Issue #168: Ghost Dance by The Pine Hill Haints
July 1, 2019
Released On November 6, 2007
Released By K Records
Dust mushroomed over the brown-black crevices between the pine boards, settled there for decades. Boot clad feet stomped in time to the frenetic strings, pounding out a rhythm just as strong and pure as the percussion. There was a heat in the air, the kind that swirls around deep Alabama in the summer: flannel shirts and honeysuckle, earth dampened by the humidity tempered with the sweet ferment of beer on lips, fingers gripped around aluminum cans. Hair curling in my face, beer raised up in the ultimate college girl salute, my hips moved of their own accord, ankles tripping, jaw forward. With each burst of a song, the crowd reacted, pauses in between giving a breath or two in the oppressive heat, just enough to rally for the next 2 or 3 minutes.
Like so many things from that time in my life, in revisiting the moment I’m shocked and grateful for what I was privy to, what I can look back and see. Crowded into the main showroom of Standard Deluxe, a screen printing business in Waverly, Alabama. Those old brick walls worked hard but couldn’t contain the raucous sound of a crowd drunk on a little bit of beer pushed by the down home sounds of plucky guitar, strummed washboard, and deep-voiced vocals of The Pine Hill Haints.
A local band, The Pine Hill Haints embodied a much broader faction of the musical world. With a sound that mixes folk, bluegrass, Celtic, rockabilly, blues, and pop, the Haints range over a track list of new songs with tried and true renditions of standards. There’s a comfortability in each track whether it’s a cover or not, the whole album blending together in a sound that makes it okay to dance, sing, or stumble over the feet of your partner. A flagstone song for me, “St. James Infirmary Blues,” loses all sentimentality with a vocally forward, hard-plucking sound that gives an idea to the title of the album. Ghost music, styles of music that have faded from mainstream likeability to those older or older-minded, shines on this album, haunting nowhere better to this ear than the iconic strains of that song. Originals are created with that vibe in mind, bringing the bluegrass to tracks like “Say Something, Say Anything” and “Garden Of The Dead,” another favorite. Other covers on the album including “St. James Infirmary Blues” and “Catfish Angels” are retold with a rockabilly sensibility, filtered through the Alabama heat of the early 2000’s but obviously prized and honored in the Haints’ narrative, their love of that ghost music weaving covers and originals seamlessly together on this sun-drenched album.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Folk party troubadours impeccably weaving through punk, bluegrass, country, roots, & more.
I challenge the label of Bluegrass as it applies to The Pine Hill Haints. Maybe it works for them as a way to reach their audience, but I don’t think the genre of music you practice is accurately defined by the types of instruments you use. Everything on their 2007 record Ghost Dance falls into categories that could best be described as rock, blues, rockabilly, and maybe even punk. The band has far more in common with Harley Poe, The Rail Yard Ghosts, or The Bridge City Sinners. Each are breathing the breath of youth and aggression back into genres which are frankly rather tired. There was a time when Bluegrass was played with fervour while strings broke, boots stomped, and neighbours pounded away on home-made instruments like washtub bass or Ugly Sticks. Unlike it’s more polished, cowboy-boot wearing “country,” the only prerequisite to writing a great folk song was the desire to say something meaningful and perform it with gusto. Thematically, Ghost Dance is, as the name suggests, heavily inspired by a whimsical take on dark themes like death and the afterlife. And while songs like “St. James Infirmary Blues” certainly fit into the bluegrass ballpark the band can just as easily deliver a rock-a-billy anthem pounded out on acoustic instruments like “Death By Stereo” or “Whisper In The Dark.” I am always encouraged by bands such as these because by pushing their medium into places where the old traditionalists dare not go, they offer something fresh and original which keep the genre interesting. This is an album you can throw on in the background or drive with it sitting up front. Either way, it’s difficult to keep your foot from stomping along with the pace. Whether it’s bluegrass or punk folk or acoustic rock-a-billy probably doesn’t matter in the end. It’s just an untraditional great album played out with traditional instruments.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
Sometimes I wonder just how crazy I am for loving music the way that I do. At least crazy enough to be downloading two gigabytes of Radiohead castoffs in the background right now, searching for another hit of what they give me — and that’s just a minor example. When I listen to The Pine Hill Haints, I get a hint of that crazy. It’s like when I’m walking through the NYC subway and I see a guy who looks 90 playing the blues on an old guitar, crowds bustling around him, nobody listening, and I’ll think to myself, “Music can make you kind of crazy — why else would he be down here? But I get it — respect.” So this Ghost Dance album, with its rush of songs (my favorite is “Phantom Rules,” with it’s echo of rave-ups by The Yardbirds), some of them quite short, seems almost pathologically dedicated to making sure you never lose interest. Even if it’s a little folksy for my taste (and their retro-garb in the photos I’ve seen bears that out precisely), their passion and dedication are undeniable. You would have to be as crazy about music as I am to would put out something like this, which means they are my kind of people. And I imagine it would be very hard to look away if I came across them busking in the subway!
