When a horror writer sits down to construct a nightmare, there is a baseboard issue that must be addressed before he or she even begins to envision those empathetic victims in the clutches of their horrific antagonists, let alone all the trappings and wares: the meat-hooks, the mud-crusted chainsaws, the hand cuffs, duct tape, roll tarps, shovels with paint drops splattered up the shafts, the hatchets with keen roll-beveled edges for increased splitting ability, the rolls of hemp rope, old sewing scissors, meat hammers, power drills with extra-wide paddle bits, scuffed work gloves and threadbare coveralls, old vans with rust in the bumper-dents and panel sections worn down to the primer, and finally a set of goggles and a leather apron so our favorite caretaker in this cold world of terror can keep it quietly professional before approaching his triple sink arrangement (clean, rinse, and sanitize) to accommodate his blood drenched instruments arranged in their own three categories of Breaking and Skinning, Lance and Fillet, and Carving and Slicing.
Alas, before the all the fun with the characters and their weapons of preference we have to consider setting and atmosphere (as well as the soundtrack if making a film), and in doing so we circumstantially fall into a sort of iconic patriotism, especially in a country that has done such a spectacularly good job of divorcing itself from its old British predecessor that leaned so heavily on castles, foggy moors, and damp cobblestone. In terms of rich backdrop, here in the United States a haunted house on a lonely plot in Long Island draws up emotions of similar intensity to a field of waving wheat in Oklahoma. The idea of an imposing hotel with a humongous garden labyrinth in the mountains of Colorado affects us with as much impact as that first day of youth baseball in April when the chalk lines are drawn and there’s freshly cut grass. We relate to that isolated cabin in the woods of Becket, Massachusetts with the same burst of instant recognition as the place we settle our lawn chairs with our kids along the main drag to watch the parade on the 4th, and way up Route 9 in that quaint little Pennsylvania town with the wineries and glass crafters, there’s that carnival you can see from the road because of the Ferris wheel and the Zipper ride, all glitter and flash and cotton candy and caramel corn with the fun house you inevitably drive through in a paint-chipped roller car with your arm around your girlfriend and the bar handle that goes flat across your lap, that which will inevitable jam and hold you prisoner when the tracks suddenly lead the wrong way, straight into that dark, abandoned area “under construction,” where your cart stops short in the semi-darkness right in front of a huge circus creature, breathing heavily and holding a dripping meat cleaver…all that is as familiar to us as apple pie, football on Sunday, barbecuing out on the back deck, and pledging the flag.
The setting and soundtrack of the weird that we always take for granted, however, the one we often dismiss yet never forget…the one so uniquely American that we could almost claim it as birthright, is located below the Mason Dixon line, in the mountains, in the woodlands, in the shacks, and the coal mines, and deep down into the timber trails. Hillbilly Horror and Southern Rock developed together in a fashion and timeline similar to the parallel between Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and the emergence of Black Sabbath (debut album released Friday the 13th, February, 1970), taking a significant offshoot down a dirt road in 1972 with the movie Deliverance, set in the remote Georgia wilderness while also featuring the best banjo solo ever put on film. This wonderful and disturbing marriage of country horror and backwoods finger picking was complimented a year later by the release of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first album and the song “Freebird,” that which changed the way we looked at guitar solos as Rossington and Collins dared to risk a nine minute play time, often going up to fourteen when doing it live. It was as if red neck rock and hillbilly scare movies were drinking whiskey in the back room of some Alabama dive, playing poker, daring each other to raise, and then doing it.
Then this thing exploded. In succession, we got The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 (South West counts too), The Hills Have Eyes in 1977 (Nevada desert…same idea, “wild west” flavor) Motel Hell in 1980, and after a brief hiatus, Wrong Turn in 2003. Of course, borrowed from this corner of the genre is that fabled cabin in the woods, and while the film of the same name as well as Cabin Fever (2002), plus a hoard of others still use places of isolation in wooded areas not necessarily in the American south, the idea of horror in the sticks has become a national past time.
In direct congruence to the evolution of this sort of bushwhacker scare-theme in film (and as I briefly touched on earlier), Southern Rock burst forth in the 1970’s, initiated by The Allman Brothers and commercialized in a new way by Lynyrd Skynyrd, inevitably dominating the music scene with multiple albums by Blackfoot, .38 Special, Molly Hatchet, and The Outlaws, not to mention Charlie Daniels, The Atlanta Rhythm Section, and The Marshall Tucker Band. In response to the current merging (and therefore splintering) of the many genres and sub-genres in music, many of these old Southern bands have quietly stepped over to a country platform. Still, if you listen carefully, there is a rumor going around…a dark whisper that the hillbilly macabre and its atmospheric, Southern Rock blood-brother are ready to play poker again down South, on a losing night, in the back woods, under a red harvest moon.
Or the swamp.
It is no coincidence that many of the great Southern Rock bands did not come out of the remote Georgia wilderness, the Appalachians, or the back roads of Cumberland County Tennessee. A lot of them started in Florida: The Allman’s, Skynyrd, Blackfoot, .38 Special, and Molly Hatchet – all from Jacksonville, The Outlaws from Tampa. The Sunshine State breeds a particular brand of ass-kicking rock, and the group that has popped up on the radar both defying comprehensive definition, yet resurrecting hard Southern Rock with a clear link to the horrific is The Bloody Jug Band, monstrously unique and ultimately significant.
