The Dead South have been described as outlaws and modern hillbillies, but the best way to describe the Regina-based band is fearless. They’re a rare musical commodity – a band that’s equally compelling on record as they are on stage.
While The Dead South’s signature blend of bluegrass and classic folk is familiar, it’s also eminently fresh; fuelled by the kind of energy and ethic you’d associate with a punk band. “A lot of our inspiration comes from an old school feel, but our sound is an amalgamation of the we all like, and the punk influence is definitely there,” says vocalist/guitarist Nate Hilts. Since the release of their second record, Illusion & Doubt (Curve Music/Entertainment One), in late 2016, The Dead South have proven themselves a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the 49th parallel.
Illusion & Doubt recently hit Top 5 on the US Billboard Bluegrass chart and entered the top 30 on the US Country iTunes Chart. That’s fueled interest in the band’s debut, Good Company, as well, which, though released in 2015, recently hit the Top 50 On Billboard and the Top 20 on US iTunes overall chart. The boost to both albums, Hilts believes, is partially due to the band’s video for ‘In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company,’ which was released in early 2016. “We were late to the game getting videos out for Good Company in general and after we did the ‘In Hell’ video in 2016 we concentrated on releasing Illusion & Doubt and put the video on the back burner. But, a few months after we released it, there was just this huge… BOOM.”
Boom is a good way to put it. Currently ‘In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company’ has over 8 Million views on YouTube and is gaining roughly 1,000,000 views weekly. Having two records drive up sales and interest in each other is an enviable position, but when you’re listening to either album it’s not hard to see what the fuss is about. Like Good Company, Illusion & Doubt relies heavily on songs about lovin’, cheatin’, killin’ and drinkin’ – “But it’s a more mature take on lovin’, cheatin’, killin’ and drinkin,’” Hilts says, laughing.
Illusion & Doubt also finds the band expanding on their amalgamation of vintage folk, alt. country and bluegrass, adding fiddle and pedal steel, but not abandoning their stripped down, acoustic sound. Nowhere is that more evident than on lead single, ‘Boots’ – a rollicking old school bluegrass offering that showcases The Dead South’s tight arrangements, gritty lead vocals, raw harmonies and unique blend of mandolins, banjo and cello.
What people tap into on both records, Hilts believes, is The Dead South’s ability to take on dark topics sounding like they’re wallowing in pain. “We tend to make songs sound happy, but if you listen to the lyrics you’re like, “Wait, that’s not happy,” he says, chuckling. “There’s a dark aspect to both records. A lot of the songs are tragic or about really bad habits.”
“All the songs on Illusion & Doubt play into each other,” he continues. “They’re like multiple love letters between a man and a woman” – songs populated by outliers, outlaws and down on their luck drifters who show up shit-faced drunk on a lover’s front porch begging for shelter. That’s the story behind ‘Time For Crawlin’ – a track Hilts says is about, “Drinking your self into trouble, getting kicked in the ass for it, and just begging to come in,” Hilts says.
The Dead South, however, have never had to beg for a welcome – certainly not live. Since Hilts, Scott Pringle (mandolin, vocals), Colton Crawford (banjo) and Danny Kenyon (cello) got together in 2012, they’ve built a large international following on the road. “Getting the band together really inspired everyone to woodshed, collectively and individually,” Hilts adds And the result is music that just sinks into your soul; raw, raucous and so aggressively honest it seems like the band just rolled out of bed, grabbed a bottle of whisky and hit the stage.
Since signing their first record deal with Germany’s Devil Duck Records in 2014, “Touring is pretty much all we’ve been doing,” Hilts says. The chops they’ve developed on tour come across loud and clear on Illusion & Doubt, displaying a no holds barred ethic that blurs musical genres and transcends time – not only because their singular brand of punk tinged, vintage folk can’t be pinned down to any specific era, but because Illusion & Doubt recalls a time when fans listened to records top to bottom, over and again.
While the touring paid off (in November 2015 The Dead South received the Canadian Independent Music Association’s Road Gold certification for ticket sales in excess of 25,000 over a 12-month period), it’s also taken a toll, prompting a lineup change after banjo player Colton Crawford, who’d been fighting insomnia and exhaustion for over a year, left the band. “When Colton had enough it was after our first show in Hamburg and we had to cancel the tour. As much as we’re happy for the success we’ve enjoyed, there are challenges. The lack of routine hurts some more than others. Since Crawford’s resignation, noted session player and solo artist, Eliza Mary Doyle, has stepped in to fill the void.
Few bands set themselves apart the way The Dead South do, musically and in terms of personality; from their recordings through their rip it up live shows to their distinctive hillbilly cum pioneer look; a dress code, Hilts says, “that’s become a staple of who we are.”