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
I’m glad Ghost Dance came up on OYR this week not simply because it’s a dope record from start to finish, but because it’s an absolutely perfect summer album. It’s a bar-b-que record. A bon fire record. A pool party record. A road trip record. A beach record. There’s something about the bare bones acoustic story-telling style that just lends itself to a campfire. Three songs in, and I was smelling hot dogs on the grill. Four songs in, and I was reaching for a Pacifico. I’ve said it before on OYR, and I’ll keep saying it: the accordion is such an underutilized instrument across nearly all genres, and I will highlight any instance in which I hear it used to great effect. In this case, it’s the moving “When You Fall,” which employs the accordion for subtle backing chords. It’s a simple move that immediately give the track so much more of a whimsical, “honeymoon period” feel, which is what the song is about in the first place. But my favorite record by far is “Garden Of The Dead.” I love it right now, and I certainly would have loved it as a child. It reminded me so much of the Halloween themed songs we used to sing in elementary school chorus as all hallows eve approached. The over-the-top vocal performance furthers my nostalgia, but my one complaint is that I wish the backing chorus vocals were quite a bit louder to emphasize the “dead.” But that’s such a minor critique for such an excellent, fun, dynamic record. It’s easy to see why they call it Ghost Dance.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Visceral & instinctual, their songs speak to the core of musical appeal, like folk music always has.
I’ve been getting really into production as of late — not so much in the sense that I’m out recording and coaching artists through making records, but more so in the fact that it really interests me how many ways an artist or band can approach a song. Country and Americana genres hold some of the most well-produced records out there, where the approach is always very modern and at the forefront. It seems like soul music and funk focus a lot more on the “feel” of the groove than the distinguishing of sections. Pop music tends to incorporate a bit from all over the place, but electronic music and hip-hop definitely became its closest kin in the past twenty years. Anyways, my own meanderings aside, this Pine Hill Haints album interests me, because the production feels both organic and polished, which isn’t always easy to achieve. People who want an “organic” record would probably turn their nose up at the word “polished,” while the world’s top pop producer might roll his eyes at the term “organic.” Ghost Dance is both, and that’s no simple feat. It means performances have to be tight, the music needs to be well arranged, and the instrumental tones should be appropriate and song serving, yet all of this needs to be done by humans. Kudos to Pine Hill Haints for making a great record. I also appreciate the short song lengths to accommodate my ever-waning attention span.
Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965
I did not have many (any, really) friends as a kid. I know now that it’s because my social skills were terrible, and I hadn’t yet learned the art of masking that so many autistic girls pick up at a young age, but I’m also sure a good portion of it was being put in gifted classes in first grade, but still having to go to the fifth grade classroom daily for Reading/English and Math. The other kid aspect of school was the worst for me, and even if I did start becoming friendly with someone my age, I usually messed it up by being too weird. For the most part, books > people. Except for my dad’s mom, my Nan, who was really my best friend from the time my mom left when I was a toddler up until my dad remarried when I was 8, and I no longer got to spend every morning and afternoon with her. Nan lived about a mile from the beach, and on many school days (especially the rare rainy days) we would leave her house early, drive past the school, and just sit and stare at the waves for a while with the windows down to hear their crashing on the shore, with Johnny Cash or the Oakridge Boys or Alabama or Creedence playing softly in the background. I didn’t realize this at the time, but we did this most frequently when my PopPop (who was career Navy and frequently stationed in the South Pacific) was deployed and these trips to the beach were her way of feeling close to him. I knew before even listening to The Pine Hill Haints’ Ghost Dance that I would love them cause Laura has exquisite taste, and within the first thirty seconds of “Spirit Of 1812,” I was messaging her to tell her that I adored it already, and that I was going to have to play this for my 19 y/o (who got a banjo for Christmas a few years ago and wants to start a bluegrass band with his sister), and that he walked in during “St. James Infirmary Blues” and said, “Oooooh, what’s this?!” Like I knew he would. But I’ve listened to it at least 20 more times since that first listen and kept getting stuck on “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond,” and it wasn’t until tonight that I figured out why. So I messaged my dad that I really felt like Nan would have loved this song, and I wish so much that I could play it for her to find out if I’m right. He wasn’t sure until I mentioned they’re from Alabama, at which point he laughed and agreed that even if she was on the fence, she’d support them just because they were from her home state. Thank you, Laura, for picking something that reminds me of one of the happiest memories I have of an otherwise uniformly terrible childhood. I’m already buying the rest of their albums.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Here’s a question I didn’t expect to be asking myself on this beautiful-yet-unreasonably-hot Sunday afternoon: If truth is at the heart of great art, why are there so many truly excellent songs about zombies? Listening to “Garden Of The Dead” was like reaching some strange tipping point, where it became clear that there are enough really, really good songs about the undead that the phenomenon deserves to be unpacked. Coincidentally, on Saturday, I went to Sturgill Simpson’s website in hopes that he had decided to press “The Dead Don’t Die” (the track he contributed to the recent Jim Jarmusch movie of the same name) to vinyl, and wouldn’t you know it — he had! My preorder is in! It’s a damn good song, just like “Garden Of The Dead” is. Another favorite is “The Zombie” by the Australian-born blues traditionalist C.W Stoneking. It’s on my daughter’s “That’s Lucy’s Jam” playlist, so I hear it regularly, and the song’s raw production prepared me nicely for “Garden Of The Dead.” (Stoneking’s raspy vocals offer another parallel.) Stoneking may not be on your radar, but I’d guess that you’ve heard “Thriller” once or twice — the title track to the second best selling album of all time… the music video that changed the music video landscape… you know, that other song about zombies? I mean… what’s the deal here? Are we all okay? Why does this narrative trope continue to resonate? Maybe I shouldn’t ask. Then again, maybe I’m more attuned to all things zombie-related, given that the upcoming Walking Dead spinoff is shooting in Richmond right now. Did I mention I flipped through records this weekend just a few feet away from the spinoff’s star, Ethan Hawke?
