If this write up isn't smokin' we don't know what is...
Hellbound Glory - Conjuring Spirits and Suicide
by Tammy Moore
by Tammy Moore
By the time Saturday rolls around during SXSW, people are starting to run on fumes. They've had three days of 24/7 partying, crowd fighting and ear piercing amps blasting in their heads. They're starting to drag and, though no one says it outloud, they can't wait for Sunday to roll into the stratosphere and bring an end to the addictive chaos that is the world's second largest music conference. Such was the case when the Dirty Dog opened it's doors at noon that Saturday to two fist fulls of diehards for the first annual Rusty Knuckles showcase. After stumbing across the new label last year, home to the Crank County Daredevils and Antiseen, I knew some great things were going to come out of it. It boasts a crazy diverse roster of music with three common denominators - dirty, Southern, sleazy. Right up my alley, I decided to plant myself there for the duration and, in the process, stepped into the presence of, well...greatness.
Every performance was outstanding in it's own right. Dirty Dog's management said they were told numerous times by those in attendance that it was the best showcase they had seen all week. But I couldn't help but feel for the artists as the Saturday curse was in full effect. The crowds were steady enough throughout the day though none of these great acts (Rory Kelly, She Rides, Vagabond Swing, Green Lady Killers and Reno Divorce) got to shine in front of the crowds they deserved. But around 4:30 that afternoon something I'm gonna call 'supernatural' happened. That's when a scumbag country band called Hellbound Glory from Nevada confidently strolled onto the stage and started conjuring, what can only be explained as, the spirits of outlaws past.
I'm going to go ahead and make a prediction. Barring the world ending 2012 style next year Hellbound Glory's frontman and primary songwriter, Leroy Virgil, and his crew of rebels are going to build a cult following the likes of which will earn them a bona fide spot in country music history. It will have to go down that way as there is clearly zero reverence for the Nashville machine in this lot. There's plenty of up and comers that lay claim to the 'outlaw' moniker but Hellbound Glory actually redefines the face of real outlaw country. They put their own signature darker stamp on it and don't seem to give a flyin' f*#% who's offended by that, or any other, ugly truth.
Now they don't look like tragic figures. At first glance, they're modern enough, with shirttails flyin', flashing almost impish bad boy grins. But then the music starts and everything about them reeks of another era. The spell of the songs is cast and the entire band embodies the essence of another world. Black and white photos of days gone by, greasy ducktails and the hot curves of sexy 50's Chevys racing down unpaved roads are unseen but present in the sonic whirl emitting from the stage. It's a sound that seems long ago lost in the world of country music today. And the strange thing is that they're not necessarily talking about that period in time. But the feel of it is there and I suspect it's because kindred spirits found their own voices then and, frankly, it wouldn't have surprised me to look over and see Waylon, Hank or Johnny themselves standing stageside with thumbs up.
They have the ability to spin it like that because they've lived the lives they're recounting in song. I know that not because I interviewed them but because that's the reality that came through in the performance and in the stories that wordsmith Virgil shares in the midst of a show that feels like a sacred vigil before the dawn of some much needed redemption. In his bio, he claims the lyrics are about him and his friends. If that's true then what could be said about Virgil and company are things like this: one more bender might entice the reaper to come knocking but that won't stop them from ordering another round with a best case scenario being wakin' up facedown in the gutter. They might like to reverse some of the damage they've done but they're too busy taking pills to numb the pain than to face it head on. A safe bet is that Oxycontin is the drug of choice but, lucky for us, they're too broke to overdose. A fifth of vodka and Hank Williams crankin' full blast is the only true salve for a ravaged heart. A face to face with heroin proved that she's 'a lady with legs that reach up to the sky and an ass like molasses, so sweet a man might follow her to his grave'. They believe in the power of hate shags and keeping company with lost souls is a defining factor of life. The new lows aspect of Hellbound Glory's 2010 release, "Old Highs & New Lows" couldn't be more apropos and you can't help but admire the ballsiness of laying it out the way they do. Can you say no fear?
Virgil does more than paint a picture with his stanzas. He takes you into the experience. Halfway into the set I found myself standing in front of the stage with a steel guitar hissing haunting melodies and noticed that the room was filling. People were coming in off the street and a newly enthralled audience was hanging on these songs. The thing is that this music speaks to the soul of the practiced escape artists' self-made hell of alcohol and drug induced hazes...teetering on the edge with everything to lose, but unable to stop the free fall into the abyss again and again. As dark truths go, it's one of the saddest that Virgil could be the voice of a generation...in all fairness, the seedy underbelly of said generation but, let's face it, there's a whole lot of people these days that have arrived at the destinations he's giving directions to. These songs aren't feel good testamonials but people connect because the subject matter is nailed. The audience was listening and the cheers were getting louder with the end of each new song. Even a normally surly house bartender who was reeling from the onslaught of new bands he'd been forced to endure 16 hours daily for the three days prior was shaking his head in disbelief, raising shots of black tooth grins, to toast the indisputable talent eminating from the Dirty Dog stage.
And, yeah, you can cite the obvious influences but what blows your mind is the undeniable force behind the delivery of these songs, live, or on the record. You can't help but be slightly baffled at how musicians this young can understand and translate this style of country and this kind of pain if they haven't lived it. Remember the Man in Black pretended to understand the prison plight and won a lot of fans that way but these cats... I'll put it like this. The room is filling up, the crowd is having a blast...some are two-steppin' and some are fist-pumpin'. And me? I'm actually holding back tears as the purr of that steel guitar sets the tone for Virgil's latest ballad. That wouldn't be that monumental except that I've only been moved to tears three times in the literally countless times I've been to concerts. Two of those times were in the presence of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. Pretty heady company for these brand new artists to land in the midst of my mind's musical landscape.
So after the show, in an attempt to convey how much I enjoyed it, and because I want to help these guys get the exposure they deserve, I offered to throw myself in front of my friend Kevin Fowler's tour bus if that's what it took to get his attention and maybe take Hellbound Glory out for a few Texas dates. I'm still considering it and, if it comes to that, we'll see if it works or if Kevin just thinks I've finally lost what's left of my mind and tells the driver to keep going and never mind that bump in the road. Keep your fingers crossed for me. But the real point is this - I can't tell you for sure if the experiences these songs convey actually happened to the Hellbound boys or just someone close to them and they've been extremely affected. Finding that out is an interview I'm going to enjoy one day. For now, know this...that the music itself informed everything I've said. That's how powerful it is. That's how magical that showcase was.