Note: This is an extended version of an article that ran in the 1.28.09 edition of Free Times (Columbia S.C.), which can be found HERE.
In the past few years, a major shakeup has reverberated through bluegrass circles. Starting with Steve Earle famously running his mouth at MerleFest and continuing with artists such as Chris Thile melding indie methodology with the clawhammer canon, there exists an uneasy tension within the proud tradition.
As the genre’s progenitors begin to dwindle, the questions linger - Will the sanctity of the profession persist? Are the kids alright to do it? And will the circle still be unbroken with all these youngsters thrashing about on stage?
While many ‘insurgent’ country and other Americana-inspired hybrid acts can hardly be considered groundbreaking nearly 20 years into the No Depression era, some of the more divergent offshoots have garnered attention for their inventiveness. And recently, some of the neo-traditionalists have gained traction nationally, some just as much for their theatrical flair as their songwriting.
Affiliated with the Crackerfarm collective that associates burgeoning acts The Avett Brothers and Langhorne Slim, New York City quintet O’Death might seem poised to ride this sudden groundswell to stardom.
Their name borrowed from the Appalachian folk standard “Oh Death,” notably featured in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and popularized by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, the band builds upon that anachronistic instrumentation model and fleshes out a distinctive, brooding mélange of morose, gypsy-inflected folk.
But on their third LP, Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin, released on Kemado Records, the death waltzes and drunken sailor’s dirges factor larger than any high and lonesome meanderings, showcasing a band hitting a creative stride that reflects their raucous live show.
True to their namesake, O’Death’s lyrical inspiration is hardly Bowdlerized. Much as traditional standards employed grotesque imagery, Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin retains this theme through murderous and mythical allusions. While not necessarily fit for a Carolina hoedown, the folk roots remain in a somewhat Southern Gothic manner, albeit more Harmony Korine than Flannery O’Connor.
But, if anything, David Rogers-Berry, the band’s drummer, is quick to point out the differences between O’Death and the current crop of new-grass and jug band schtick revivalists.
“We have, to a certain degree, been lumped in with the Avetts and other acts, which is sometimes great and sometimes not. What we do is different, much more progressive and dark… We don’t play bluegrass. We don’t deal much with standard music in that way.”
Indeed it shows, as he lists the band’s common influences ranging from The Pixies and Misfits to Neil Young and Nick Cave.
“The few covers we’ve done have been of punk bands,” he explains as the tangential thread between O’Death and their brethren.
“There is a theme bubbling. It feels like the new punk rock, but it doesn’t have the same trappings. Approaching folk and roots music, we’re pulling from a deep bag in terms of musical history.”
So how does the rural imagery factor so large with a Brooklyn-based band?
“Our lyrics actually reflect a lot of urban anxiety and the struggle in New York. And our desire to get away, which we do when we go on tour.”
Which is often for the hard-working band. Their current tour finds O’Death completing their massive 2008 undertaking, traversing across the South before jumping the pond for a month’s worth of European dates.
For Rogers-Berry, a Lake City native, returning to New Brookland Tavern is a homecoming of sorts. Having supported Murder By Death on their last visit, he hopes to see a few more unfamiliar faces in the crowd.
“It’s good to build an audience in your hometown, not just your buddies.”
And perhaps, ironically, that’s what will save Americana in the end – a few less purists, a few more fresh faces.