If you're hankerin' for the juncture where the all-American art forms of old-school bluegrass and murder ballads come together, and where the song's punch line is written in, well, mayhem, then say hello to San Francisco's The Pine Box Boys.
Few bands are as adept at writing such spiky songs and self-describe themselves as "singers of songs of murder and misery." It's where the effervescent banjo and stand-up bass team up with acoustic guitar and drums to stitch it all together with bluegrass, country and backwoods Americana.
"It all grew out of the life-long obsession I've had with murder ballads," guitarist and frontman Lester T. Raww, said. "I usually drop the blue and just call it grass and traditional bluegrass folks will sometimes turn their nose up that we have a drummer. I guess we're a cross between rock and bluegrass; we're pretty loud, pretty fast and irreverent. If you were to break the song forms down, as far as the instrumentation we're fairly traditional, upright bass and all. We've got a banjo picker. Of course, I should point out that he plays one of those god-forsaken, forged-by-the-fires-of-hell electric banjos. I expect the ghost of Bill Monroe to come and get us at some point."
The name also fits. "My granddaddy used to build pine boxes where he lived in Alabama, so when somebody passed away they would use his box. That put in my mind that it fits kinda what we've been doing. So we're kind of musical pallbearers I guess," Raww said with a knowing laugh.
The Pine Box Boys' music is not easily categorized. The base is distinctly bluegrass, but they have a drummer and country, swampbilly, and even Tex-Mex, flourishes abound. But with raucous songs like "I Kept Her Heart," the boys deliver on the promise of dark, witty, death-grass.
Their third recording, Child of Calamity, hits the record store racks and download sites on July 22. "The name comes from Mark Twain from a story he tells of about life on the Mississippi," explained Raww. The Georgia-born songwriter grew up in the South and has called California home for a dozen years.
So how did the band come together? "The drummer and I were doing live soundtracks to silent films in San Francisco and I had played with the bass player in other bands. We got together specifically to play old bluegrass murder ballads. And as we kept doing it I started writing my own songs. Before long we found ourselves doing mostly originals and mixing it in with some of the old traditional stuff once in a while."
As The Boys performed more original gigs, they realized that "people started coming out to our shows in greater numbers then they were coming out to the silent films. Lots of folks don't like silent films these days. This is the postliterate generation," bemoaned Raww.
He reports the current cross-country tour has been going "swimmingly." "The first half of this tour we're hitting a lot of places we've never done before. We get a lot of stories when we're on the road. People will share their dark stories with me, expecting for me to put them in songs."
Audiences are either receptive or come around pretty quickly. Raww explains, "We go in there for the most part, put on nice suits, and there's the black wardrobe and Stetsons. The confusion will last for about six songs and then the audience warms up as they realize we're going to reach out into the bag and pull out something different. We'll bust out some George Jones if we have to."
After this tour, the band will head to Europe August through October. "We've done bigger tours over there then we've done in the States," said Raww. "This is only our third cross-country tour in the States. It's hard when you're out on the West Coast to make that leap out to where the rest of the country is. Here you've gotta drive through states like Utah, where you're just driving through hours and hours of nothing but salt. It's murder on an air filter."