April 16, 2014

The Southern Gothic Noir Soundtrack: a guest post by Eryk Pruitt, author of "Dirtbags"

Dark fiction splinters into many sub-genres, and those sub-genres continue to splinter. One of my favorites is Southern Gothic, which manages to bridge the gap between literary and horror. Furthermore, the crime fiction offshoot of noir can barely be contained with a single definition, and gets even blurrier as you move its traditional urban setting to locales more rural and desolate.

To combine elements of both is to create a dark genre all its own.

Imagine the tenets of Southern Gothic and its tendency to reflect on what makes the South odd and grotesque: race, religion, and an inner violence passed down through generations like an heirloom. A mystical realism that would make any sparkly vampire tuck tail and run. Add noirish ingredients – hard-boiled characters beyond redemption, femmes fatale, everybody with a crooked, transgressive angle and outlook. Employ the Southern love of storytelling and there you have it:

Southern Gothic Noir.

Literature has no shortage of material in the Southern Gothic Noir canon. I'd say Flannery O'Connor is the grandmother. Cormac McCarthy pops in and out. Daniel Woodrell is a master. There was never any question about what in what style I would write my novel DIRTBAGS.

Film has its say as well. One of the perfect recent examples is Beasts of the Southern Wild. More self-aware, but still beyond amazing is Mud, or even the hit HBO miniseries True Detective.

But how about music? If you were amped up and in a Southern Gothic Noir mood, but couldn't manage a television show or movie, what exactly would you pop into the CD player or play on the iTunes?

Allow me...


An entire Southern Gothic Noir playlist could revolve around the independent acts that make up the Americana supergroup Slim Cessna's Auto Club. From Slim's original band, The Blackstone Valley Sinners and their "Lethal Injection," to Jay Munly's "Shoot Her with the Good Hand Gun," (and more), their sound and lyrics are rich with dark, twisted nuance. However, there should be no mystery why this song should launch such a collection. All of the elements of traditional murder ballads are present: the cold-blooded and senseless murder of another, the aftermath, and the insight into the killer's icy mind. In the third act of the song, the killer eschews hope of redemption, choosing rather to "straighten out this town with might," altering their tools. It is as if Jim Thompson himself wrote the lyrics. Any exploration into small town murder could be prefaced with this song's harrowing refrain because this indeed is how we do things in the country.

The strength of Southern storytelling is on fine display with this tormented tale of a man who does what he has to do to provide for his family after "momma took sick." The haunting twang of the banjo and the weeping wail of the fiddle provide the perfect backdrop, but the true horror exists in the tale. This particular video is shot during Music City Roots, an amazing music program hosted by the Loveless Cafe in Nashville. Nothing in my mind is more Southern than the biscuits at the Loveless.

It could be argued that music wouldn't be the same today, had Jimmie Rodgers not shown up in Bristol without his backing band. Those sessions with Victor Talking Machine Company representative Ralph Peer are known as "The Big Bang of Country Music," and that day shepherded a new era of music that still influences us today. While Rodgers was influenced by many things (minstrel shows, railroad songs, etc.), nothing had a greater effect on him than his own mortality, thanks to tuberculosis. When Rodgers sings "I hate to see that evening sun go down/It makes me think I'm on my last go-round" and the resulting yodel, you feel the horror the man faced daily. That line has been repeated throughout the history of music, but Rodgers' is perhaps the most daunting. Famed Southern Gothic writer William Gay obviously agreed, as he titled both a short story and collection of stories after that line. (Later to be made into a beautiful film)

Speaking of William Gay, his greatest novel is Provinces of Night, which tells the tragic tale of the Bloodworth family. I honestly think this book puts him alongside McCarthy and O'Connor for greatest Southern Gothic storyteller of all time. There is no reason for anyone not to have read this book.
That being said, the tone, characters, and feel of the book are strongly influenced by the chilling banjo strains of Dock Boggs. Just as Jimmie Rodgers rocked Gay's soul in the aforementioned short story, Boggs' fingerprints are all over these pages. Later, a film was adapted, but by removing the banjo and inserting Kris Kristofferson, they effectively knocked the William Gay right out of the material and ruined the film. Don't watch it unless you have first read the book.

