by Justin Taylor
I wouldn't swear to this, but I'm pretty sure that my first introduction to The Pine Hill Haints was seeing them in concert, sometime in early 2002, in Gainesville, Florida, at the Ark Warehouse, a now-defunct music venue/punkhouse. I didn't know who they were, and had come to see a different band. (That band, I think, was now-international-superstars Against Me! who were at the time still a more or less local group—they'd launch their first national tour later that same year. Though, of course, no self-respecting punk show has ever featured a scant two-band lineup, so it couldn't have just been those two.) The Haints played a riotous set of country-punk (punk-country?) with bluegrass and rockabilly overtones. (The band describes their own sound as "Alabama ghost music," a description perhaps more vivid than precise, but in any case highly appropriate: a "haint" being semi-archaic Southern slang for "ghost," and the Pine Hill Cemetery being one of the band's early practice spots.) I remember not being able to tell whether the songs were traditionals or originals, but also thinking that it didn't matter because the music—abetted by much malt liquor and jumpy cockeyed dancing—was so powerfully fun. After the set I stumbled from the sweltering, smoke-choked venue into the still-cool spring night air, stunned and elated and very much in love.
The Haints had just one record for sale that night: a CD called THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE/THE COLD, COLD HAND. It came in a brown cardboard sleeve decorated with simple but elegant images seeming to hail from that vague wide borderland between fringe religion and the true occult. On further inspection, I discovered that the album was actually a split LP with a band called The Natchez Shakers. THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE ("snake handling music," the sleeve said) was the Shakers album, and THE COLD, COLD HAND was the Haints stuff. I was a little pissed, to be honest, to have paid full price for the record—maybe ten bucks—only to learn after the fact that my dose of Haints was half what I'd expected. (I should mention that the record sleeve itself was clearly marked, so the confusion was entirely my own own fault—well, mine or the malt liquor's.) Back home, I popped the record into my five-disc changer—remember those?—and gamely started from the beginning instead of skipping straight to the Haints.
My displeasure was quickly dispelled. For one thing, the Shakers stuff was just as good as the Haints stuff—raw yet layered, with accordion and banjo and musical saw and people wailing and an ace singer, who, I was starting to think, was the same guy I'd heard singing at the Haints show. After a few listens, I was nearly certain that the Shakers and the Haints were the same band, or anyway a different band comprised of all the same people, and began to regard the record as a singular work instead of as a split. Rightly or wrongly, I have thought of it this way ever since.
THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE/THE COLD, COLD HAND was released by Arkam Records in apparent collaboration with Black Owl Records, two labels which may or may not still exist. Actually, it's not clear to me that Black Owl Records ever existed in the first place. The web's got pretty much nothing about these guys, though there is a venue in North Florence, Alabama, called the Black Owl where the Haints have played. Arkam Records, for its part, is a micro-label owned and operated by Jamie Barrier, the lead singer of both the Haints and the Shakers. Arkam has put out work by a number of Barrier-related projects, including Quadrajets and The Wednesdays, two properly punk bands of which he is also a member. But it's not just a vanity label or an example of extreme DIY. Arkam has also put out records by The Can Kickers and This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, two of the best punk-influenced roots bands around. This Bike are regional kin—they hail from Pensacola, a Gulf town in the part of the Florida panhandle bordered by Alabama to both the north and the west. The same three hours it'd take to get from Pensacola to Tallahassee could put you in New Orleans—the surer bet by far. The Can Kickers, meanwhile, are from—of all damn places—New London, Connecticut, but I swear they'll go song for song with any Southern band playing the same repertoire, and outplay four of any five. What I'm saying is that they're the real deal, and if you don't believe me you can Google them and hear for yourself.
Arkam's MySpace page—seemingly their only official web presence—has been dormant for some time, but the label did put out at least two records last year: a Haints 7" called SPIDDER #14, and an eponymous debut by an old-timey trio called The Dirt Daubers, fronted by a guy named J.D. Wilkes, whose other band is the psychobilly half-joke Legendary Shack Shakers—but that, friends, is a story for another day.
