I don't think the Pine Hill Haints could have conceived a more appropriate name for their band if they had spent the rest of their natural lives trying. The Florence, Alabama-based outfit takes its moniker from Pine Hill Cemetery where legend has it the band used to rehearse. The Haints - as they are known to those lucky enough to know them - are themselves elusive and mysterious. You won't find a lot of information about them online. And while the Haints' back catalog of albums is readily available on Amazon and iTunes - hint, hint - you aren't going to see them on television anytime soon or hear them on your radio.
So let's talk about the elephant in the corner; if you are not from the South - or maybe even if you are - you might be wondering 'What on earth is a haint'?
A haint - and since my spellchecker is underlining the word in red, I think this explanation is needed - is a very Southern, very country disambiguation of the word 'haunt' that is, unfortunately, on the verge of being arcane. If you actually hear the word spoken out loud, chances are it will come from an elderly Southern gent or lady who is treating you to a yarn about their own encounter with the supernatural. Unlike 'haunt,' which is a verb, 'haint' is most often a noun and is synonymous with ghost or spirit, as in 'Boy, get out of that basement before you stir up them haints.'
The Haints play what frontman Jamie Barrier has described as 'Alabama ghost music.' As the name of the band and description suggest, this kind of music really doesn't exist anymore. There are elements of folk, Americana, alt-country, country Western, reggae and punk all infused into one of the most delightfully bizarre bands you will ever hear.
Barrier plays and sings with the ferocity of a left-handed Joe Strummer. A punk rocker at heart, Barrier also fronts The Wednesdays and is involved in any number of other side projects when not with the Pine Hill Haints. Barrier can easily put down his guitar and pick up a fiddle, instantly transforming a room from a bar to a barn party. It isn't often you can describe music as being influenced by both The Smiths and Jimmy Rodgers. Trust me though; it works. Barrier isn't a shouter; he is a singer, and is equally capable of pulling off rockabilly and ballads.
Barrier's energy drives the Haints' short, choppy songs. It's only fitting that two genres known for getting to it and getting on with it - punk and country - are Barrier's influences, as most Haints songs clock in around the three minute mark and many are much shorter, often painfully so. It is heartbreaking that Barrier's rocking "You Were Born To Suffer" found on 2011's Welcome To The Midnight Opry clocks in at less than 70 seconds, but that just means you have to listen to it four straight times to get your fix.
While the songs often deal with the supernatural and the more mysterious aspects of nature and Southern culture, the Haints manage to be haunting (or hainting) without being macabre. This isn't The Cure; there's always a hopeful, uplifting light in the band's Southern gothic tales of wolves, ghosts, jack-o-lanterns, murders and scandal. Often, I find myself smiling while listening to a song like "I Never Dreamed That A Day Would Come That You Would Hate Me So" and have no idea WHY. It's just a vibe. This music isn't dark; it is mysterious.
Barrier also throws in arrangements of traditional folk and gospel standards both on albums and at live shows. "Streets Of Loredo" and "The Parting Glass" - a pair of mournful old tear-jerking ballads - show up on the band's compilation The Evening Star. Barrier is equally effective on the cowboy standard as he is the Irish folk song, showing both his versatility and the band's eccentric tastes.
The instruments used by the band are often unconventional. While Barrier writes, arranges and performs the majority of the band's songs, Matt Bakula, who plays banjo and a washtub bass, also takes his turns at the mic and again, completely changes the vibe of the music. Bakula's clever, darkly funny lyrics - songs with titles like "The Day The Sun Did Not Come Up" and lyrics like 'dread is the new red' -- are delivered with a vocal style reminiscent of a white Bob Marley over a reggae-infused banjo.
Yeah, I didn't know banjo could be played with a reggae vibe either until I saw this band. Trust me; these folks aren't looking at the world the same way most of us do.
The band's lineup has changed over its 10-plus year history. On any given night, you might get a slightly different incarnation of the Haints. There are no pre-arranged setlists. Barrier explained that he just follows the mood of the night when determining what comes next. You might get several Irish drinking songs. You might get cowboy crooning. Bakula may take a more prominent role on banjo and vocals. A guest might show up. You just don't know.
In addition to Barrier and Bakula, the Haints feature Katie Barrier - the frontman's wife - on washboard, mandolin and saw. Yes, you read that right, a saw, as in one of those things typically used to cut down trees. If you've never heard a saw played as a musical instrument, think of that odd sound at the beginning of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." It's something like that, and its use brings a mysterious, haunting effect to what is already often spooky and mysterious music. Percussion is typically a single snare, played with either barbarism or gentleness - as needed - by Ben Ryhne. Many songs are augmented by accordion or organ, adding to the mystery of it all.
For all the complaining that goes on about soulless, pre-packaged, auto-tuned, generic dreck on the radio, we rarely do anything but stay in our musical comfort zones and hum along to Lady GaGa or listen to "Brown-Eyed Girl" for the one millionth time. It's easy to get into a closely guarded comfort zone with music, and I am just as guilty as anyone of being closed-minded and impatient with anything that 'isn't my style.'
I consider myself fortunate to have given the Pine Hill Haints a chance when I did, and I have been richly rewarded for it. I now challenge you: Click on the embedded video and give a listen to the band's outstanding performance of "Spirit Of 1812" from downtown Atlanta. Give it a try. If you like what you hear, go to iTunes and drop a few bucks on "Desperation Blues," "The Midnight Opry," "Red Light" and "7 O'clock In The Evening."
If you consider yourself an adventurous sort, or if you are just burned out on your current playlist, give the Pine Hill Haints a few minutes of your time. Support a unique indie band trying to scratch out a place in a world largely devoid of the wonderfully weird. And for God's sake, if you have a chance, see the Pine Hill Haints live. Trust me on this.
Go dancing in the graveyard ... I dare you.