Johnny Cash is one of those people who, even when you’re a pissant angsty teenager in the early 2000s who doesn’t really know shit about shit musically speaking, you’ve probably heard of. Just by itself, the line “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” has attained a level of cultural permeation for which an appropriately identifying word does not exist. (If it does now, it didn’t exist then.) As for Cash himself, “icon” also seems insufficient, but it’s also the closest thing we can find that works.
Being, as stated, a pissant angsty teenager in the early 2000s, the first time I really heard Cash and managed, even in all my foolishness and limited ability to perceive artistic nuance, to get it was the “Hurt” cover. Yeah … I know, I know. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Nine Inch Nails is the lens through which I view, well, almost everything, and that was as true in 2002 as it is now. The song “Hurt” had been A Big Fucking Deal for me for quite some time already, at that time. Hiding in the boiler room of your childhood home while listening to it and crying will do that for you. Hearing it “legitimized” by Someone My Parents Liked And Respected was a whole other ballgame for me at that time. It hinged on the realization that my experiences were not unique (which is a good thing, considering how easy it is to get your head stuck up your ass out of accidental solipsism when you’re stuck in teen-angst benders) and that the best music will always resonate across generations. It redefined my listening life in many ways. I have no choice but to be grateful for that now.
With time, however, you begin to realize the shallowness of your own perception. (I don’t mean this as a slight to Cash; I’m taking the piss out of my own youthful lack of exposure.) Once you start looking even a little bit closely, you soon realize that the deep, almost cavernous darkness of country music doesn’t begin with Johnny Cash. Country’s frightening overtones were baked into its beginnings. As such, modern corners of the genre where its darkest underpinnings are more overt, such as the Denver Sound bands and Neko Case’s many blood-soaked tunes, are not that far removed from the origins.
Among the foundational genres of popular American music, blues is, in the popular consciousness, the one most associated with supernatural omens and/or deals with the devil. The origins of this association lie in large part with the story of blues legend Robert Johnson and the mythical bargain struck to grant him his preternatural gifts. The mortal terror that fills Johnson tunes like “Hell Hound On My Trail” and “Me and the Devil Blues” grants a mysterious possibility of legitimacy to it all, as does the dearth of definitive knowledge regarding his actual life. Blues artists contemporaneous to Johnson, the man himself and the players who came in his wake recorded countless songs about murder, and that only deepens our collective view of blues as a haunted art form.
Blues and country, particularly in their earliest forms, are joined at the hip, and the latter’s beginnings are no less filled with darkness. “In the Pines,” which dates back to the late 19th century and in most versions centers around, among other things, a decapitation, is as foundational to country music as the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues).” Both Rodgers and The Carter Family (who first recorded the best-known version of “Circle,” which as they did it was “Can” instead of “Will”) have more than a few violent murder ballads in their repertoire: “Frankie and Johnny” and “Gambling Bar Room Blues” come to mind. Many country standards recorded by them and others, like “The Prisoner’s Dream” and “In the Jailhouse Now,” are only slightly less dark, though sometimes, as with the latter tune, they can be played for laughs. This paragraph only scratches the surface of the surface, of course: If you dig long enough you’ll find plenty of other early country songs running the gamut of murder, betrayal, violence and vice. (And that doesn’t even take into account the songs and performers that time has surely forgotten.) Even a song with relatively moralistic and didactic intent like the Roy Acuff version of “Wreck on the Highway” is, in execution, more a nightmare than a lesson. Death hangs on the notes.
Cash saw the darkness with great clarity, as would be true of anyone who carried the trauma of a brother’s early death as well as the weight of overwhelming emotional abuse from an alcoholic father. But to view it as the defining feature of his music, or his life—as people who view Johnny Cash more as a rockstar who sometimes played country than anything else may—is a mistake. Then again, if Cash hadn’t made those incursions into murderous subject matter, it’s possible we never would’ve heard the sounds that exist in the darkest corner of the modern country universe. They clearly bear his influence.
The aforementioned “In the Pines,” also known as “Black Girl,” “My Girl” or “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” depending on who’s playing it, is the clear progenitor of anything you might call “dark country” or “gothic country.” “The Long Black Veil,” co-written and first recorded by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, is another.
