James presents an introductory guide to one of his favourite areas of the music world, the realm of gothic/dark country, bluegrass and Americana. This is a world that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, despite the amazing amount of talent and originality to be found. For many of you who don’t like country, this style can serve as a way to bridge the gap between darker and heavier music and other styles of the genre, So dive on in and find out just what you’ve been missing out on.
Written by James Sweetlove
For those of you who don’t know and haven’t figured it out from the name, gothic country is a subgenre of alternative country music that blends traditional country music with dark, atmospheric, depressive elements of gothic rock, post-punk, and darkwave. The genre originated in the 1990s and gained popularity in the United States, particularly in the southwestern states.
Musically, gothic country tends to feature the use of acoustic instruments such as guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, as well as occasional electronic and industrial elements. The lyrics are can at times feature elements of dark tongue in cheek humour but for the most part deal with themes of death, loss, love, and the supernatural, and may incorporate elements of southern gothic literature and folklore.
Similarly gothic bluegrass is a subgenre of folk music that blends traditional bluegrass music with dark and atmospheric elements of gothic music. It’s a relatively new genre by comparison that emerged in the 2000s but has steadily grown in popularity, often finding areas of crossover with rockabilly and folk punk.
Given the breadth of these genres it may seem daunting to even know where to begin listening. Do not stress though as I have put together a listening list here of some of my favourite artists from both genres to get you started down a path that I’m sure you will not want to leave.
Amigo The Devil
Amigo the Devil is easily one of my favourite artists, not just in the genre of gothic country/folk but overall. His music draws me in for three primary reasons, his musical talent, his voice and his incredible lyricism. The man knows how to write music that simultaneously hits home emotionally and has you laughing. His songs are known for their general sense of cynicism, their violent lyrics and their disdain for religion and society as a whole.
While many will tell you that Volume 1 is his best album, I’m going to have to disagree and say that Born Against trumps it. Don’t get me wrong, both albums are amazing, but Born Against just hits me differently and has so many memorable tracks that will keep you coming back time and time again. I will admit that Volume 1’s Hell and You is one of his finest tracks though.
In my opinion though it can’t beat songs such as Drop for Every Hour or Different Anymore:
Possibly one of the better-known bands from the genre of gothic bluegrass/country 16 Horsepower exploded onto the scene in the 90s with two EPs and an album titled Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes that would go on to be regarded as legendary. The band are known for their impressive banjo and guitar work, dramatic and powerful vocals and masterful lyricism. Sadly, after four full-length albums the group called it quits but went on to form numerous other projects, some of which are covered in this article.
For those of our readers that are metal fans you’ll probably even recognise a song or two which have received a couple of metal covers. Some of you may even recognise their best-known song Black Soul Choir, a track that gets regular rotations for me and ranks in my top 100 songs of all time.
Sons of Perdition
Shifting to a more traditional take on country music Sons of Perdition give us a far more minimalistic, depressive style of gothic country. Their songs are slow and dirge-like and capable of sucking the light out of any room that they happen to be played in. This is not music to play at a social gathering unless maybe it’s a funeral. Their music is heavily influenced by themes of sin, faith, suicide, folklore. If you choose one album to listen to I highly suggest that it be The Kingdom Is On Fire, by far the band’s darkest and most captivating album.
Those Poor Bastards
Those Poor Bastards give us a more dramatic and over the top style of gothic country that is impossible not to have fun with. The duo makes music with a fantastic gothic atmosphere, a catchy beat and rhythm and creepy, menacing vocals. They often employ layered out of time vocals that give added effect to their music, often applying distortion effects that give their vocals an almost harsh punk vocal quality. Lyrically they discuss themes of evil, comedic blasphemy, sin, drug use, suicide and more. They mix elements of electric guitar, feedback and more to give the listener a wide-ranging listening experience with a lot to unpack. If you listen to on album from the band, please make it Satan is Watching.
The Builders and the Butchers
Now The Builders and the Butchers are responsible for one of my all time favourite albums, their self titled debut. Their music is a blend of folk rock, alt-country, folk punk, blues, americana and subtle gothic elements. Their sound is impressively full, which makes sense given that they are a full band with five members. What really makes the band so spectacular though is the frontman Willy Kunkle (one of my all time favourite vocalists), whose voice is so goddamn unique and grating that you’ll immediately either love it or hate it. They also display some of the best banjo and fiddle work I’ve ever heard. If you listen to one album from the band make it The Builders and the Butchers.. its an absolute masterpiece.
You’re probably wondering “if he loves them so much why are they so far down the list?” Fair question, but its because they aren’t as cut and dry gothic as the other acts so despite my love of their music they had to be down the list.
