PITTSBURGH CITY PAPER
Volume 11 > Issue 39 > September 26 thru October 3, 2001
The Ghostland Of America
writer: BILL KIRCHNER
“Let's do 'Devil'," someone says, and the four Deliberate Strangers quit their noodling, tuning, and shuffling around. They lower their eyes and fill this damp, tiny Squirrel Hill basement with a sonic tour of Hades on earth that's actually called "Highway Blue" according to their new disc, Ghostland Next Exit (Rattler Records). John Manning leaves the drums for acoustic guitar and lead vocals on this, his tune. Stephanie Vargo pulls the train along on bass, head shaking in slow motion. Erin Hutter and her little amped-up violin are licking at the song's lyrical toes, and Tom Moran cradles an electric guitar and works up some ethereal mojo in rhythmic semi-hypnosis.
As they move through more numbers from Ghostland, each of the Strangers takes turns singing: Moran belts out his All-American lament "Homesick for Heaven." Vargo's big, vibrato voice turns "Catfish" into something no less mournful ("some say you gone fishin' / over on the other side") with a little help from Hutter's strange and beautiful harmony. While Vargo and Hutter cull an ancient, familiar ache on the verses, Moran works the mandolin and the whole gang chimes in Carter Family-style on the chorus. It's pretty clear the Strangers know how to milk minor keys and heartache for a tune.
But the Strangers ain't lost their sense of humor, however gallows-bent it may be. And as if to prove it, they jump into Vargo's nasty little "Nothin' But a Bitch" ("A strand of hair, a little blood / a pound of flesh, a pound of mud / and such a pretty face"). Another Ghostland cut, the winking brag "What the Cowboys Did" is a song Johnny Cash might not have written, but certainly could borrow ("I've rubbed tobacco juice into my eyes / just to keep awake / 'cause that's what the cowboys did").
And Ghostland ain't all dirgey Appalachian death songs, either. Rockers like "Heartland" and "Wretched Holy Ghost" just might make a white boy wanna stand up and wiggle.
Manning calls Ghostland a "mutation" from the band's more acoustic last record, Mood Music for Snakehandlers, and the Strangers first, stripped-down and straight-up hillbilly effort Hog Wild and Pig Bitin' Mad. Judging from the various amps, the mounds of effects pedals at Moran and Hutter's feet, not to mention the yards of tangled extension chords strewn on the floor, it appears the Strangers done gone electric for good. Apparently Moran and Vargo chafed at the alt-country label the band was given at the beginning.
"They go by this big tent theory [in alt-country]," says Moran. "I think we were always way, way over in the corner of the tent, maybe even outside it. Sometimes we might lift up the flap and look in every now and again."
"We've kinda broadened our palette," says Manning.
"I think our tent, now, is actually bigger," adds Moran.
Vargo credits some of Ghostland's sound to a return to their punk rock roots. "We were all so influenced by punk. We were all part of that scene when it happened -- except for Scratchy [Erin Hutter's nickname]. She wasn't even born yet!"
"And now she's born again," Manning insists, with a smirk.
"Hank Williams was a punk. Emmett Miller was a punk," says Moran, who once upon a time played in the semi-legendary punk outfit The Five.
They've been called bluegrass humorists, alt-country misfits, gothabilly sickos, and whatever the latest incarnation -- Ghostland Next Exit -- may bring. It's no surprise most profiles and reviews written about the band feature writers fumbling to put the Deliberate Strangers in some kind of a box, but why bother?
"God knows what kind of fringe we're on now," says Moran. "But we couldn't change if somebody put a gun to our heads. Even if George Bush tried to smoke us out, we'd just find another hole."
Well, pigeon-holed or not, if you listen to the best of Ghostland's songs too many times, they may appear to you in a dream. Though still cloaked in the few remaining vestments of roots traditions, you will know by the glint in their eye and the sweet bile they breathe that these Deliberate Strangers have gone over to the other side. On Ghostland Next Exit, the Strangers have run their instruments through a gauntlet of just enough reverb, dissonance and twang to concoct for themselves a tasty new bitches' brew of devilment, boogie and despair.
The Deliberate Strangers CD-release show is at 9 p.m. Sat., Sept. 29, at Club Café, South Side. 412-431-4950.