The Bloody Jug Band hails from Orlando, and the first thing one might note is that they have redefined Southern Rock with a set of roots even deeper than the classic bands of the seventies, reanimating the tradition of the 1920’s and 30’s “Jug bands,” and using instruments like the washboard, the washtub bass, the mandolin, the harmonica, spoons, and a Cajon (a percussion instrument in the form of a six-sided box). They have been called many things, like “That eight piece spooky Americana band from Orlando,” and “Florida Swamp Noir,” yet the best way to describe this project might very well be not to describe it at all, at least in terms of genre branding, a practice in itself that has become antiquated. It is just too much fun to simply watch this band, listen to them, and see what they have to offer.
Cragmire Peace is the front man of The Bloody Jug Band, and he sings while playing the washboard. Stormy Jean is the other lead vocalist (also percussion), and the balance of the band is made up of Brian Shredder on acoustic guitar and mandolin, Ste-Evil on electric guitar and banjo, Bloody Rick Lane on harmonica, Seth Funky on washtub and Uke bass, Big Daddy Jerm on Jug and percussion, and Baby Dingo on Cajon and spoons. Their recent video, “Beautiful Corpse,” is a statement piece, and there are aspects of this addictive work that make it ultimately intriguing, raising eyebrows, raising questions.
First off, a “Jug Band” depends on a predominance of “acoustic” instruments, and even amplified, one wonders just how a band armed primarily with washboards and spoons is going to pull off a horror-music video that inadvertently thrusts them into a competitive field of niche-hard music and metal. Plainly, The Bloody Jug Band accomplishes this with production, chord choice, presence on camera, and dark humor. In terms of the technical presentation, the first thing the listener notices is the incredible bottom achieved without a hard rhythm guitar. It’s done with bass and slide, and it literally knocks you bowlegged. The chord progression and the hook are both memorable and deeply satisfying, and as the band stands around a casket looking into the camera and singing, there is no doubt that they are for real, especially as exemplified through the lead singer Cragmire, who looks like something straight out of those haunted hills that have wide staring eyes. Of course, even considering the filmatic polish of the band’s slow motion “walk-up,” the intricate shot-by-shot texturing, and the crafty inter-splicing of funeral home side-drama, the whole thing is one of those clever dichotomous presentations, where the band is being utterly serious about something that clearly is not. We are therefore reminded that art is wonderfully complex when it’s presented professionally, and irony is the poet’s sharpest of tools.
In reference to The Bloody Jug Band’s more comprehensive statement however, I would suggest that the given observer not hold “Beautiful Corpse” as purely definitive. While the video plays well and resonates in our minds long after it ends, there is a goldmine of music well worth listening to on the album it comes from called “Rope Burn.” Not only does the record in its entirety provide us style and variety, but it offers more intensive exploration of the distinctive (and signature) vocal patterning between lead singers Cragmire and Stormy Jean.
First off in terms of musical diversity, the upbeat “Volfkiller” that leads off the album, as well as the power ballad “Gal of Sorrow” that concludes it, both could very well have been chosen as the singles to represent the greater work. “13 Steps” showcases portions of Stormy Jean’s voice that could easily sell this record, just as “Late Shift” provides us the intricate harmonica work that would prove instrumental credibility in a world of hard music so dependent on technical virtuosity through soloing.
All which brings us full circle in the sense that it is still difficult to define exactly what this band is. They are not quite southern rock and they are not metal, though they have critical attributes that could make them successes in either arena. They are not comic farce and they are not dystopian philosophers, neither Elvira nor Led Zeppelin or even Lynyrd Skynyrd. I would argue they are not even a Jug band, not entirely. They are who they are, and instead of hunting for something that would literalize this wonderfully odd project, it is probably best to simply recognize their trademark, and it has nothing to do with washboards and swamps.
With the wonderful, ornate landscape provided by the musicians as canvas, the vocals and the way they are utilized in The Bloody Jug Band make the overall statement historically and artistically significant. While many bands use hard and multi-tracked rhythm guitars for dynamics with a wailing lead for the climax, this group often unveils this part of the structure through Stormy Jean, at times masked earlier in the given piece as a background vocal. This has been done before, twice in a manner important in the sense that they remain patterned into the broadcloth of our collective subconscious. The latter occurred in 1973, when Clare Torry improvised with the piano at the end of “The Great Gig in the Sky” off Pink Floyd’s 1973 album “The Dark Side of the Moon,” and more relevant to our argument in this case, we must salute Merry Clayton’s additions to The Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter” off “Let it Bleed” in 1969.
The thing that makes The Bloody Jug Band different than Floyd and The Stones is that Cragmire and Stormy Jean don’t use the technique for spice and effect, but more a mainstay to top off a dual harmony vocal that simply isn’t done anywhere else. With Stormy Jean’s power and Cragmire’s low end, snarling bottom, we get to hear note patterns and combinations that are utterly surprising and somehow heavy, affecting us like a roller coaster, or dark chocolate, or that new thing someone takes us into when we’re young that makes us feel risky and free, riding the inside line on some kind of fresh happiness that once discovered we desperately want to keep as our own special secret before it gets lost in the mainstream.
I have news for you.
In terms of The Bloody Jug Band, the secret’s out: they are the personification of the idea that “heavy” has nothing at all to do with raw volume.
It has all to do with taste and vision and atmosphere.
Author of Phantom Effect, release date February 2nd, 2016, Night Shade Books.