Though Hollywood’s done its best to make it seem like the “Wild West” was all gold prospectors and bandits, cowboys and Injuns, and the rolling plains, the spirit of the American frontier was darker and deeper than that. It’s the lives men lost laying the very tracks that connected the coasts. It’s the indigenous people brutally forced off their land. It’s the company men making sure the wheels of progress keep turning at all costs for their moneyed bosses back east.
And while we may be hundreds of years separated from those wild times, there’s an almost ambient radiation that Colorado-based black metal outfit Wayfarer brings to the fore in their latest release, American Gothic, which just dropped yesterday via Profound Lore Records. To commemorate the new album, guitarist and vocalist Shane McCarthy put together this list, offering the following note to set the tone:
“This is a selection of American music that all has some kind of connecting thread, with some from close to home and some from elsewhere in the country. But it all has a kind of spirit that is exclusive to this place, and illustrates a feeling of it more than just words ever could. It’s exactly this type of stuff that has had just as much part in shaping Wayfarer as all of the heavy elements that find their way in as well.”
16 Horsepower – “Harm’s Way”
This band, and this whole album is the ur-text of the “Denver Sound”… a take on folk and Western music that to me will forever be the defining sound of Colorado. This record still stands on its own a few decades in, and this song is a perfect example of the darkness laden melody that is so imbued with the spirit of a rural west.
Kris Kristofferson – “Casey’s Last Ride”
A personal favorite of the American singer-songwriter stable, Kristofferson has a voice that spans from world-weary grit to genuine melancholy, and has the writing sense to back it up. This is a song that sticks with you, telling a human story and coating it in a bit of dark beauty and driving rhythm.
Munly and The Lee Lewis Harlots – “Ragin’ Cajun”
Munly J. Munly is a prolific and entirely singular figure in the landscape of Denver Music, having done more for this so-called “gothic country” world than probably anyone else. The Lee Lewis Harlots were maybe the most potent iteration of his groups, with a perverse and almost otherworldly sense of storytelling through a completely unique musical voicing spanning several instruments and pieces of American music history. Sit down and listen to the stories he tells.
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – “Pine Box”
An absolutely essential piece of the Denver Sound scene, SCAC’s upbeat and bizarre tent-revival songs of region are the type of color our world is lucky to have, and while a live show is the preferred intake method for this stuff, these records do a good job of capturing an odd and important vision of western America.
Neil Young – “Alabama”
It may seem like the obvious choice, but Neil Young could just be the great American songwriter. Even if he is Canadian. Folk music, rock music, and the American cultural identity all changed after he came around, and this is still the record to end all records. The understated rock n roll riffing, and sharp message delivered about the American south make it an easy choice for this list.
Wovenhand – “Your Russian (Without Hands)”
Going back to the well of David Eugene Edwards, Wovenhand is the solo outfit of our 16HP frontman mentioned above. This release features re-tooled versions of songs featured on the self-titled debut, and something about these renditions are even sadder and more haunting. Another perfect soundtrack to Colorado.
Snakes – “Thinking Of You”
Legacy runs deep, as George Cessna, son of Slim, fronts this group who originally came together on the East Coast before their homecoming a few years back. This is the perfect blend in my eyes of a country music band with an Iggy Pop adjacent approach, with such memorable songwriting. More folks need to hear this record and this track is a great place to start.
Townes Ownes Van Zandt – “Lungs”
A Texan singer songwriter who has rightfully experienced a posthumous re-assessment by so many, this is distilled folk and country music for those with dark hearts. Without Townes Van Zandt, who knows how many of the artists on this list would have found the sounds they did, as the honesty and human tragedy bared in these songs forever changed what “country music” could mean for anyone like me.
Tarantella – “Elder Tree”
One of the most criminally underplayed artists of the “Denver Sound” scene, Kal Cahoone’s Tarantella is an enchanting and unique group rounded out by a who’s who of the circle. The music incorporates American western elements as well as the influence of South America and beyond, and this one hearkens to some on screen Western soundtracks in a new and arresting way.
Steve Young – “Alabama Highway”
We move from one Young to an unrelated other, but we stay in Alabama. This time it’s a southerner’s take on blues and the American folksong. Stripped down, real, and loaded with expression from both the voice and the swamp laden slide guitar, this is distilled expression, through the lens of the American south.
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