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Though they may consider their style of music “dead,” the band is as lively as possible from the trombone down to accordion.
Every time I looked at “The Pine Hill Haints,” my brain read it as “The Pine Hill Saints.” All week I had to self-correct for that. As a way of fighting the misread, I decided to find out what a haint was. It’s an old word from the South used for a specific type of ghost or spirit. It’s apparently an alternate spelling of “haunt,” and is defined on page 207 of Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System as “Another name for an evil witchlike supernatural being [sic] that is believed to chase its victims to their death or to mount them during sleep and ride them like a horse until exhaustion sets in or sunrise appears.” Haint is also a shade of blue. Haint is a pale blue often used to paint porch ceilings in the South. (I’m pretty sure that’s haint blue on the cover.) Since the band themselves describe their music as “Alabama Ghost Music” right in the meta title of their official site and the album is called Ghost Dance, this all fits together rather nicely. After doing some research, I guess that only knowing the above facts about the band would lead you to conclude that they’re Southern, that they’ve embraced that culture, and that their music is likely rooted in it. And then you listen to their energetic and lively brand of punk-y country and bluegrass, and you’re like, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” I don’t know what a catfish angel is — I found little else beyond the MTV show Catfish, and a person named Angel who was on the show — but I do know that I like what The Pine Hill Haints do.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
One of the many things I love about summer is festival season — everyone coming together in a place for the same thing. To relax, enjoy the music, and escape for a few days. I’ve always found that there are so many new artists to discover at these festivals and genres I may have overlooked. Like anything, when you give something a chance, more often than not it turns out to be something amazing. There is this local music festival in my community that has been around for over 30 years, and it truly is a weekend of escaping reality, like a mini Woodstock. Everyone is there to enjoy the music, and the vibe is always so chill, and going to this festival over the years has definitely opened me up to bluegrass for sure. My point being, the second I pressed play on this album, I knew this band would fit right in at this festival. Even if no one knew who they were, they would be accepted without hesitation and within a few songs, everyone would be dancing, clapping, and stomping their feet to the beat. To me, this band instantly reminds me of summer, of relaxing by the lake and just enjoying the sun while it lasts. I’m so happy I gave this genre a chance because it definitely paid off.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
Traditional, yet irreverent. Fundamental, yet versatile. Vintage, yet modern. This is where we find The Pine Hill Haints, a plucky — in more ways than one — band of musical performers that have whipped up a version of bluegrass not only suitable for the 21st century, but vital. Their sound, raucous and ariose, is right at home on the back porch of any country Victorian, but could also electrify any dingy punk club in an overcrowded metropolis. But that’s not to say their sound is easy to stumble upon. The best Bluegrass band couldn’t surpass this group’s fervor and passion, while the best punk band might falter at the dexterity involved in the songwriting. Though it’s a product of modern music, it’s hardly indicative of the genre blurring we’ve become accustomed to, and more a testament to how folk music carries through every style of music, from southern swinging to anarchic rocking. The Americana drips off of the song titles, band name, and album aesthetic, but the band doesn’t hang its hat on the agreeable nature of the all-accompanying genre. It strives for more — to reach more, just like folk music always have and always will. Armed with the chugging cadence of classic roots music (“When You Fall“), the shifty rhythm of your best party band (“Phantom Rules“), the vigor of any great punk group (“For Every Glass That’s Empty“), and the charm of your favorite alleyway performer (“St. James Infirmary Blues“), The Pine Hill Haints write exactly the type of infectious melodies and elastic rhythms that everyone needs in their life.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Nervous Like Me by Cayetana
Chosen By Dustin Gates