The Swinging Sounds of the Dying South: The Bohannons’ Dystopian Unaka Rising

Over the last five years, the American South became the setting du jour for serialized television shows about monsters and the end of the world. The inevitability of this marriage should come as no surprise. The ubiquity of vampires, zombies, and serial killers may be traced to a popular obsession with the supernatural and macabre that dates back at least to the late eighteenth century. The haunted American South’s many mysteries and transgressions aligned with this trajectory in the mid-twentieth century to spawn Southern Gothicism, tales of strange, broken, oddly beautiful people trying to keep it together below the Mason-Dixon. And while not classics on par with To Kill a Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Dexter,  True Blood and The Walking Dead derive from this lineage (or drag it down, if you like). The grotesquery is less nuanced. The characters are obvious monsters as opposed to multidimensional people capable of monstrous acts. The existential and moral questions of high literature bow to the commercial needs of television drama and its viewers. But the dots between Faulkner and Daryl the redneck zombie hunter are, for better or worse, connectable. The common thread runs through the South and its relationship with the unknown, the off-kilter, and the ever-present threat of sweeping change. Strip away the werewolves, walkers, vamps, fangbangers, and freaks and the fact remains: the South is the perfect place to stage an apocalypse.

So it is that Chattanooga’s the Bohannons throw one of their own on their latest album, Unaka Rising. A melange of all our favorite rocks—hard, southern, punk, garage—Unaka Rising is ten stomping tracks that deconstruct and interrogate America through the Bohannons’ loud and cracked prism. Musically, the Bohannons occupy a unique space somewhere between Skynard, The Pixies, and modern southern rockers like Jason Isbell and the Drive-By Truckers. Matt Bohannon’s vocals can evoke Frank Black piped through a PA at a demonstration. Lyrically, Unaka Rising concerns itself with the conflict and paranoia of our contemporary milieu, a hodgepodge of angry ideologues and frightened people tottering on the cusp of collective horror.

“Goodbye Bill” opens the album with a guitar lick that could amply accompany a montage of criminals plotting a dystopian prison break. The narrator of “Two Riders” pleads with his baby to forego a night of getting high and opt instead to stay home and “drink some wine.” His suggestion sounds a little like begging, a little like a threat.

Each track tells a story of people assaulted by their surroundings and, appropriately, the music finds a way to both succumb to and accompany this assault. “Cold Dead Hand” sways back and forth between a blistering celebration of guns and a rumination on a world where everyone needs one. Only “Built a World” slows down the proceedings. And the world of this narrator is crumbling, alien, and loveless. By the end of the song, the world’s officially off its axis and our storyteller is left to wonder “if your heart was ever found” among its ruins.

The track-listing reads like a possible table of contents from an H.P. Lovecraft collection. “River Above.” “The Ballad of Christian and Other.” “The Cradle.” And, of course, “In the End.” In each, our tour-guides are distrustful and wary, issuing warnings and anecdotes. The politics, social structure, and history of the south haunt the background. But “The South” is a convenient construct. Louisiana’s south is different from Georgia’s south, which is different from Tennessee’s south, all of which run on different bandwidth than Florida’s and Texas’s many souths. On “Ponchatrain,” the story and instrumentation evoke a hurricane’s rain and wind. And we are reminded that the Gulf Coast has a distinct set of environmental and cultural conditions that should not be trivialized by fictitious beasts and contrived love triangles.

In the end, Unaka Rising is the ideal musical companion for a world circling the drain. But its monsters are real—doctrines, storms, close-minded neighbors, drugs, and drink. In the Bohannons’ south, the lines are not so clearly drawn between black and white, living and dead, right and wrong. And when the end comes, it ain’t going to be quick and painless. “Baby, it’s a long and winding ride,” sings the protagonist of “Two Riders.” “Try to keep your hands and feet inside.”

Unaka Rising is available for five bucks from our friends at thisisamericanmusic.com. Support independent music and go get yourself a copy.

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