I’ve been listening to a lot of southern music lately. But it’s not country, not blues, not rock’n’roll or rockabilly. It’s not soul or gospel, and it’s not crunk. Yet it does have some conventional touchstones. Each of the artists in their way wrestles with the southern obsession of sin and salvation, but none come to any predigested conclusions. Jesus is a recurring character, and while He is never mocked, neither is He embraced as any kind of panacea for personal, social or political problems.
In fact, this music often asks whether that old-time religion has contributed to keeping the South impoverished in all sorts of ways. I’ve been fishing for names for this sub-sub-genre of audible American art. The secular stuff I call Deep Southern; the more spiritual stuff might be described as Progressive Pentecostal, a paradox a friend who is a former ministry student finds a bit of a joke, which is what it is meant to be.
The musicians I’m listening to include Johnny Dowd, the Handsome Family and William Lee Ellis, whom all have new albums this summer. Dowd and the Handsome Family first came to my attention from their appearances in the 2004 movie “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.” In “One-Eyed Jesus,” which has appeared intermittently on the Sundance channel this summer, musician Jim White leads British director Andrew Douglas and a discrete documentary film crew on a tour of the really deep rural south. They visit trailer homes, truck stops, barbershops, cut-and-shoot roadhouses, jails, cemeteries and churches.
This is not the New South of urban skyscrapers and fancy suburbs, but backwoods (and backwards) small towns off the Interstate grid of progress, where poverty and boredom make sin and salvation not just theological concepts but daily concerns.
Dowd’s last album, 2004 “Cemetery Shoes,” was chaotic and unpolished, but he captured the Deep Southern/Progressive Pentecostal aesthetic in one line: “Born in blood, buried in mud.” His new album, “Cruel Words,” was released on the 4th of July. It is no less rambunctious, but it’s more carefully recorded than “Shoes” (in Ithaca, N.Y., which proves the South, like so many other things, is really just a state of mind). A guest vocal shot by Jon Langford and Sally Timms on “Drunk” a song about a recovering alcoholic’s tenuous grip on sobriety, provides a neat parallel to describe Dowd: He is to American roots music what the Mekons are to British rock: a niche act no one should live without.
“Cruel Words” features Dowd (producer, vocals and guitars) with regular sidekicks Brian Wilson on drums and bass pedals and Michael Stark on organ and synthesizer: like the Doors on rotgut whiskey. Stark’s stark organ is key here, creating the spook-house accents that amplify the angst in Dowd’s pained underdog’s tail-caught-in-a-gate drawl. On “Corner Laundromat,” Dowd recites in his hardcore rural accent over big fists-full of Stark’s organ. “Poverty House” and “Anxiety” elaborate on the album’s procession of grim stories of life on the margins in small southern towns, lives in which neither self-indulgent pleasure nor piety provide sufficient sustenance.
What makes Dowd’s songs so potent is the anger that suffuses them. In candid opposition to the Pentecostal belief in miracles and the wonders of the free enterprise, one of Dowd’s toughest songs is “Miracles Never Happen,” which confronts the stagnant American economic class system and declares that there are just two kinds of people: “bosses and employees.”
But the centerpiece here is “Praise God,” a title suffused with sarcasm. The point of view is that of a young soldier who went to Iraq, emboldened by the message he heard on Sundays: “Christian values will prevail/Praise god, war is hell.” As the song develops, we get to know more about the soldier, his legs blown off, back in his hometown, an object of pity and fear that his churchgoing neighbors do their best to ignore. Lest you miss the message, hit the remote for the final track, which deconstructs “Johnny B. Goode” like the Sex Pistols did “My Way.” That nasty organ stays upfront, until a brief guitar solo that evolves into Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” riff.
The Handsome Family, based in Albuquerque, N.M., is the married duo Brett and Rennie Sparks. He (Brett) does most of the singing, in a baritone that exudes history and shadows; she (Rennie) writes the words. The mostly acoustic playing and mournful melodies of their new album, “Last Days of Wonder” (Carrot Top), may remind you of a 21st century version of the Band’s “Music From Big Pink,” Appalachian porch music for a plugged in, chaotic world.
These story songs are mordantly witty and resonant with minute, telling details. “Tesla’s Hotel Room” is a fictional recounting of the last days of inventor and eccentric genius Nikolai Tesla. There are snapshots of precise moments in the lives of ordinary people, the kind with fond memories of drinking and romance at the “Bowling Alley Bar.”
Yet there is a spiritual dimension to most of these songs. Although the engaging, gentle mood of the music is in a different dimension from Johnny Dowd’s rage, the Sparks’ songs often reveal more than a little irritation at the banality of religious hypocrisy.
“All the Time in Airports” conveys the soulless disconnect of the ambitious business traveler deluded into thinking wealth accumulation is a spiritual quest: “I see you flipping through the pages of books/by millionaires who found that Jesus Christ/could guide them into tripling their sales.” The eco-hymn “Our Blue Sky” takes to task those who plunder the environment in the name of God’s will. “Why do you dream of pearly white gates … where no bird flies, no tree grows?” Brett Sparks sings. “Could you love God if he didn’t love you more than rivers, snakes or wind?”
Another tune, “Beautiful William,” is about the mysterious disappearance of an ordinary man, like a character out of a Walker Percy novel, a man whom one suspects suffered from an incurable spiritual sickness: “He left his perfect lawn, his automatic sprinklers about to switch on.” The most gorgeous and gripping song, “Flapping Your Broken Wings,” shows off Rennie’s gift for narratives of calmly controlled whimsy that suddenly soar into intoxicating visions. The singer is having a happy nostalgic moment recalling young love on the local golf course before dawn. Suddenly, there is this thought: “As if pilgrims with axes had never seen the Devil dancing in the silent branches a thousand year old trees” — again, a religion-wrought ecological disaster, before returning to sweet thoughts of dancing stoned in their underwear on the fairway.
William Lee Ellis “God’s Tattoos” (Yellow Dog) is a spiritual humanist blues album. Ellis, who grew up bluegrass royalty (his banjo-playing dad Tony Ellis was one of the Blue Grass Boys; Bill Monroe is William Lee’s godfather), is also a conservatory-trained classical guitarist. But it’s not just his technique that dazzles. Ellis’ music is grounded in the bottleneck and slide of blues preachers like Blind Willies McTell and Johnson, as well as his hero Rev. Gary Davis. (In the notes, Ellis says the words to “Jesus Stole My Heart” were told to him in a dream in which the late Davis spoke to him.) And he conveys some of their spiritual humility.
Thanks to a mix of original and traditional tunes produced with the usual irrepressible vigor of Jim Dickinson, Ellis may be more mainstream than Dowd’s progressive Pentecostal, but he shares with him and the Handsome Family a disdain for the notion of an angry God who rewards the powerful and punishes the weak. “Cold and Weary” is the gospel according to William Lee: “this holy ghost needs to be fed, let’s drop the sermon, break some bread,” he sings in this tune, inspired by observing the large community of homeless in Nagoya, Japan.
Ellis is well traveled (his songs also reflect his sojourns in Morocco, Argentina and, uh, North Carolina). And he’s well-read: He cites Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell as influences, which you wouldn’t expect to coexist so easily with a sensibility that writes songs with titles like “When Leadbelly Walked the River Like Christ.” Then again, that song is an instrumental, so you can take it in the spirit with which it is given. Even if you don’t, that’s all right. The message is clear: You’re forgiven.