Everything about Woody Pines (from his feather-festooned fedora and his vintage resonator guitar to the grainy pictured of boxcars on his Web site and deep cut covers of long-forgotten blues musicians) harkens to another era. One of juke joints, clapboard shacks and coal smoke on the wind. Pines, whose early performances borrowed from vaudeville and involved elaborate back drops, admits, "I believe in the visual. I'm always thinking of new ways to make it a show. Some people want to just keep it real, but when you're on stage it's a show."
That said, Pines doesn't want to be pigeonholed as any sort of throwback act. "I grew up playing '60s rock in cover bands," he reveals. "I was listening to country music but my friends were listening to The Doors and Nirvana. Nirvana did 'In the Pines,' that old Lead Belly tune, so I started tracing [music] back. It got weirder and crazier."
That's the genesis for Pines' current sound; a fusion of old-time, rag time, jazz, blues, retro country and American folk. For Pines, who has a low-fi aesthetic, Bob Dylan's version of "Man of Constant Sorrow" was the portal to a half-century of recordings growing ever-more bare bones going back in time. "The voices sounded scratchy and edgy," Pines says about versions of that song dating to the 1950s and '20s. "The first generation of music that people were making before the music industry got involved was stripped of the layer of gloss that recording studios would [later] put on it."
Though Pines and his shape-shifting band (previously called "The Lonesome Two" or "The Lonesome Three," depending on its numbers) play a lot of covers, the group's new self-released disc, Counting Alligators, contains the most original material to date. Which is not to say the songs written by Pines are a departure from form — in fact, they blend seamlessly with vintage offerings like the jumping tune "Rich Gal, Poor Gal" and the folk ballad "Casey Jones." The album's title track is a Texas two-step that, according to Pines, recounts "a lot of our experiences in Louisiana."
The musician lived in Louisiana for about five years as part of the Cajun scene in Lafayette before moving to Asheville. "I love old-time and wanted to immerse myself in that music," he explains. Pines digested a steady diet of Americana roots styles, claiming, "I had an ulterior motive: to get into the melodies and be able to write like that. I wanted to take the best music that I heard [because] as an artist I like to create this vibe of the folk mind."
Though Pines says that his listeners can distinguish his originals from the covers (worth noting: On Alligators, Pines paid royalties to the estate of rockabilly artist Billy Briggs, credited for the invention of the lap steel, for the use of the song "Chew Tobacco Rag"), he suspects the spirit of the music still speaks to people. Take "Walking Down the Road," which has a bittersweet Woody Guthrie feel to it. "The graveyard may be haunted, the swamp it might be thick, the furniture man might come and take up the bed tick," he sings, echoing both the Great Depression and the toll of the recent recession on working class people. Perhaps less universal but highly entertaining is "Crazy-Eyed Woman" (made all the more spooky-atmospheric thanks to slide guitar by Old Crow Medicine Show's Gill Landry). "Took me to Chino to find a hooker, she was a mess but quite a looker. What happens next I wish I could forget," Pines sings. It's a song that should be performed in a smoky road house in some bygone era.
"I don't want to be just recycling music. That music was so good, I don't want to just remake it," the musician says. "I like casting the spell of the past."
Counting Alligators benefits as much from Pines' admittedly rosy-colored, feel-good interpretation of history as it does from the musician's talented friends (contributors to the album include alto saxophonist Aurora Nealand, fiddler Darin Gentry from Brian McGee & the Hollow Speed and sax and cornet player Henry Westmoreland from Firecracker Jazz Band) and travels. Pines recorded both in Asheville and in Landry's Nashville-based Rubber Tramp Studio, and he spends at least half the year on the road. The future promises a European tour — the band's first — but Pines is also looking forward to playing more Asheville shows.
Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Woody Pines
what: CD-release party for new album Counting Alligators
where: Mo Daddy's
when: Saturday, Nov. 14 (9 p.m. www.myspace.com/woodypines)