You can view them as cousins, given the similarities of the narratives: “Pines,” in the versions we know best, appears to question a woman whose husband was decapitated by a train’s driving wheel about what she’s doing out “where the sun don’t ever shine”—i.e., “who’re you fucking?”—whereas the lover in “Long Black Veil” visits her dead partner’s grave regularly after his execution for a crime he didn’t commit. Both have been covered by artists across the genre spectrum: Most reading this likely heard Nirvana do “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” before any other version, just as I did. As for “Veil,” everyone from Sammi Smith and Lee Ann Womack to Nick Cave and the fucking Dave Matthews Band have cut it. For that tune, I’m especially partial to Womack’s version from The Lonely, the Lonesome and the Gone (a masterpiece album), but it’s honestly a hard song to fuck up; only the DMB version seems, unsurprisingly, to reeeaaaalllllyyyy not understand the assignment. “Pines”/”Where Did You Sleep” is a bit different because of its multiple iterations. For sheer mortal terror, it’s hard to beat Nirvana’s rendition, but not all versions of the song are purely tormented. Lead Belly’s rendition, which inspired Nirvana’s, has a tone of wry humor that Cobain’s lacks, whereas a tribute-album cover of it by Brad Paisley and Carl Jackson is a lament but not a horrified one. (CW for country-purist heresy: I think Bill Monroe’s version is incredibly trite and only interests me for its peerless instrumentation.)
Between those two songs, “Knoxville Girl,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below),” Marty Robbins’ entire fucking Gunfighter Ballads record and God knows how many other examples, the 1950s alone are absolutely lousy with tales of murder and woe. In the ’70s, songs like “The Night That the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and albums like Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger are seeing mainstream success while being far bleaker than anything described thus far (except maybe “Knoxville Girl,” which is the country equivalent of staring directly into Jeffrey Dahmer’s eyes). In the 1990s, you have the righteous murder of The Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and (the full version of) Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls.” Sometimes, even songs that aren’t actually violent are mistaken for murder ballads, like Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Even that song is, in it way, part of this musical hierarchy: It’s not about murder, but rather self-destruction, and is no less tragic for not involving the transgression of one human slaying another. Songs that reflect the futility of decent people to oppose darkness, like Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” are just as important. Honestly, for me—at the risk of stretching an already questionable half-thesis to its breaking point — certain Patsy Cline songs are effectively goth, in the same way that This Mortal Coil and “Song to the Siren” are goth. (Don’t front as if “Crazy” isn’t as gutting as “Pictures of You” or “Hurt” or any other all-dressed-in-black tearjerker you might name, if not more so.)
I must admit that until just before I started working on this installment of the column/miniseries/whatever the hell it is, I hadn’t heard of anything called “gothic country.” Country was (and is) simply a genre I always believed to carry great darkness in it, and it only took relatively cursory research into some of its earlier chapters to reinforce that opinion. But in this era of everything being so widely spread out and codified and demarcated, I suppose it’s not surprising that a subgenre bearing the name “gothic country” seems to exist.
The conventional definition of this strain of music, which a handful of music writers decided to call the “Denver Sound,” encompasses fewer than a half-dozen bands. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is the only one still active (as far as I can tell), and they are easily the least interesting of these bands. (The record label that was home to many of them, Alternative Tentacles, is run by Dead Kennedys founding frontman Jello Biafra, which I bring up because Slim Cessna sounds like Biafra doing a perverse parody of someone’s copy of a copy of a copy of country music.) Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots are kinda fun, but also lay the theatricality on so thick at times it can sound like joke-rock.
Tarantella is perhaps the most interesting of these bands, and also the most mysterious; they recorded but one album, Esqueletos. Frontwoman Kal Cahoone, who hails from Argentina, uses the accordion to bring an alarming yet jaunty sound to the Tennessee Three/rockabilly-indebted backing band. This results in what seems much like a perversely gleeful take on the norteño sound of Mexico’s border states but is likely at least in part to be indebted to the chamame sound endemic to Argentina. Cahoone is still making music, most recently as part of the duo Kal and Elin (The Things of This World, 2020; a funky and morose little EP). Anyone looking for a take on country that’s a lot less, uh, well, white would certainly benefit from listening to Tarantella or Cahoone’s other musical endeavors. (Though, as we’ll see later in this series, “non-white” country is less rare than some people think it is, and I don’t just mean Charley Pride, Darius Rucker and DeFord Bailey when I say that.)
16 Horsepower is easily the best-known of these groups (a relative term, to be sure), the one that has had the most staying power. Inasmuch as they’re listened to at all in the 2020s, they fall under that sizable umbrella of bands that people who “don’t listen to country” will take a chance on. The appeal isnt hard to understand, as it’s contingent as much on feelings like “Wow, this fucking rocks, huh” when you hear it as it is on “Oh, this is what REAL country SHOULD be.” (If you don’t know why the latter is a….questionable thing to think, I doubt I’ll be able to explain it to you.) But, setting all that bullshit aside, 16 Horsepower just goes ripshit riot in such a captivating fashion. The best-known tunes are on their early albums, like “Black Soul Choir” on Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes, when they were best described as a rock band that sometimes threw banjo and mandolin into the mix. But you’ll find their most elemental, haunting work on Secret South and the absent-from-streaming-services Folklore: As the conventions of rock ‘n’ roll start to recede from 16 Horsepower’s instrumentation, David Edwards’ lyrics become increasingly mystic and Bible-influenced (perhaps Gnostic, if you’re so inclined?), to the point where a tune like “Cinder Alley” on Secret South and the archaic explorations of Folklore resemble nothing short of a full-on dance with the devil. You will, if you surrender any exoskeletons of modern irony you may carry to this music, feel true horror in your bones as you listen. You will feel terror for the fate of your immortal soul. Lest you be wondering, this music is “Christian” to some extent, but…more in the way that Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian is Christian than, say, Hillsong. Make of that what you will.
