Barton Carroll – It Had to be a Train

To say Avery County, North Carolina is an interesting place would be an understatement. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and boasting the highest elevation of any county east of the Mississippi, its unique geography is paired with an equally odd mix of residents and developments. Elements of old Appalachia – rural poverty, vast swathes of the county lacking cell phone service, and weekly bluegrass pickings at country stores – coexist along glaring symbols of gentrification like ski slopes, upscale clothing boutiques, multimillion dollar homes and ubiquitous hordes of elderly Floridians. Add in a thriving industry of tourist traps like gem “mines,” garish displays of both natural and unnatural fall foliage and festivals venerating woolly worms, and you’ve got a truly bizarre mix, but one cannot help but notice the ever-present tensions between old and new development. One of my favorite chroniclers of the region, author Ron Rash is perhaps the best at capturing the tensions between old and new Appalachia in short stories about down-on-their-luck meth addicts and rural folk. Massive new subdivisions always seem to be lurking on the edges of his grim vignettes; just as mansions and condos popping up on surrounding ridges jarringly disrupts the natural beauty of this area. It’s a county that also happens to be, as of August, my new home, and we found ourselves on the knife’s edge of this conflict while being aggressively tailgated while attempting to navigate treacherous mountain roads in a car with Florida plates.

Coincidentally enough, this rural mountain county of 18,000 is also the subject of a new concept album of sorts from Barton Carroll, a songwriter who grew up in Avery County before moving out west to Seattle. With his distance from North Carolina, its safe to say Carroll’s nostalgia tinted view of Avery County life falls into the traditional side of this area’s divide between history and change. In an interview (an album stream is linked here as well), Carroll described the record as “reflections of an upbringing in the Appalachian Mountains seen through the lens of several years of city life on the West Coast” and its full of folk-tinged songs about lost loves and mountain memories, in the best storytelling tradition. My favorite off the record is probably “Beech Mountain Waltz,” a doomed love story about a World War 1 where a soldier goes to war while his lover dies of the Spanish Flu.

And thankfully, for the purposes of this site, he also includes a train song, “It Had to Be a Train,” yet another sad train song about a departing lover, this time leaving from Boone. There is a clever hint of self-awareness about the somewhat cliched plot of the song – the narrator mocks her choice of transportation “don’t you know the train’s outdated these days.” And indeed, a picky railroad historian would note that the last major railroad operating in the county, the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, or “Tweetsie Railroad” was washed out in a 1957 flood. But it’s definitely an effective train song that fits well on a record built around fuzzy and somewhat distorted remembrances of the past.

Incidentally, the album just came out Tuesday (October 15) – so check it out on Skybucket Records. I’ve been playing it a lot lately, and not just because its about Avery County!

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The Pine Hill Haints

Leaves are turning, a chill is in the air, and Halloween’s ghosts and ghouls are rapidly drawing near, giving us a perfect excuse to write about The Pine Hill Haints. Hailing from Auburn, Alabama, their music offers up a ramshackle blend of folk, country, bluegrass, honky-tonk and punk into a potent witches brew they dub “Alabama Ghost Music.” Behind the the howls and cackles of the energetic lead singer, their instrumentation features at various points a washboard, mandolin, washtub bass, and a slide whistle, along with more traditional implements of musical destruction.

pumpkin-bat

Their Alabama roots undergird the whiskey-soaked mythology of their music – actual historical figures like Joe Cain, a Confederate Civil War veteran credited with founding Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration, who paraded through the streets in Indian garb with his “Lost Cause Minstrels” in defiance of Reconstruction-era Yankee occupiers, co-exist alongside ghouls such as the Natchez Shakers, Jack-O-Fires, Bordello Blackwidows and traditional bluegrass heroes like Wild Bill Jones, Handsome Molly and the (ubiquitous) Wayfaring Stranger. Drawing on both actual history and a long tradition of Americana mythology, it is thus no surprise that train tracks and ghost trains criss-cross their violent, inebriated, and of-course, haunted retelling of southern history. Here are but a few of their train songs of note, which should help put you in a Halloween spirit:

“Screaming Jenny” relates the legend of a woman who, after being lit alight by a spark from a passing train on the B&O railroad, ran screaming onto the tracks, where she was subsequently mowed down by another train. Her fiery ghost still allegedly haunts the tracks near Harpers Ferry on the anniversary of her death. Not only is this a cool story, it also is a great idea for a Halloween costume for any fans of a ghost train-inspired holiday.

“Riding the Long Southern Train Blues”, references the history of the Southern Railway, once the largest corporation in the South, whose tracks traversed all corners of Alabama. The song retells a story of childhood train watching, and dire warnings about rail safety, and as the meandering 5 minute song draws to its conclusion, the band mimics the sound of a train gathering steam and then slowing to a halt as it approaches the station.

“Trains Have No Names” features an awesome piece of train-themed cover art, and again, the shuffling drums and backdrop of spectral whistling capture the sound of a passing train.

And finally, “Ghost Train,” is about a young boy warned by his mother to stay away from the window to avoid seeing the haunted train that comes “burning down” the rails at 11:59. The lead singer’s howling and ratcheting sounds like an actual train here – along with a backdrop of tortured screaming. These haunted trains join Justin Townes Earle’s Ghost of Virginia, in this great subgenre of the train song. If there’s one conclusion we can reach about ghost trains from this rudimentary investigation, they do always seem to appear at a scheduled time or anniversary.

The Haints have even more train songs than these four – making them one of the top purveyors of train songs out there today. For a history nerd like myself, its hard to resist the way they blend fact and the best strands of southern mythology and folklore in their records. And the music ain’t bad as well…