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The Dead South Brings Tragedy To Life

The Dead South perform a recent show in Salt Lake City, UT
The Dead South perform a recent show in Salt Lake City.

The folk/bluegrass quartet The Dead South has been described as "the evil twin" of Mumford & Sons for their twisted lyrics that often depict violence and gruesome deaths.

The Regina, Saskatchewan, outfit was in a San Francisco hotel room when GLT reached leader Nate Hilts via Skype. He said violence doesn’t permeate every Dead South song, but he did argue that tragedies that suit their sensibilites are often accompanied by violence.

“We’re all fans of old western novels, and we like spaghetti western films, as well as (Quinten) Tarantino movies,” said Hilts. “So sometimes that’s the motivation for the lyrics, but other times we just sit down and these stories come out quite easily.”

“Miss Mary” is one of the darker songs on the band’s most recent release “Illusion & Doubt.”

Lady killed a man today Someone out o' the way Didn't know what to do or what to say And she ran, oh as fast as she can To the nearest garbage Where she threw his body in with a plastic bag Covered up the rancid smell and decay of her man Oh, what a tragic plan

Hilts said the lyrics came out of “weird” chord progression created by banjo player Colton Crawford he felt needed matching weird lyrics.

“So somehow I ended up with a lady who took too many prescription pills and ended up losing her mind. It made her paranoid and she hallucinates and assumes her husband is cheating on her. And he wasn’t. She ended up killing him, then later snaps out of and realizes what happened. Yeah, weird story,” laughed Hilts.

“Gunslingers Glory” is another cold song from “Illusion & Doubt.”

I want to be the very best/Best there ever is The quickest draw/The toughest mother*** in these lands I want to be the very best/Best there ever is The quickest draw/The toughest mother*** in these... lands Well I got my wish, I was the best The only problem is/I'm laying on the cold cement With a bullet... in my head In my head/In my head Now I'm dead Hilts said it was “just another story” he came up with.

“You know you want to be the best, but when you become the best you realize everyone just wants to kill you now,” said Hilts. “Something about that I found very appealing when I was writing that song.”

The Dead South’s star has been rising quickly since its debut six years ago. And bluegrass seemed an unlikely direction in that band members had a background in punk, metal, classic rock, and classical music. But when Crawford walked into Hilts’ apartment one day while a record by the folk/bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles was playing, Crawford turned to Hilts and said “I always wanted to play banjo.”

Hilts replied that he had always wanted to be in a band.

“So the idea was to play roots music, kind of on the bluegrass side of things” said Hilts. “At the time we were all kind of learning out instruments. Scott (Pringle) had never played a mandolin in his life. (Cellist) Danny (Kenyon) was used to playing classically. The idea was to go bluegrass, but what came out is what we do because we aren’t good enough to play bluegrass,” laughed Hilts.

A lot of those pre-Dead South influences find their way into their new songs.

“A lot of Colton’s banjo riffs are very heavily metal related,” said Hilts. “They’re quite bizarre and very interesting. I would say the writing on ‘Gunslingers Glory’ is pretty cool. The way he writes with the banjo on that one, theirs is definitely a metal influence, for sure.”

Band members are quite self-effacing about their music and song lyrics, not to mention Hilts had never played an instrument and Crawford had never played banjo before forming. So it’s probably no surprise when Hilts admits The Dead South’s initial foray into music was more of a joke than a desire to be taken seriously.

“So we were just having fun with it, but then we realized how much we love it. Open mics turned into ‘I can’t wait to play that stage,' then we played those stages and then we wanted to play out of our hometown. Then it just kept going,” said Hilts.

The Dead South play the Castle Theatre in Bloomington on Thursday, Oct. 18. The similarly punk influenced bluegrass quintet Whiskey Shivers opens the show. 

The complete GLT Interview with Nate Hilts of The Dead South.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.