16 Horsepower broke up in 2005, allegedly because of conflicting “political, spiritual and religious” beliefs. Whatever that means. You can still hear Edwards’ high lonesome moan in the more rock-driven recordings of his second band Wovenhand (which are definitely worth checking out), and the work of other Horsepower vets in Lilium (which isn’t bad, but mostly vocal-free; recommended if you have a particular hankering for instrumental rockabilly). Some groups have attempted to conjure vibes quite similar to Horsepower’s including Murder by Death, O’Death and Amigo the Devil. Others took cues from Edwards’ old band and other dark corners of country but put sui generis spins on their interpretations of the form: Lucero frontman Ben Nichols’ superlative, all-too-short The Last Pale Light in the West (a project inspired by Blood Meridian), Marty Stuart’s Southern Gothic concept album The Pilgrim, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See a Darkness and Adam Arcuragi’s unique “death gospel” all come to mind. But it behooves me to remind you that these particular explorations of the evil that humans do in country music are notable for their sonic and thematic approach to the expression of darkness, rather than for marinating in bleakness or horror as a sole purpose. There’s no corner of the genre that has songs that go as far as “Fucked By a Knife”; if that’s a thing that you actually want, you probably should be asking a few hard questions of yourself.
In the first chapter of this column, I said that my identification of Neko Case as a country artist was “not up for discussion.” That might’ve been a little rigid, though in fairness to me, she’s gone on record saying “country noir” is a fine identifier and “alt-country” is the term she hates. (It’s also a term I’m not a huge fan of, so the next chapter of Will the Circle is going to be Fun City.)
When I stumbled upon her music in the depressive and lonely summer of 2006, the “noir” part was the operative word for me. The noir aesthetic, in all permutations, is catnip for me, and hearing it so cleverly subsumed into a country-esque framework on Case albums like Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and Blacklisted was riveting. Her menace-drenched rendition of “Runnin’ Out of Fools” is the only thing you truly need to hear to understand how bowled over I was. I think she was probably the first woman in music I’d ever unreservedly dug, aside from maybe Lauryn Hill and…Patsy Cline, who I’d heard of because “Backy in Baby’s Arms” was on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack that Trent Reznor produced. (Imagine yours truly at 15 with haphazard hornlike glue-spiked hair and those weird mall-goth parachute-ass pants, hoping nobody hears the unabashed Nashville-sound joy of that Cline tune on my headphones as I walk from class to class.)
Patsy’s voice is, of course, a spiritual antecedent to Neko Case’s. Both are instruments of startling power relatively in the alto range; both capable of bursting out of an arrangement like a siren of the most dire warning. Cline didn’t write her own material, but she chose it from the Music Row machine with great care because she knew goddamn well what she wanted to sing — sad songs. Ones that reflected her chaotic romantic life. Songs that, through the immensity of pain they conveyed, may have been the only cathartic outlet she had for the trauma of childhood sexual abuse she suffered at her father’s hands.
Case, to the best of my knowledge, experienced no such horrors, but often depicts things just as hideous. The narrators of her stories are sometimes the tough heroes, shouting “My mood to burn bridges, is not unlike my mood to dig ditches/Don’t cross me either a day.” Other times they are the brutish perpetrators, like the serial killer in “Star Witness”: “Go on, go on and scream and cry/You’re miles from where anyone will find you/This is nothing new, no television crews/They don’t even put on the siren.” (Obligatory caveat that Case is known to write lyrics to be deliberately vague; some might say “Star Witness” is just about a gory car wreck.)
But why Neko Case’s music has such staying power isn’t just her singular voice, or the timeless Southwestern/Bakersfield sound/dark rockabilly stew that forms much of her musical backing, or the multiplicity of interpretations you can conjure based on some of her more oblique lyrics. Think of the cruelly banal moment she depicts on the a capella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”: An unfit mother screams “Get the fuck away from me!/Why don’t you ever shut up?/Get the fuck away from me!” at a small child. Case’s narrator offers encouragement, telling the kid she loves her (“Don’t you ever shut up/Please, kid, have your say”) but it’s impossible to know if it had any effect.
Here we come full circle, as present-day me types this column’s final sentences through tears inspired by Neko Case the way teenage idiot me bawled to Trent Reznor’s version of “Hurt” and later to Johnny Cash’s rendition. Examining the darkness of country music really leads you to the understanding that no other genre can so heartbreakingly depict the accretion of mundane defeat that fills up so many American lives (and, all too often, overwhelms them). That is far, far scarier than the bloody details of the most drawn-out and graphic murder ballad.
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