Taking time once again to sift through a collection of ‘unheard’ CDs that have accumulated over the last year or so, my eyes were drawn to “Good Company” by The Dead South. With their recently publicized (mis)adventures attempting to cross into the US for their current tour, and the incredibly long delays and issues, it was not difficult for my eyes to fixate on this particular album. And having never removed the disc from the digipak until now (at least I had not – L had listened to the album several times), I was completely unprepared for what I was about to experience musically upon the first listen.
Hailing from Regina, SK, the group photo found inside the album cover gave an impression of this four-piece band being some kind of retro, throwback ensemble. With their white shirts, black ties, suspenders, hats and beards, The Dead South struck me as a theatrical act paying homage to the Wild West. And with a fourteen track song list that contained titles such as “In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company,” I had set myself up for what should be some old time music fresh out of a spaghetti western. Oh, how wrong I could be.
Launching straight into the opening track “Long Gone,” some very impressive banjo picking blasted through the speakers offering a hint of Flatt & Scruggs inspired bluegrass. Cue the following vocals, and any reference to Flatt & Scruggs was quickly deleted from my train of thought. While this was indeed a fusion of folk bluegrass, the result was a much edgier side of the genre. We are quick to attach the term ‘alt’ to anything that lives on the outside of a mainstream sound, but even ‘alt’ is not a strong enough attachment here. Indeed, long before country musicians who were not conforming to ‘the Nashville Sound’ were labelled ‘alternative,’ the legends of yesteryear were considered by many as ‘outlaws.’ This is an appropriate tag for the music of The Dead South, whose take on the bluegrass genre, for me at least, is a straight up, in your face “pour me a whiskey or I’ll punch your lights out” experience.
Accompanying their outlaw persona are themes that remain constant throughout the album. Whiskey. Women. Tobacco. Actually, lots of references to drink, women, tobacco, and many other ‘old west’ references are found in “The Recap,” “Travellin’ Man,” and especially the need for liquor and dirty whores from “That Bastard Son.” These examples pale in comparison, however, to their ultimate ode of everything that is ‘manliness’; with fighting, caffeine, whiskey and tobacco being symbolic of their “Manly Way.”
It would be completely unfair to hint that these outlaws remain one-dimensional across this album. Indeed, this is not the case, as The Dead South demonstrate on several tracks that they can mix up their style and tempo at any given moment. The edginess of their bluegrass remains a constant, but go ahead and listen to the milder-mannered cuts such as “Achilles,” “Honey You,” and “Ballad For Janoski” – where the upright bass and banjo establish an early tone, before the gradual introduction of strings, horns, and simple hand-claps take this one to another level. If I were asked to pick just one track from the fourteen on offer, “Down That Road” definitely stands out for me. The opening vocals offer as close to ‘prayer’ as you’ll get from these outlaws, before the ‘congregation’ gradually increase their musical accompaniment and eventual all-out split harmonies.
The Dead South have proven a worthy recipient of our ‘Take A Chance On Me’ series. With their unique take on the bluegrass genre, they grab you by the shirt collar, tug on it long and hard until you gasp for air, and then loosen a little to ply you with more whiskey, women and song. These outlaws are not for the fainthearted, but if you think you are bad enough to cross the plains with this posse, then saddle up and enjoy the ride. Just be prepared to have to declare ALL of your guns, whiskey and smokes if you too try to cross the US border. 😉