Perhaps you were sitting around wondering who is the spookiest sounding musical act of the current era. You’ve been wracking (or racking? Neither look right.) your brain about whether it’s Rob Zombie or some death metal band. I would like to nominate, as an outside, long-shot contender, the Del McCoury Band.
Tom Piazza likes to explain bluegrass as the jazz of country, the place where talented musicians go to stretch convention. There’s a lot about that comparison that I like. But I would say that bluegrass is also country’s creepy attic, where winds rattle the windows and get in through the eaves. You don’t, for instance, hear a lot of country artists still singing murder ballads. It’d be a little strange to go to a bluegrass concert and not have one song death.
The Del McCoury Band has a couple of straight up scary songs. If you want to sob for, like, seven days–and I’m not judging you. Maybe you have tear constipation or something–they do a great cover of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, a song up there for me with Puff the Magic Dragon in its ability to rip my heart out fresh every damn time.
They also have the delicious It’s Just the Night, which is lovely with the mandolin and fiddle just creeping it right the fuck up.
But I think the song that kind of gets them at their creepiest is My Love Will Not Change.
It’s not that the song is inherently creepy. All creepiness is invoked solely by the instruments (counting their voices as an instrument). I posit that, even humming the song, it would be somewhat creepy. Maybe it’s the driving relentlessness of it. Maybe it’s Del’s old-school voice that sounds like you could hear it down in the holler when he was up on the ridge. I don’t know. I just know that, when I realized I was singing this morning, this is the song I was singing.
The McCoury’s have a lot of good creepy songs. I always liked “Henry Walker,” which includes frostbite, drowning and howling wolves.
Your post reminds me of what Dudley Connell of the Johnson Mt. Boys used to say about putting together good bluegrass sets. To get the emotional pacing right, you had to be sure to include songs from all three emotional registers: sad, pitiful, and morbid.
Oh, and re: country murder songs… check out “Two Black Cadillacs” on Carrie Underwood’s latest album.
It’s the minor key coming in so strongly, I think. Many many bluegrass songs have morbid lyrics but cheery tunes (“Banks of the Ohio,” anyone), and one of Steve Martin’s oldest and best jokes involved sad songs and a banjo, but that minor key — especially mixing with the major as it does in “My Love Will Not Change” — brings the creep factor in. High Lonesome can be heartbreakingly sad, and it can be creepy.
It has a lot to do with the resonance of the singer’s voice, too, I think. Vince doing the High Lonesome, for example, just makes you want to burst into tears with him, the poor mistreated thing (notice he ain’t done none o’ that lately, nudge hee), because of the richness of his voice. Del’s voice, while fabulous and perfect, is just a little bit reedy and therefore ghostly. You’re right: you’d hear Del down in the holler while you were up on the ridge. And it would scare the stuffing out of you if you heard it at night because you know nobody’s suposed to be back there …
Ralph Stanley can freak you out singing “Angel Band.” Even with Carter with him (bless precious Carter). I know; I discovered it driving back home one night from the graveyard over by Haint Hollow. (Not making a BIT of that up.)
(And now you have a new story title for the next collection: “My Love Will Not Change,” said the dead man killed in a car wreck on the way back from stalking his ex-wife.
JEEB I went to a real bad place there, didn’t I?)
P.S. — Hugo’s acoustic blugrass cover of “99 Problems” will scare the fool out of you if you’re not expecting it. I may be associating it with the tail end of “Fright Night,” though. Aoooooooooh.
I’ll hush now. My daddy worshipped Bill Monroe and I heired a little bit of that obsession. ;oD
Woman, you have to send me a link to a map of Haint Holler. Please, please, please.
Click on the street view. When I did, there was SOMETHING STANDING IN THE ROAD.
It was not livestock.
And it was gone when I zoomed in.
NOT LYING. STILL SHAKING.
We shall reconnoiter at Nolensville and I shall escort you. But NOT AFTER DARK. Even though my relatives are buried nearby and I have no problem wandering around *that end* of the road anytime.
I have a number of questions. 1. Did they pick the gloomiest day of the year to do that street view or what? 2. How the hell many cemeteries are around there? Google maps is showing me eleven! 3. When can we go?
That is both awesome and spooky as hell.
A little late to this, but I am just glad to know that I am not the only person who is completely destroyed by “Puff the Magic Dragon,” every damn time.
I know! Why is that a kid’s song? It’s like if Bambi ended right after his mom died and they called that a kid’s movie. It’s among the saddest songs in the history of sad songs.