Arthur Hatton is a connoisseur of music and the founder of Linescratchers, a site that highlights LDS musicians who play music other than LDS-themed music. We’re pleased to have him as our guest for a special series of posts.
Last time I told you all about the kicking classical composer Jennifer Thomas, who both plays and teaches violin and piano but also composes music for short films, television, and lullabies. This time, I’m moving you to the South that I love, where this next artist, to me, represents the best of the chilling and spiritual tradition of Southern Gothic music.
The American South is a beautiful and mystical place that is near to my heart. Readers who are familiar with the beginnings of the LDS Church might notice a strain of folk mysticism that Joseph Smith grew up with, and I believe that in many ways those traditions were carried over in the American South. It gives the whole South a spiritual feeling that can only be experienced here. Some of you might listen to the more “traditional” LDS musician Michael R. Hicks, who writes lots of faith-based music, but fewer of you might be aware of his brother-in-law, Jeff Zentner, who, after a time in Nashville playing with Creech Holler, has been living and writing music near the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina.
Jeff Zentner is a Southern Gothic musician whom I interviewed last October. I’m very glad that he got in touch with me because he’s really the only Latter-day Saint that I know of that really represents that Americana tradition that is so popular south of Kentucky. He played, wrote, and sang in an Americana band in Nashville called Creech Holler, and released two albums with them, “With Signs Following” and “The Shovel and the Gun”, building up a small but viciously loyal fan base. For those of you familiar with the music he draws inspiration from, you might find that Jeff pays great homage to the blues and roots musicians that have gone before. For those of you not familiar with it, well, admittedly it might give you the creeps. Which means it’s working. His music itself is quite timeless.
“My main musical influences are the old blues guys like John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Son House and the old-timey Appalachian musicians like Dock Boggs, Hobart Smith, Roscoe Holcombe, etc. When I started writing songs, though, they came out a lot more in the direction of my main songwriting influences: Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen. But I have incredibly diverse musical tastes. On any given day, I’ll listen to Whiskeytown and Jeff Buckley, then some medieval Spanish music, then some African music, then some Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. All of it influences me. But I’d say my biggest influences lately are writers. Cormac McCarthy, Joe Bolton (a Kentuckian like yourself), Jim Harrison, Russell Banks, Chris Offut, Larry Brown, a bunch of other Southern writers like Harry Crews and Flannery O’ Connor.” – Jeff Zentner, interview with Linescratchers
The music of Jeff Zentner really must be experienced rather than described, but I’ll give it a shot: it is slow, acoustic, melancholy, yearning, melodic, and haunting. He uses acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, and lush harmonies to produce sonic landscapes that you can feel echoing through the mountains. Jeff is a prime example of what Southern Gothic is capable of, and I guess I can’t hide the fact that I just simply love it. myself. But what is Southern Gothic anyway? Well, it’s a tricky term which might be more familiar to readers of literature, and Jeff admits he wouldn’t have chosen it at first:
“I use the phrase a bit differently than it’s used in reference to literature. I make Southern music. I play the slide guitar, I play the banjo, I play the mandolin and pedal steel. All of this instrumentation is interwoven into the music of the American South. There’s the Southern part. The Gothic part comes as a sort of shorthand to express the idea that I like to write songs that tend toward the melancholy and explore themes such as love, loss, and death. I actually wouldn’t have come up with the phrase to describe my music. It’s sort of been pushed on me by listeners, and I don’t object in the slightest.” – Jeff Zentner, interview with Linescratchers
Jeff’s lyrics can be just as powerful as his music. In fact, some reviewers have noticed that they could probably stand alone as poetry in their own right. Jeff is especially good at imagery and symbolism, two very important components of good lyrics in my humble opinion, and the symbolism is just as likely to be taken from folk tales as it is from the Bible. When I asked Jeff about whether the folk spirituality of the South has influenced his music, he answered in the affirmative.
“Absolutely. Creech Holler’s first album is called ‘With Signs Following,’ which makes reference to the Bible passage cited by snakehandler religions in the South, that says that one of the signs that will follow the true believers is that they’ll be able to take up serpents and not be harmed. On the cover of that album is a ghost tree. In the South, people hang bottles on trees to catch evil spirits before they can get to your house. It’s an old folk superstition.” – Jeff Zentner, interview with Linescratchers
Yikes! Ghost bottles! Snake handlers! Zoinks, Scoobs, let’s get out of here! As I said before, many Latter-day Saints might find Jeff’s exploration of the dark recesses of the hollers of the South to be somewhat unfamiliar and jarring. Jeff’s music is indeed melancholy at times, but can also be very soothing and peaceful. Much music that is labeled “LDS music” is very happy and uplifting, and Jeff’s music isn’t necessarily that. However, he tells me that this is a result of a musical tension that explores both sides of life from a foundation of his faith in Jesus Christ. Since leaving Nashville and Creech Holler, Jeff has moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and has begun releasing solo music mostly online. So far he has released two albums, “Hymns to the Darkness”, released in 2006, and “The Dying Days of Summer,” released in 2009. Both are stark and beautiful tributes to the American South, and Jeff Zentner continues to write at home. However, he doesn’t expect fame from writing music. When I asked him if music is going to be his career, he gave me a humbling answer.
“I love my wife, my son, my front porch, my Blue Ridge Mountains, and having a roof over my head too much to spend much time on the road, which is really the only way to make even a subsistence living as a musician. I always want to have the freedom to make unpopular and obscure music without resenting the fact that it doesn’t pay the rent. I think a lot of people don’t realize how big a musician has to be before they make enough money to even quit the day job. I used to run into Gillian Welch at the grocery store in Nashville. She buys the generic paper towels.” – Jeff Zentner, interview with Linescratchers
However, he was involved in a very special project last year that got him more than a little attention in the underground music world. He explained:
“I am part of an interesting project. I was approached some time ago by a British blues musician named Cypress Grove who had worked with Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the LA punk-blues band The Gun Club before Jeffrey died. He wanted me to play on some songs that he and Jeffrey had written before Jeffrey’s death. He got together some really cool people to make this record. Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, Lydia Lunch, Mark Lanegan, Isobell Campbell, David Eugene Edwards, Mick Harvey, The Raveonettes, the Sadies, and more. So I got to play on a track with Mark Lanegan, one with Mark and Isobell, and one with David Eugene Edwards. That should be coming out in awhile. Nick Cave has a deal where the release can’t coincide with any of his other releases, and he’s doing a ton of stuff right now.” – Jeff Zentner, interview with Linescratchers
For anyone interested in hearing more of Jeff Zentner, you can check out his MySpace, or you can find his page at CD Baby where he sells his albums at a very reasonable price. I recommend his newest one, “The Dying Days of Summer”. Or you can check out his older band, Creech Holler, at their website.
BONUS: Jeff Zentner has graciously decided to offer readers of BCC the chance to download his recorded version of If You Could Hie to Kolob free of charge! The MP3 file can be downloaded here.