How Country Music Got Spooky

By T.K. McNeil |

While they can be useful in matters of organization, genre classifications also have pitfalls.

Near the top of the list is the question of scope. No matter how broadly they might apply or how specific they might get, there is always something that lays outside recognized definition. One of the oldest genres of music, what is now called ‘Country,’ is also one of the least understood and most derided. This is largely due to genre confusion.

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Shania Twain

What most people now think of when they hear the term ‘Country’ is actually what is known as ‘New Country.’ Devised in the early-1990s and propagated by the likes of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, New Country is an unholy alliance of traditional Country and Rock & Roll; hence the pyrotechnics. While traditional Country, now called ‘Old Country’, has its own conventions that may or may not be enjoyed by all, there are many means of interpretation. There have even been cases of the form being applied to Metal as in the case of Hank Williams III and even Anarcho-Punk such as Blackbird Raum. Another counter-intuitive combination is the blending of Country with elements of the spooky. While there have been elements of the macabre going back to the beginning, it started to gain popularity in the 21st century. Starting slowly with songs such as the title track of Neko Case’s breakout 2000 album Furnace Room Lullaby, the style has gotten more popular as things have gotten worse.

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The Pierces are a Los Angeles-based band consisting of sisters Allison and Catherine Pierce.

One of the most famous acts to use the style in recent years is The Pierces. Comprised primarily of sisters Allison and Catherine Pierce, with help from a rotating roster of back-up musicians, the duo started performing in 2000. The sisters have had all manner of terms applied to their sound including Psychedelic Rock, Psychedelic Pop, Folk Rock and Indie Pop. While, to be fair, their has been a change in sound between their studio albums to date. Their third, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge, really only has one term that encompasses it. It is an old, evocative term once used to apply to art: American Gothic. While they vary, sometimes greatly, in terms of tempo and tone there is one factor that remains, which is the combination of Americana and the darker parts of American history and culture, particularly in the South. There is a reason that True Blood was set below the Mason-Dixon. While some might refer to the track ‘Secret’ the best example of this, there is a stronger case to be made for ‘Sticks & Stones.’ ‘Secret’ is creepy, to be sure, and has overtones of familial deceit and murder. There is good reason it was used as the theme song to Pretty Little Liars. ‘Sticks & Stones’ on the other hand, evokes a deeper, more visceral fear of a power greater than one’s self. The first whispers ‘betray me and I will kill you.’ The second shouts ‘There is nowhere to run!’ There is an overall sense of the otherworldly that permeates the entire album. Including, arguably, the gentlest track ‘Three Wishes’. Far more on the ‘love’ side of things, the track has dreamlike quality and a sense that everything will be okay.

While little known outside their native soil, the Canadian band Hank & Lily — the genre does have a tendency for duos — are one of the best and original acts going. Comprised of Hank Pine and Lily Fawn, the band take a D.I.Y. approach, releasing all their material themselves. They also tour extensively though rarely get past the Rockies. Despite their geographical specificity, they really do something special. In addition to music Pine and Fawn also appear in a comic book series, often sold as a package with their albums, which are written and illustrated by Pine himself.

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The Hank Pine and Lily Fawn Show is an ever changing, energetic and theatrical live show based upon the adventures of their comic book series.

The story is complex, sordid and funny, casting Fawn as a part human, part deer creature and Pine as a member of a cult known as the Acolytes of the Second Sun. Fawn first meets him while he is hitchhiking on the highway with the corpse of his beloved, whom he may or may not have killed, after evading the authorities following a massacre at the trailer park where he lived, which he may or may not have committed. It is unclear whether Pine and Fawn are supposed to be a band with a comic book tie-in or real-life versions of comic book characters who are in a band.

Their music carries on this sense of dark surrealism, adding elements such as cello, singing saw and even choirs to the standard guitar and drums. Particularly on their album North America. Song titles include ‘Alligator Boy’ and ‘Lucifer.’ Which might explain why they do not tend to play gigs in the Bible Belt.

 

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