Black Jesus keeps watch over the Crosstown, standing atop a rainbow with a ladder in hand. Muscular and wearing a cape, he is accompanied by a dove carrying an olive branch along with some block-letter text: "JESUS IS THE ONLY FIRE ESCAPE."
Justin Osborne, chief songwriter and bandleader of alt-country act SUSTO, lives just a few blocks from the iconic Holy City mural, in a crumbling Line Street house that's frequented by several up-and-coming Charleston indie artists: Elim Bolt, Brave Baby, Jordan Igoe, Johnny Delaware, et al. Osborne is not a religious man, but he says Black Jesus ought to be a candidate for preservation.
"It's great folk art. It should be a historical place," Osborne says.
SUSTO released a self-titled debut album April 1 on Bandcamp. The sound is Southern Gothic country through and through, from the haunting piano plinks of "Vampiro 66" to the whiskey-besotten breath of '70s outlaw country on "Friends, Lovers, Ex-Lovers ... Whatever." Osborne's voice shifts frequently: despairing and quiet on one song, rowdy and cigarette-raw on the next.
"There's a demon in me in a Holy City/ I got a demon in me, and now he's running 'round/ I saw a river of blood coming right from the mouth to suck the life right outta me," he sings on "Motorcycle Club," a full-band track that rocks harder than most on the album. SUSTO is largely Osborne's creative project, but he is often accompanied by Delaware (piano, guitar, vocals), Jordan Hicks of Brave Baby (guitar), and Eric Mixon (bass) and Taylor McCleskey (drums) of the Tarlatans.
Black Jesus makes an appearance on the record in a gently irreverent song of the same name. The inspiration, he says, came from his first encounter with Charleston as a Citadel cadet straight out of high school. After surviving the school's famously grueling Hell Week for incoming freshmen, the school packed him and his classmates onto a bus and sent them to the Citadel's Isle of Palms beach house for a brief respite.
"One of the first things I saw after I left the Citadel on that bus was that painting of Black Jesus," Osborne says. "It really represents the area and the way I feel here in some ways, but also it seems like if Jesus was a real thing that you could pray to and everything, he'd be Black Jesus. That'd be my Jesus for sure. There's a way out, you know?"
If, as Flannery O'Connor observed, the South is more Christ-haunted than Christ-centered, Osborne is telling a few of its ghost stories. On the opening track "Black River Gospel," he lifts a few lines from old-time Baptist hymns before launching into childhood recollections:
"Well, my brothers, me, and my cousins/ Had an early theological start/ Learning them Black River gospel hymns/ And singing 'em all by heart/ We were up onstage/ Like a sacrifice to God/ That's the price you pay/ When you grow up in the South."
As a boy in the Clarendon County backwater of Puddin' Swamp, Osborne played gospel bluegrass in church and attended a Christian school. When his family moved to more cosmopolitan Florence, he discovered an outlet for rebellion in a surprisingly active punk scene before he and a few friends formed an indie-folk pop band called Sequoyah Prep School. That band, later known simply as Sequoyah, took Osborne on tour around the country and launched his musical career in earnest. Members of that band have spread like scattershot in the Charleston music scene, forming bands like Brave Baby and Elim Bolt. Former bandmate Wolfgang Zimmerman also lent his production skills to SUSTO.
When Sequoyah called it quits in early 2013, Osborne figured that was the end of the road, musically speaking. By then he was 26 years old and enrolled in the anthropology program at the College of Charleston, with a double minor in American studies and Latin American and Caribbean studies. So he packed things up and headed to Havana, Cuba, for a semester abroad. And why not?
"I figured it would be a good time to clear my head, because I figured I would be getting out of music and maybe shifting into academia," Osborne says.
But in Cuba, the music wouldn't leave him alone. In between political science classes, he connected with local musicians and journalists and ended up recording an album of songs co-written with Cuban musician Camilo Miranda, Vampires in Havana. He and Miranda later encapsulated his wild Havana nights in the song "Vampiro 66," one of the strongest and most haunting tracks on the SUSTO album.
"We were staying up all night writing, recording, partying like they do in Cuba," Osborne recalls. "Partying all night, playing dominoes, smoking, and just getting drunk. And it was like there were a lot of girls and stuff, and it was kind of about that experience."
Somewhere in the midst of all that, Osborne says he also met and proposed to a journalist, returning a month after his study abroad session had ended to marry her.
"We had this Cuban wedding. I kid you not, I'm the only gringo and there's like 50 people at this table, and I'm just thinking to myself, 'How the fuck did I get here? What am I doing here?'" Osborne says. "I think I just had been lonely for a little while and met somebody that liked me." The marriage lasted about three months, and while he says he and his ex-wife are just friends now, she was the inspiration for "La Mia," the only straightforward love song on SUSTO.
Sooner or later, whether in Puddin' Swamp or a Line Street Charleston single, the devil's music would have found Justin Osborne. "Rock 'n' roll is everywhere," Osborne says. "This is America." Just when he thought he'd left it behind, the music is taking him out on the road again, on a solo North American tour beginning in June that will range as far as California and Vancouver.
And although he hasn't seen the inside of a church in years — a point of contention with his parents, he says — religious language still creeps its way into the lyrics. "I went to church every Sunday, so that language just comes naturally to me sometimes," he says.
SUSTO will play an album release show Fri. April 18 at 9 p.m. at the Royal American with Jordan Igoe and Tyler Bertges. Tickets are $5.