Gainesville, FL cannot boast the hulking volume of musical acts and breadth of genres found in rival Athens, GA, but its quality of output is nothing to sneer at: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Hot Water Music, and most recently Against Me! trace their roots back to Gainesville's swamps, palms and wet, sticky heat. Indeed, these groups more or less plot out the thin arc of Gainesville's music scene, which has markedly shifted in the last ten years. This is the story of that shift.
Some listeners have described Against Me! as "folk punk," which offers us a good point of entry for a survey of Gainesville's bluegrass culture. After Hot Water Music's success—notably picked up for touring with Alkaline Trio—Gainesville's milieu donned a laser focus on power chords and growling vocals. Then Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gaebel) came along and pulled back from the post-punk noise and opted for a smaller sound, if just as fast-moving.
Against Me!, "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong"
With Against Me! as banner men, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw heavy saturation of the punk and hardcore genres in Petty's Dreamville. As a result, younger musicians decided to unplug. Fiddle, banjo, stand-up bass, and dobro—instruments previously consigned to meth-country front porches—gained new life in the hands of talented players. The Stanley brothers' percussive, low picking replaced the Replacements' drunken screech as artistic inspiration. Southern gothic novels were bought.
Bluegrass and rockabilly certainly can't claim the success they once enjoyed, and I won't argue here for their aesthetic merits, which I believe unassailable with every part of my soul. Musical taste resides in the ear of the listener, and at least one other contributor to this esteemed blog shares my choice of favorite genre. What I'd like to make known is that many who emulated Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden vel sim. twenty years ago are today reinventing the Foggy Mountain Boys with impressive results. (NB: This is not to say all punk, post-punk, hardcore, post-hardcore, sass-core, rock, acid rock, prog-rock, metal, and stoner metal composition has come to a halt in the city. To be sure, Holopaw—perhaps described as prog-rock—has been featured in Burke's super-slow motion series).
As the name implies, bluegrass was born in Kentucky nine months after a hot night in the Mississippi delta and proliferated around Dixie with rapacious celerity. Its roots are thus firmly planted in the slavery-era American South, and its development alongside the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and Vietnam documents the tumultuous, violent, and tragic events of those years. And yet, as Aristotle says, from horrendous tragedy sprouts profound art. A relevant anecdote concerns William Faulkner's troubled relationship with Oxford, MS: although he was vociferously critical of Southern racism and hate, and although his fictional Yoknapatawpha County bears a striking resemblance to Lafayette County, Oxford's whites left him well alone because he was a rabid Ole Miss football fan. He now rests in an antebellum graveyard behind Oxford's courthouse, surrounded by empty whisky and gin bottles. At least he went to church on Saturdays.
This ambivalence—Patterson Hood's "the duality of the Southern thing"—imbues every twangy fiber of American bluegrass, which comprises equal parts instrumentation and story-telling. Like bards and rhapsodes, early pickers composed around familiar narratives, with the Civil War soldier's return home among the more popular themes. Revenge sagas also feature heavily, wherein rival families continue cycles of violence with unknown origins and impossible resolutions. Booze and women are of course mainstays.
Justin Townes Earle, "Lone Pine Hill"
The violence of modern bluegrass reflects not a difference in quantity but quality. Film accounts for much of this shift, and modern horror gives this piece its raison d'etre. Following the Misfits' foray into—for lack of a better term—"horror punk," Greenland is Melting transmute the zombie saga into musical form. GIM's Shaun Pereira sums up his experiment with the genre thus:
Q: You strike a beautiful juxtaposition of form and content. On the one hand, traditional bluegrass instrumentation, and on the other death and despair. What led you to bring these seemingly incompatible poles into harmony?
A: This is not a concept that I came up with all on my own. In fact the origins of Folk and Bluegrass are rooted in very dark imagery. Death and despair being some of the oldest subjects ever to be written about. Albeit not many traditional songs deal with hordes of Zombies and other monsters, but the general tone is not uncommon. I drew heavily from these songs while writing my Zombie trilogy. Songs such as "O, Death" about a man pleading with Death not to take his soul just yet, while Death stands at his door taunting and threatening him. There are many songs lamenting dead loved ones, fearing what comes after this life, and struggling for survival. All of which are concepts entirely at home in a Zombie story … [With bluegrass] your ability to be straight forward and simple, yet at the same time poetic and vivid, is unique, and I feel that a concept like Zombies or Horror requires exactly that.
Greenland is Melting, "Always"
Greenland is Melting, "No Matter What You See"
Greenland is Melting, "The Dead Are Watching"
Where Were We, the group's second LP, succumbs to a zombie outbreak in the middle of the second track, which is signaled by a severe shift in tempo and tone. What begins as a slow, meandering reflection on numbing ennui devolves into Pereira screaming go go go! at song's end. To enhance urgency he audibly slaps the guitar body. "Always," "No Matter What You See," and "The Dead Are Watching" in this way form a triptych that follows the survival of a father and daughter amid North Florida's zombocalypse. Like Shakespeare and Euripides before them, GIM strike a balance of comedy and tragedy, most starkly when the father is bitten by one of the walking dead:
Now come to me, my love, I do not mean to cause alarm,
But it seems one of those bastards sunk their teeth into my arm.
Soon the fever will consume me, so it's time you hit the road,
Because I will turn and kill you long before you can reload.
Such sneering panache well describes Greenland's corpus writ large, which thrives on self-deprecatory humor. But Pereira does not limit himself to engaging with death and the afterlife through zombie-lore. "Hogtown Creek" (at top)—a rather mature effort for GIM—contemplates existentialism and our soon-to-be-forgotten place in an infinite universe. Where early bluegrass sang of God and the angels, GIM find a way to view mortality and finality through a lens of modern scientific thought.
We've turned from zombiegrass to science folktion, and here enters Adult Boys Thunderband, Gainesville's hardest working crew. In 2009 they played nearly 200 shows, wailing away in boozy dives among cacophony, drunks, and cigarette smoke. Devon Stuart and Michael Claytor form the group's core, but like many bluegrass groups, ABTB is amoebic with stand-up bass, dobro, fiddle, and other backing vocals. The music is fast and necessarily loud, given its normal venue of delivery. Braggadocio tinges the lyrics, and witty charm disarms any real threat. These guys have moxie.
Adult Boys Thunderband, 11/7/2011 at Atlantic Nightspot, Gainesville, FL
Unfortunately, ABTB haven't "made it" to the point of regional, let alone national, acclaim (and thus, no real YouTube-able A/V to speak of), but part of their charm rests in this non-recognition. In any case, whether you despise bluegrass, or are indifferent to it, the partial aim of this piece has been to make you second-guess that stance, and at least give this stuff a listen.