The devil runs amok in Southern culture these days, but such was not always the case. White churches never discussed Satan in the South, as they considered that a northern concern. But stories imported from Africa or the Caribbean delivered him, and the evangelical movement of the late twentieth century (as well as Charlie Daniels) really gave him a platform. But previous to that, pockets of Southern culture have interesting devil stories. One of my favorites is the tale of Robert Johnson who legendarily was a shitty guitarist until he sold his soul at the crossroads. Suddenly, he could play like the dickens. His light shone bright and fast, as only twenty-seven of his songs were ever recorded. But that brief career inspired many, from Howlin' Wolf to Son House to the Rolling Stones. Johnson sang about things folks didn't talk about, and his songs "Hellhound on my Trail" and "Cross Road Blues" tell the stories of his jaunt to the other side. Even his death achieved mythological status, as many men have later sang about being slipped poison into their moonshine.

Consider Shack Shakers front man Col. J.D. Wilkes the ambassador to Southern Gothic music. His sometimes swampy, sometimes carnival, sometimes juke joint sound is many things, but one thing for sure you could call it is Southern through and through. He's got murder ballads, like Kentucky's "Blood on the Bluegrass" and he's got updates to classics, like "Sugar Baby." But "Nightride" from their album Agridustrial pays homage to one of the greats in the Southern pantheon. Robert Penn Warren's first novel told the horrific, noirish story of the Night Riders, a band of hooded outlaws who took up arms against the Duke tobacco interests in the early Nineteenth century. This nugget of history may have fallen forgotten to the rest of the country, but in Western Kentucky it is a badge of pride, proof that Southerners could and would band together to fight a cause without regard to it being "lost" or not.

The tenet of mystical realism in Southern Gothic is one that won't go away. Be it inside Gay's Provinces of Night, where we wonder if Brady Bloodworth truly has the power to curse a man, or in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, where we are not sure if the child can speak with monsters from another world, or has she inherited her father's insanity. No, cultures from the South care not for sparkly vampires or staggering zombies... they have their own horrors. And just as they have their own brand of fear, they also have their own cures. Why call up a doctor for a boner pill when you can go to Louisiana for a "mojo hand?"

Obamacare don't cover no trip to Marie LaVeau, child. (FYI: This man is my favorite musician of all time.)

Let's face it: thanks to Kurt Cobain, we will never hear this song the same way ever again. Lead Belly is perhaps one of the most influential musicians to come out of the South, but one night on MTV Unplugged changed our perception of him forever. But his canon is straight-out Southern and creepy. These dark tales of murder, deceit and treachery are commonplace in Lead Belly's universe of cotton fields, jook joints, and prison. His chilling song "Take This Hammer" belongs in a horror movie. Even the man's life is straight noir. A cotton picker who got mixed up in the wrong place, wrong time, landed in prison, then was pardoned for singing a song to the governor. He rolled with greats like Blind Lemon Jefferson, who gave us songs about what Southerner's truly fear when the lights go out, like "Black Snake Moan." He killed a man. Maybe more. 
Lead Belly is the stuff of Southern noir legend and he left us leagues of music for us to celebrate him.

The Pine Hill Haints are an Auburn, Alabama band who got their name from the cemetery where they used to practice. Pick any song of theirs and you will have a spooky Southern experience filled with dead instruments, such as the saw, washtub bass, or banjo. Their albums Ghost Dance and Welcome to the Midnight Opry are the perfect soundtrack to any Southern Gothic Noir. They sing of ghosts at the pet cemetery, eerie trains, and the clock striking twelve... thirteen times. This particular song is a standard covered by many Southern Gothic acts, but perfectly demonstrates the skills of one of the greatest bands no one has ever heard of.

And you have to catch them live.

Let's face it: The South is a scary place. It always has been. When Colonial America fought for independence, these guys were a haven for the enemy. In antebellum days, what is a more frightening practice than the "peculiar institution" of slavery? Horrors never before seen occurred on this soil during the war, and after the war this region was occupied territory. Most people traveling through the South during the first half of the twentieth century rode in fear. And today is no better. Between the heat, the mosquitoes, the snakes, gators, and worst of all, some of the angriest and violent people mankind may ever know, there is plenty to fear. It takes a strong sort to make it through. It ain't for everybody. Darkness lurks around every corner, danger hangs in the air like Spanish moss. There is no place in America more dangerous. No place more Gothic. No place more noir.

No place more beautiful.

Eryk Pruitt is a screenwriter, author, and filmmaker living in Durham, NC with his wife Lana and his cat Busey. His fiction has appeared in Thuglit, The Avalon Literary Review, and Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South, as well as many others. He is the author of DIRTBAGS, the Southern Gothic Noir released by Immortal Ink Publishing, LLC. DIRTBAGS is available in print and e-formats at Amazon, Nook, and iTunes. A full list of his credits can be found at www.erykpruitt.com.

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