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Musings on country gothic

Hope this doesn't appear twice. Tried to post it through Deepest Sender but it didn't seem to go through.

Country Gothic
March 5, 2011

A brief disclaimer: this is not meant to be a comprehensive view of country gothic, but the works I have personal experience with. This article has some good information on the Denver country gothic scene: http://www.denverpost.com/entertainment/ci_4100041

Country music has always been intimately connected with pain and sadness – it’s an old cliché that every country song has do with either drinking, cheating, or dying. So it is not unthinkable that some artists would seek to take the sorrow that imbues country music with so much power to the next level. Instead of writing songs about the country staples: relationship problems or outlaw stories, some musicians wrote the kind of stories that would have impressed Anne Radcliffe: tales of macabre violence and deeply spooky encounters. The best example of classic country combining with the gothic is the Louvin Brothers, who recorded some of the most haunting music ever recorded.Their album Tragic Songs of Life features a good number of murder ballads, one of the most powerful being “Knoxville Girl.” A rendition of a traditional folk song, it tells the story of a man who kills a young woman and throws her body in a river, hoping it will be swept away. This song exemplifies many gothic characteristics: the intensely violent death, the sublime encounter with nature at the river, and the violent emotions the narrator experiences.


In the late 60s and early 70s, bands like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers started incorporating the twang of country into rock music, creating the enduring genre of country rock. Elements of the gothic soon emerged in this new music, combining the spooky lyrics of acts like the Louvin Brothers with the visceral attack of rock. It was this combination that would become the archetype of what would be termed gothic country in later years. An early example comes from The Violent Femmes, a band who had made a name for themselves playing songs brimming with angst and frustration. The Femmes took a different approach with their second album, Hallowed Ground, which many saw as lead singer Gordon Gano’s attempt to deal with his strict religious upbringing. Much like the originators of the gothic did centuries earlier, the Femmes combined traditional Catholic ideas with superstition to create a striking gothic story. The centerpiece of the album is “Country Death Song,” whose title blatantly states its intentions. The song tells the story of a farmer whose family is starving and resorts to pushing his youngest daughter down a well. The father’s guilt by the end of the song arouses the ideas of superstition that exemplify earlier gothic stories. The music itself is chaotic and dark, and Gano’s voice seems as tortured as the narrator.

The country gothic reached in apex in Denver, Colorado in the 1980s. It’s not clear why Denver was such a catalyst for this music, but there was a definite group of musicians who created most of the city’s gothic country for a number of years. The starting point for these musicians was the Denver Gentlemen, a group formed in 1988 by David Eugene Edwards and Jeffrey Paul-Norlander, Jen-Yves Tola, and Slim Cessna. Although the band’s recordings were never released until 2001, the groups members would go on to create the greatest examples of the country gothic, and they became so synonymous with the music that it became known as the Denver sound. David Eugene Edwards and Slim Cessna would be especially successful in their careers, forming the bands 16 Horsepower and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club respectively. 16 Horsepower would receive critical acclaim and significant popularity in Europe. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club continues making albums today, and maintains a presence in the indie rock community. Between these two bands, over a dozen musicians have emerged that perpetuate this haunting music. I’ll leave you with the man who was my introduction to music, Jay Munly. Also known as Munly Munly, he was a sporadic member of the Auto Club who released his first solo album in 1996. I saw him perform when I was around 11 years old, which needless to say was a harrowing experience. Munly has mastered the elements of the country gothic, and his music is filled with spooky string arrangements that make it sound like it emerges from the darkest spots of the Appalachians. Munly’s stories vary from tales of rural horror to bizarre medieval references to touching personal narratives. The song “Spill the Wine” is about a mysterious rider with a disfiguring birthmark who arrives in a town and endures all manner of trials and tribulations.

Posted by Ben Fuqua

Jordan Turner said:
March 12th, 2011 at 4:54 pm


I actually never really thought about this before but I definitely see what you are saying. This just makes me go back to the question ‘what makes something Gothic?’ Really, it seems to be different to everyone and that is what makes it what it is. Even its principles are different and there is no exact definition for it. It is as mysterious as many of its subjects are!!

Kelly Churchill said:
March 11th, 2011 at 10:56 am

Being a Colorado native, I found your post extremely interesting! I had no idea that Denver became a center for Country Gothic music – or even that the Country Gothic genre existed! I am a fan of some Violent Femmes music as well and it was fascinating to listen to some of their music knowing that they incorporated the Gothic into their lyrics and sound. What a great example of how the Gothic has evolved over time and permeated so many social venues. Thanks for the post!



Oscar Wilde
Rural Goth

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