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Diverse Deliberate Strangers finds following outside the mainstream

By Regis Behe

The Deliberate Strangers have a sound that puts them on the fringes of various local music enclaves.

"We're not part of the pub scene, or the Nick's Fat City scene," guitarist Tom Moran says. "We're on the edges of different scenes."

"We're very much on the margin. What we're doing, you can't even classify," adds Stephanie Vargo, who plays bass and sings.

That's what happens when a bluegrass outfit pulls a Kafka-like metamorphosis and reconfigures itself as a band with a penchant for writing about the darker elements of American society: death, hard livin' and drinkin', intrigue, and other motifs that, if truth be told, are the archetypical themes of country music.

But calling the Deliberate Strangers a country band is like calling the Rolling Stones a band from England. There's so much more to the group than a mere label, starting with the members themselves. Moran was in the legendary Pittsburgh punk band The Five, and first picked up the guitar after seeing Ike Turner on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson; Erin Hutter is a classically trained violinist who also plays the theremin and keyboards; drummer and vocalist Jon Manning is a budding novelist and short story writer. Then there's Vargo, whose vocals sound like those of a punk goddess who has just discovered Hank Williams.

Put those elements together, and the music resembles that of 16 Horsepower, a group that's been described as gothic-country, with liberal dashes of The Knitters and Green on Red also in the mix.

At a recent private party in Squirrel Hill, the Deliberate Strangers hypnotized a small gathering with quieter, stripped-down renditions of their songs. But catch them on another night at another venue, and one might think it's a different group.

"We don't make it easy for our audiences," Moran says. "Every single show we do is different."

"We sort of shape-shift, depending on the venue," Manning says. "If we're playing the 31st Street Pub, we'll crank it up more, with electric guitars full out. ... If we play someplace like the Ellsworth Street Fair, it'll be more like a variety show with friends coming up to sing with us."

Such diversity breeds confusion at times, but the band refuses to compromise or otherwise dilute its music.

"We're just not a mainstream band. We take risks," Hutter says. "We really look into ourselves for the music, and if we're not popular, I don't think we're going to change our style.

The band gets most of its local exposure via WRCT-FM, Carnegie Mellon University's student radio station. The Strangers also get airplay in Gallup, N.M., Knoxville, Tenn., and Alaska, and have been profiled in No Depression magazine.

But it's beyond baffling to the musicians that they are popular overseas in such exotic locales as Serbia, Yugoslavia and Australia.

"I used to joke that we get more airplay in Belgrade and Melbourne than we do here," Moran says, noting that the band also gets invited to the so-called "Twang" events in St. Louis, Boston and New York City.

"But when we play `Twang' shows, they think we're the Ramones," he adds.

Part of the perception problem might lie in the band's involvement in similar local ventures. Vargo was one of the guiding forces behind the creation of Twangburgh, the annual local celebration of alternative country and bluegrass music. That show changed titles to the Haunted Hillbilly Hoedown, but is now called the Haunted Hoedown to reflect both the Deliberate Strangers' and the show's diversity.

"I guess we don't like pigeonholes," Hutter says.

"The easiest thing for listeners to do is to make a metaphor for what something sounds like," Manning says. "How do you describe this sound? You can't do it unless you compare it to something else."

The band chimes in with a litany of descriptions that have been applied to it: rockabilly, gothabilly, goth, hillbilly noire.

Clarity, however, may be on the way with the band's next release, "Ghostland Next Exit." Slated to come out in early September, it's an adventurous, addictive set of 15 songs with titles ranging from "Stone Phantom" to "Sad Clown Tattoo" to "That's What the Cowboys Did."

Vargo relates a story about hearing a radio disc jockey's description of the new Cowboy Junkies CD, and how it was described as "Americana, but a different Americana."

"I thought, you know, that's kind of what we're doing," she says. "Because the kind of Americana we're doing is about something dark, about different aspects of the underbelly of America."

The band members alternately list what the new songs are about: Murder. Betrayal. Robbery. Revenge. Shootings. Whiskey. Drinking. Hangings. Fast cars. Strip malls.

"Really, is there anything at all in there about strip malls?" Vargo asks her bandmates.

They assure her there is, which means they'll probably love the new disc in Belgrade and Melbourne.