Their new 7" notwithstanding, the Haints are now with K Records, the beloved indie label out of Olympia, Washington owned and operated by Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson. Johnson first worked with the Haints when he recorded their 2004 EP, BURY YOUR HATE IN A SHALLOW GRAVE, a collection of five gospel songs (including "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Where the Roses Never Fade") released on LELP Records (of Portland, Oregon). Johnson apparently liked the experience because he signed the Haints soon after. Both GHOST DANCE (2007) and TO WIN OR TO LOSE (2009) were released on K.
SHALLOW GRAVE is pretty much perfect. In a five-star review entitled "Holy Motheragod!" Amazon user Adrian Riskin puts it thusly: "Wailing saw carry me home to Jesus...this is really good creepy scary hard-core sweet country noir...if you walk those hills with a long black veil this is your soundtrack....get it now!" The only problem with SHALLOW GRAVE is that it's so damn short: just under thirteen minutes from start to end. I like to think of it in conjunction with THOSE WHO WANDER, the Arkam-issued full-length the Haints released the same year.
THOSE WHO WANDER is a raucous, ebullient record. From the first licks of the opener "You Will Never See Morning" on through to the smeary singalong cover of "Goodnight Irene" (which sounds like it might have been recorded live under a down blanket at the bottom of a well), THOSE WHO WANDER is an act of sustained jubilation. Barrier's voice is somehow rough and honeyed at once, and even when he's singing about hard times ("I'm living on a dollar a day / You think I'm kidding, but I'm for real / Yeah we're starving on the streets of Mobile"), he's obviously having a ball. The energetic pleasure is infectious; even the weepies ("If You Don't Keep Score You'll Never Lose") are uplifting, which is, of course, the hallmark of country done right. "Where the Soul of Man Never Dies" sounds in spirit and content like it could, maybe should, have been on the SHALLOW GRAVE EP. I almost always listen to the two releases back to back, the EP first. Together they run about forty-five minutes and leave me feeling like the guys at Pitchfork must have in 2008, when they knew they wanted to declare that the band Fleet Foxes had put out the best record of the year, but they couldn't decide whether that was their self-titled debut LP or the SUN GIANT EP. Their decision, elegant in its sheer cussedness, was to declare that the releases were spiritually unified, and gave the singular title to the LP+EP, as though the two were one. This is how I look at BURY YOUR HATE IN A SHALLOW GRAVE + THOSE WHO WANDER.
I feel a little bit guilty not exulting more over the new records. They're both very good albums—in fact, I've got TO WIN OR TO LOSE blasting on my stereo right now. They're just a little bit harder to get worked up over. The Haints have changed in a few key ways. For one thing, their lineup has stabilized, and their sound has gotten progressively...cleaner. This is doubtless an inevitable effect of increased production values, plus the enhanced focus that a modicum of stability affords, and it's probably a wise move overall—but that won't stop me from feeling a little glum about it. I miss the raucous, hectic mess. Also, Matt Bakula, washtub bassist and tenor banjoist, has taken on increased singing duties. Bakula's got a solid and utterly distinct voice; you'll never mistake him for Barrier. He's also got an interesting sensibility. His numbers are written and sung in a hammed-up style-skirting schtick—which owes something to the topical joke-songs popular in the early twentieth century, like "Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls?" and "My Name is Morgan (But It Ain't J.P.)"; his deportment seems to be that of a carnival pitchman who moonlights two towns over as revival preacher.
Because I associate the Haints sound so definitively with Barrier (who's a simply matchless singer), it's hard not to be jarred by the Bakula-fronted numbers, but I actually do like the songs as songs, and I'm getting used to—even enjoying—having him around. In any case, no true fan wants to see their beloved band encase itself in amber. The Haints are an evolving project, and seem lately to be thriving. I couldn't be happier for them. What's more, it occurs to me that the distinction I've drawn between the "old" and "new" style may exist mostly in my own head. I'm not sure that a newly minted Haints fan would view their back catalog as anything other than one great box of treasures. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the way I see it, too.
Listen to "My Bones Are Gonna Rise Again" by Pine Hill Haints in our Top 15 Contemporary Alabama Acts here.