"We don't take umbrage with being called a blues band, and we don't take umbrage with being called a country band," says singer-songwriter and guitarist Jeff Zentner, of Tennessee/N.C. trio Creech Holler. "Those are both adequate descriptors, but if we had to call ourselves anything, I'd call us a Southern gothic band ... the way that Flannery O'Connor and Harry Crews are Southern gothic writers."
Creech Holler's loud, bluesy, reverb-heavy "garage-band" sound is an odd mixture of styles. But don't call 'em a rock band. Or a blues band. They work from a spiritually related spot far away. The way they put it, they play "the music of midnight whiskey stills and front porches ... of those whose sole act of contrition before God was to make song of their sin and sorrow ... of those who have been to dark places, and who left their soul there ... of those who deemed it necessary to kill some poor son of a bitch who had it coming to them, and then deemed it necessary to sing a song about it ... of those who saw fit to salve their wounds with the banjo, the fiddle, the guitar."
"We just love Appalachian mountain culture," says Zentner. "We love the geographical and social landscapes, and we like the way religious fervor and violence and riotous living all co-exist, the way the sacred and profane meet. It's a uniquely interesting palate from which to create our art. We got really lucky, that we're able to put all that together and create a coherent, perhaps fresh take on traditional American music."
Zentner and his bandmates — Joseph Campbell (bass, melodica, vocals) and Christian Brooks (drums, tambourine, vocals) — recently released a terrific collection titled With Signs Following. While the broad categorization of alt-country is probably okay for Creech Holler, a more appropriate label might be "distortion folk."
The bandleader grew up listening to vintage blues records in Asheville, N.C., tuning in regularly to the community access station on FM radio. He didn't get serious about playing guitar until he was 21. He started playing solo shows around western, N.C. and Tennessee, playing Son House, Skip Jams blues tunes. and various Delta and country After relocating to Nashville, he played a local gig for the duo The Black Diamond Heavies, where he met drummer Christian Brooks and struck up a collaboration.
"We were doing a lot of Appalachian folk tunes and Delta blues tunes, because that was what I knew," remembers Zentner. "I had fallen under the spell of that music. Christian brought Joey on board to possibly play bass. He was originally a guitarist and only started playing bass because someone had left one at his house. He just plugged into his Fender Super 6 guitar amp and created a really interesting sound."
While Zentner lives in Asheville, his bandmates are based in Murfreesboro, just east of Nashville.
"About a year after the band started, I really got back into reading fiction again. It had been about eight or nine years since I'd read much fiction with any seriousness. I started reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy's Appalachian period, James Dickey, and Harry Crews ... a lot of dark Southern lit. It got the songwriting juices flowing. I'd been in a musical and lyrical idea, and Joey and Christian would help me arrange it. Often, songs start from a rhythmic idea from Christian. Joey brought the melodica into the band which is an unusual thing for this. It's kind of a hybrid sound between an organ and a harmonica. It works surprisingly well. It's not a traditional Appalachian instrument, but it sure seems to capture the vibe of what we're trying to do."
Some of the tunes on With Signs Following are traditional — but they don't sound "traditional." The cover art features a bottle tree — dead and adorned with glass bottles — believed from Antebellum times to attract and capture evil spirits.
The album has color and motion. It sounds like it's coming from somewhere deep and further away. Things kick off with the churning strains of "Pretty Polly," and follow with the revenge ballad "Little Mathie Grove," a song also recorded by Ralph Stanley a few years ago. Other standouts include the sloggy marching snare and ringin' guitar strings of "Wild Bill Jones" and the hypnotic repetition and eerie melodica of "The Gospel of Judas."
"The feedback has been completely different from what we expected. None of us had ever heard of or listened to 16 Horsepower, but that's the No. 1 band we get compared to, along with Slim Cessna's Auto Club. To us, those were kind of outta left field. I guess I expected some comparisons to The Black Keys, or more of the bands on the Fat Possum label, or whatever. Fans of Hank III seem to get the vibe, too. Those are extremely flattering comparisons, but ones we never expected."