genre as a whole would not be representative with its regional kinship. DEE stands alone as the representative of the grace-loving believers that seem to be such a minority in the Deep South.
These bands have tapped into a feeling that is so hard to grasp academically, intellectually, with music which, more often than not, is able to grasp the ineffable elements of knowledge that our reason can’t quite grasp (or refuses to grasp). Which is why this music is so effective. It tells the story of people who poor and forgotten, charismatic and pharisaical, tied to the myths of the past and unable to move much beyond them in the future. This music is a testament to the intricacies of a whole American region and this is exactly why it is the most rigorous, extensive and true formulation of folk/americana music in America at this time.
Top Ten Albums of the Year
1. Wovenhand - Wovenhand
2. O’Death - Outside
3. Munly & the Lupercalians - Petr & the Wulf
4. 16 Horsepower - Low Estate
5. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club - Cipher
6. Lilium - Transmission of All the Goodbyes
7. Viarosa - Where The Killers Run
8. Jay Munly - Jimmy Carter Syndrome
9. The Builders and The Butchers - Salvation is a Deep, Dark Well
10. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club - Always Say Please and Thank You