Fun little story here… I was finally lucky enough to catch them live for the first-time last month and the show was incredible despite the fact that the entire band apart from the frontman Willy Kunkle was stranded in Portland due to a snowstorm. Luckily, he knew a drummer in town so the two of them performed the entire set together with just an acoustic guitar, some pedals and a drum kit for the first time ever. The songs took on a whole new life and Willy’s charm, charisma and raw talent kept the show fresh and interesting.
Murder by Death
While not purely gothic country in sound, there are definite gothic influences in Murder by Death’s lyrics, energy and essence. Musically they band a blend country, americana folk and gothic undertones to create a depressive and yet somehow soothing and at times sexual energy. It’s almost as if Johhny Cash had listened to 80s gothic music and Danzig and then decided to retire from touring to play a depressive dive bar for the rest of his days. The band have a stripped back and minimalistic approach that gives every element of their songs that much more power and authority. If I could recommend two albums to listen to it would be their 2008 album Red of Tooth And Claw and their 2012 release Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon.
The band’s name says it all really, doesn’t it? O’Death, such an apt name for a band with such depressive lyrics and such moody yet stunning music. The New York band are led primarily by fiddle, banjo and vocal elements, which both have a haunting, emotional effect on the listener. Their sound incorporates elements of gothic country, folk, bluegrass, punk and americana. If you listen to one album from the band I recommend their final release Out of Hands We Go.
Lonesome Wyatt and the Holy Spooks
As the band’s name suggests they have a spooky, ethereal quality to their unique brand of gothic country/folk. Their music is generally on the slower to medium side with a heavy focus on atmosphere and layering. Their music features a wide range of various instruments including accordion, string elements, electronic elements and more. If you were to listen to one album by the band I would recommend their 2011 release Heartsick or their 2017 release Grim Weepers.
The Goddamn Gallows
Here’s another band that would rank higher on the list if they were more clearly definable as gothic, but rather they incorporate gothic elements into their unique blend of country, folk, bluegrass, punk and rockabilly. They have a harsher, biting edge to their music with gruff vocals, outright aggression, a blend of both electric and folk instruments and overt themes of evil, violence, sin and death. If you were to listen to one album from the band, I would highly recommend their 2011 release 7 Devils.
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
Denver’s Slim Cessna’s Auto Club describe their sound as gothabilly cowpunk and I would have to agree. Their mix of both high energy tracks and slow, haunting offerings mixed with lyrics about Satan and the apocalypse makes for a captivating listen. Their music has a tongue in cheek humour to it despite its heavy focus on the darker side of religion, this humor doesn’t make it any less powerful or moving though, if anything it enhances it. Members of the band went on to form numerous other projects including Denver Broncos UK. This is a band where it’s hard to recommend a specific album as each has its own charms and draws, however personal favourite is 2008s Cipher.
Jay Munly’s Various Projects
Jay Munly branched off from Slim Cessna’s Auto Club to form numerous projects of his own, with my personal favourite being Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots, whose self-titled album is a fantastic listen. You’ll also find Munly and the Lupercalians to be of a similar flavour but with some additional folk elements as opposed to the former’s more stripped back simplistic sound. Both acts feature depressive lyrics, moody instrumentals, great atmosphere, and excellent song writing.
Wovenhand began as a top-notch gothic country band and as such their earlier works are essential listening for the genre. Their music is moody, atmosphere focused and powerful despite its simplicity. For me the primary drawcard is David Eugene Edwards’ voice, which is truly captivating. The stripped back nature of the music also allows the fiddle and keyboard elements in the tracks to really pop when they feature. The only essential listening here are the 2002 album Woven Hand and the 2006 album Mosaic, then their sound changed.
The Handsome Family
The Handsome Family are one of the earliest examples of gothic country, having begun their career in 1993. The husband-and-wife duo make a far more traditional style of country with apparent gothic influences. Brett Sparks gives us Johnny Cash style vocals with a deeper tone and a more depressive undertone, while Rennie Sparks offers some contrast with her less frequently used female vocals. Essential listening for the band is their 1998 album Through the Trees and their 2003 album Singing Bones, which featured the song Far From Any Road, a song that many may recognize as the title track for True Detective.
Strawfoot is a six-piece alternative country/Gothic Americana band from St. Louis, Missouri. They have a very distinctive sound thanks to their fusion of gothic country, bluegrass, southern gospel and the blues, as well as Eastern European folk elements. They also stand out thanks to the captivating vocals of their front man Reverend Marcus (a distant relative of famous author Mark Twain). Their music discusses American folklore, outlaws’ salvation, the devil and more. They are known for their high-energy live shows which sometimes include burlesque dancers and a tongue-in-cheek absolution of the audience’s sins. The band only have two albums Chasing Locusts and How We Prospered, and both are essential listening.