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.
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…