Words & Photos by Chris Bickford
“It’s hard getting to the States” says singer/guitarist/mandolinist Scott Pringle of Saskatchewan-based band The Dead South.
We are downstairs in the green room of Nashville’s Cannery Ballroom, chatting while Pringle and his bandmates writhe out of sweat-soaked white shirts and black trousers, and bandleader Nate Hilts’s mother collects the boys’ dirty laundry, beaming with pride.
At first Pringle’s comment seems like a typical Dead South joke: What’s so hard about getting to the States from Canada? Just about any southbound highway should do it, right? But as he continues, his meaning becomes clearer.
“We’ve played Europe like eight times. They love us over there. We’re huge in Germany. But it’s been a lot harder to break in here. Lot of dive bars and half-empty rooms.”
Well, mom may still be doing their laundry, but there’s no question that The Dead South have arrived on this, their first full-scale US tour. From the moment they took the stage of the Ballroom, they held the near-capacity crowd in their clutches and didn’t let go until the last encore. Their high-energy mix of folk-punk-bluegrass came off more like a rock show than a pickers’ jam, thanks both to their larger-than-life stage presence, and to a precision-timed light show, replete with vintage Edison lightbulbs in front of each bandmember’s microphone and old Hollywood fresnels pulsating through silk backdrop screens embroidered with the band’s signature antler/tree-branch motif.
“Technically he’s called a production designer,” says Pringle. “But yeah, our lighting guy is pretty sick.”
It was more than just clever set design, though, that made the show feel so big. The band’s furious attack on their acoustic instruments and growling vocal harmonies infused the set with a wall-of-sound vibe that belied the minimalism of their setup. Driven only occasionally by a steer-horn-adorned kick-drum at the feet of banjoist Colton “Crawdaddy” Crawford, the Dead South conjured up an unholy racket out of wooden soundboards and steel strings that filled the Ballroom to the rafters and sent the notoriously indifferent Nashville audience into fits of hooting, hollering, and hand-waving. They closed to two encores, each member finally walking off the stage separately, leaving Crawford alone under a single spotlight to drive his frenetic banjo playing into the crowd’s ears for another 60 seconds or so before he too set down his instrument and exited stage left.
When, downstairs, I ask about the band’s history, Nate’s mom pipes up. “They’ve been doing this since they were kids!” But cello-bassist Danny Kenyon is quick to correct her. “Scott and Nate and I grew up together, but we’ve only been playing together as a band for about five years.”
As the legend goes, Crawford showed up at Hilts’ university flop-house sporting a banjo, which he had just recently bought and barely knew how to play. The introduction of the banjo kicked off a house jam, and in the spirit of the night, Hilts jotted down a few lyrics, which eventually found their way into the song “Every Man Needs a Chew”. A few months of woodshedding and open mics later, Kenyon and Pringle joined the band, and the Dead South was born.
Since then the band has earned a reputation as one of the hardest-working acts on the indie scene, touring incessantly and racking up over a thousand club and festival dates, as well as countless informal jams with other bands on the circuit. And as their reputation has grown, so has their command of their craft, their command of the stage, and the iconoclastic nature of their look and sound. Critics have started to pay attention, and in the viral wake of director Zach Wilson’s ingenious video for their song “In Hell I’ll be in Good Company” (which at the time of this writing has racked up over 83 million views), their fan base has been multiplying exponentially.
As to exactly what to call the Dead South’s music, that discussion could fill the rest of this article, and remains a favorite topic of argument among their social media followers. “We call it bluegrass, but it’s definitely got some punk in it” says Hilt. “And some other stuff. We weren’t raised playing bluegrass, so it’s not exactly traditional.”
To say the least. The Dead South are about as far from bluegrass as you can get while still being categorized as such, and their outlier status has been part of the secret to their success, as fans of the genre love nothing more than to debate whether a band like TDS is really bluegrass — and that debate has only fueled the fire of their notoriety. Trolls aside, the band have earned their membership in the club with their latest album Illusion and Doubt (Curve Music), which peaked at #5 on the Billboard US Bluegrass charts, and also placed respectably on the iTunes Country charts.
As with any great musical act, though, what sets these boys apart from the the pack is the hold they take on the imagination. Stepping out in wide-brimmed hats, snap suspenders, and turn-of-the-century neckwear, and proceeding to sing surreal and raucous tales replete with references to whiskey, murder, the Devil, the Civil War, and all the usual tropes of old-time music, the Dead South manage to simultaneously butcher American history and lampoon the old-school posturing of so much of the Americana scene, while at the same time making you feel like you are witnessing one of the most authentically American bands on the indie stage. It’s an ingenious sleight-of-hand work of performance art, one that hearkens back to minstrel shows of yore, where satire and earnestness went hand in hand, often indistinguishable from each other. Punctuating their act with the occasional finger-snapping dance routine, the passing-around of an old bottle of whiskey, and the cracking-open of red-white-and-blue beer cans, the band have developed a sense of comic timing that only adds to their Through-the-Looking-Glass take on American folk music and culture.
Who’s in charge of this madcap revival troupe? While Hilts definitely comes off as a bandleader, alternating lead vocals with Pringle and occasionally Kenyon, the fact that the members of the band perform side-by-side, each with their own Edison bulb, speaks volumes to their egalitarian spirit. “It’s a pretty collaborative process,” says Kenyon. “We write the songs together, and work out the instruments and harmonies together. The wardrobe thing has evolved over the years but it’s definitely something we’ve agreed on. We just like having fun with it.”
However you describe them, and however you categorize their music, one thing is for sure: The Dead South are on the rise, and they are engaging fiercely loyal fans around the world. Clutching a set list thrown from the stage after the show was one Robbie Watson, bearded and bedecked as if he could be a member of the band himself. In certain East Nashville circles, Watson’s turn-of-the-century attire probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but his turning up at a show dressed like the band speaks to a new level of fandom, the kind enjoyed by acts like the Avett Brothers, Taylor Swift, and the surviving members of the Grateful Dead.
“We love Nashville” says Hilts. “We’ve played AmericanaFest a couple of times and at first we were completely unknown, but now we’ve got people coming back because they saw us at those early shows. And the crowds keep getting bigger, which is cool.”
Cool indeed. Though their home might be thousands of miles away in Canada’s Great White North, The Dead South seemed very much at ease — and in command — this October night in downtown Nashville. It’s not easy making an impression in Music City, but the Dead South, after five years of hard touring — and countless hours honing their craft, their aesthetic, and their surrealist American mythos — walked off the stage of the Cannery Ballroom as conquerors. And politely handed their sweaty dress shirts to Nate’s mom for cleaning.
Find music and tour dates, here: https://www.thedeadsouth.com/