Appalachian Murder Ballads, And Beyond

Now there is nothing absolutely new about the embracing of darker themes in the medium of country, folk, or bluegrass music.  In fact all of those musical forms were forever stepped in the darkness of human existence.  The blues, of course, is a timeless American musical form that was almost entirely about expressing the less sunny side of life; but very often that other form of totally American music, bluegrass, was also something that forever seemed to be about a murder.

Appalachian murder ballads are a form of music all to themself.  There's even a Wikipedia page about it[1].  Generally, some deranged man kills a woman who's rejected him, and then he throws her body into the Ohio river.  That's just how that one tends to play out.

Very sad and dark songs resonate deep within us.  We need to be able to relate to someone who's done something awful, and generally when we're feeling particularly awful ourselves.  This provides us some twisted sort of comfort, because by and large, we've not thrown anyone's murdered body into the Ohio river.  That's how I hope things are.

Johnny Cash's Music Was Stepped in Dark Themes

Johnny Cash Embraced Darkness In Music

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was forever a master of capturing the darkness of the human existence, and putting it to song.  The late Mr. Cash probably personified more different murders and murderers in his music than any other popular artist ever did before him.  He also added a great deal to the whole genre of dark country.  Cash, of course, was forever performing inside prisons, and singing about prisons as he did so.  Folsom Prison Blues was a song that everyone knew, and remembers for it's guresome lyric concerning shooting a man just to watch him die, but the song Delia's Gone took the murder theme to extremes. Cocaine Blues was a real creation though, in that tune Cash has someone murdered before the first sentence is done.

Cocaine Blues wasn't written by Johnny Cash, Cash just made it famous.  In fact, the song itself isn't original, it is merely a reworking of an Appalachian murder ballad known as Little Saddie; but adding the theme of narcotics into the mix of dark country fit Cash perfectly; as he was a well known amphetamine addict, and later had issues with opiate pain killer pills. As the 1970's would march on, the band that had once been America's answer to The Beatles, The Bryds, would find themselves singing Take A Whiff On Me in an acoustic alternative country musical style; and this nod to Texas' Huddie Ledbetter helped cement recreational drug use gone bad as an American country musical theme.

Steve Earle

Steve Earl

Steve Earle

Steve Earle's rowdiest days were already done by the time he was singing about how Cocaine Can Not Kill My Pain; but watching his life and career over the years showed us all how being a friend and soul brother of the late Townes Van Zandt can make it seem as if singing and writing songs were something one just does while he's Waiting Around To Die.  When Steve was still a wild man, he was singing about moonshiners who'd did in some federal agents, and how their grandchildren had learned to use clandestine methods to create different illicit substances following the Vietnam war in songs like Copperhead Road.

Steve Earle started out as a bit of a star in the days after his Guitar Town album came out.  He was still a star when he'd toured the next big thing he did, Copperhead Road. Steve's problem was that he was a very dedicated substance abuser, he never in his life suffered from a lack of talent.  There are few other artists loosely associated with country music, folk music, or bluegrass music who've strived so often to combine the three, and expand what an artist in any specific genre could do.  Steve is also one of America's finest song writers, and a fine political activist who'll forever let everyone know exactly how he feels about this or that, and damn the torpedoes, and whatever else is aimed in his direction.

Hank Williams III

Hank Williams III

Hank Williams III

If ever there was a man with a better country music pedigree than Hank Williams the third, then I don't know who it could be. Country music is, of course, a wide open genre in regards to topics one could sing or write a song about; and loads of country music is done by some really gentlemanly sorts of guys.  The Williams three, however, are a bit more on the edge. Now Hank Williams, the grandfather, wasn't so much a rowdy man as he was a tragic gone too soon star, the prototype for an early burn out, the victim of substance abuse.  Granted, Hank the first had had some wounds he was surely in pain from at the time of his passing, but he was the role model still of drinking one's self to an early death, while at the same time writing profoundly poetic and catchy tunes.

Hank Williams Jr. also suffered, he suffered from his father's large shadow, and his father's tragic persona.  It's tough to want to live and be your own man, and also a man of music, when everyone expects poignant lyricism and tragedy from you.  In the end, Hank Williams Jr., who's end has not come, still figured out a way to become his own man, and to also capitalize on what he couldn't escape, and that was...who he was.

Hank Williams the 3rd seemed to have burst upon the scene out of nowhere.  While it really wasn't anything like doubtful that Hank Jr. had had children, I for one, simply had no idea this man, the 3rd, even existed until he was quickly becoming a star.  Well, he's sure a star now, and he couldn't possibly look much more like his grandfather.  He's also doing some exciting things with his music making life, he's combining the least likely elements into a new style of music...and I'm calling it, "punkgrass."

Facts of the matter for young Hank, are strange.  Hank is a memeber of more punk rock bands than he is of country, bluegrass, or anything remotely resembling folk bands.  He is absolutely perfect for fusing divergent forms of musical expression together in a totally Americana way, and that is what he is doing.  Oh he has loads of tattoos, and he's often seen wearing Glen Danzig era Misfits clothing; he's just a total thrasher sort of guy...but he's also a total Appalachian hillbilly sort of guy.  Let's just conclude it musta been those pills he took!  Lets give a listen to some of this new and exciting music that somehow against all odds fuses such divergent styles as punk, and bluegrass!

Hank Williams III "Smoke and Wine"

Jayke Orvis

In the video above Hank Williams the 3rd is playing a super fast rhythm guitar like a maniac, and the banjo player is a supremely talented beast of a musician.  It really doesn't get better than that.  That song is so modern, and the lyrics are something that could only really be accepted nowadays.  The musicianship is superb, and so what that means'll never ever, for so long as the program lasts, see it on some dregs from the bottom of the fifth circle of hell filth tv show like "American Idol."  That's real music, son!  I can hardly wait to hear more!

Another fine modern act is The Old Crow Medicine Show.  It seems the sad waste of the modern chemical induced amoral American society is a more popular version of their act, and who can't admit that seemingly everyone is on some sort of mind numbing escapism drug, be it something harmless yet illegal, or worse, something big pharmaceutical corporations make a profit off of?  This modern world has new problems, and requires new thinking to come up with real solutions.  In the meantime, it is the duty of the artist to express the pain, the sorrow, the joy, and the hope of it all in new artistic forms.

Dude, so who is Jayke Orvis?

Jayke Orvis?  The really cool mandolin player who writes such cool songs, plays mandolin so well, and has such cool cool videos?  Jayke was originally the mandolin player for a band of former punk rockers known as the .357 String Band.  Now, Jayke is his own fella, doing his own thing, and it is a very exciting thing.

So dude, how does punk rock and Bluegrass ...even go together at all?

It's not really a big switch.  The extremely faced paced tempos of punk rock music and Bluegrass music make the two musical forms attractive to some of the same sorts of listeners.  Bluegrass only tends to involve a lot more in the way of musicianship, and Jayke Orvis seems up to that task, for sure!

Thanks for reading.  Lets give this new music a listen!

Jayke Orvis Performs "Dreadful Sinner"