American gothic 

Pointed and poetic: the duality of Trailer Bride's Southern Thing

A brief roll of thunder ends "Lightning," a song on Trailer Bride's newest Bloodshot Records release, Hope Is a Thing With Feathers. Listeners are meant to connect the rumble to the song's exploration of the impermanence of all things, but for bandleader, singer and multi-instrumentalist Melissa Swingle, that association was driven home in a more direct and appropriately portentous fashion.

There was a thunderstorm outside while the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based quartet -- Swingle, lead guitarist Tim Barnes, bassist Daryl White and drummer John Bowman -- was running through the track at the home of Southern Culture on the Skids' Rick Miller, who recorded the album. "Sure enough," Swingle says, "there was a big crack of thunder [that] came right where I would have wanted it in the song. It was, like, perfect timing. I was like, 'Can we run a mic out in the parking lot right now?' I wish we could have recorded that. It was perfect."

Such bursts of synchronicity make perfect sense in the milieu of Trailer Bride, whose music is an ephemeral tangle of regional American echoes that, for lack of a better correlation, gains the band access to the murky terrain of alt-country. It's an irksome label, as ineffectual for Trailer Bride's ethereal Americana as it is for, say, latter-day Wilco. Especially given Swingle's penchant for Southern gothic storytelling, which at its best echoes Faulkner and O'Connor in its plainspoken evocation of life, love and loneliness below the Mason-Dixon Line. "Silk Hope Road" visits an eccentric old woman who clings to a pair of old army boots, talking to them "like they're her only friends." Meanwhile the swinging, spirited "Mach 1," calls out a self-interested Mississippi man more concerned with fixing his car than connecting with his girlfriend.

Swingle excels at these snapshots, although her reach extends beyond merely acting as a Southern man's Raymond Carver. In fact, Trailer Bride often creates its own sort of dusty folklore, whether on "Jesco" or "Ghost of Mae West," both from 2001's High Seas, or "Skinny White Girl," Hope's standout track. Powered by Swingle's passionate moans and a sinister waltz-time trot, "Girl" paints a portrait of a woman who believes she possesses the soul of a Delta bluesman, though her body is of someone much like Swingle herself.

Is this intentional? Well, sort of. "I hope it's not a trite comparison, like Robert Johnson going to the crossroads, which has been done too much. But there are times when we're playing and inspiration hits and I don't feel necessarily like myself, [I feel] like some kind of musical genius is showing me what to play. I mean, look at me. I look like some woman who could be in a Wal-Mart or something, not someone who could be in a trance, rocking out on guitar."

Swingle's path to music is less dramatic than Robert Johnson's, although it does -- rather appropriately, given the undercurrents of longing in her lyrics -- revolve around the after-effects of the twin polarities of art and addiction. A passionate painter, she "had this bad habit of chain-smoking when I painted; I couldn't paint without it." When she became pregnant with her daughter, she had to give up smoking, which forced her to abandon painting as well. At loose ends, she bought a guitar, and realized she preferred playing it to painting.

Swingle, whose lanky good looks and self-assured vulnerability have made her something of a sex symbol in the "insurgent country" community, politely sidesteps the opportunity to explore the Southern or literary aspects of her work -- such as Hope's title track, an Emily Dickinson poem set to music.

"I guess [literary] would mean lyrics that provoke thought, as opposed to 'ooh, baby, baby,'" she muses. "Although I've been guilty of singing 'ooh, baby, baby' before. I like songs that tell stories. I'm just more interested to hear songs about somebody else. You get tired of singer/songwriters, especially women, always singing about themselves. Of course, I do that too, but too much of that is just narcissistic and boring."


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