Shuffling along the decaying train tracks of the Beltline, Nick Stinson seems perfectly at home. His sandy blond hair, brown plaid shirt and cowboy boots blend in with the landscape of old tires, smashed bottles and rusted bits of metal scattered along the splintering railroad ties.
As he comes to the mouth of a cavernous, derelict train tunnel — the secret gathering place where outsider strummers and noisemakers like Stinson, who performs under the name Gashy, come to exorcize their demons — he pauses to reflect.
When he was just a kindergartener at a Baptist school in rural Georgia, Stinson's teachers forbade him from singing during choir practice because he had such a terrible voice. Instead, he was told to silently mouth the word "watermelon" over and over again to provide the illusion that he was singing along with the rest of the children.
Naturally, such harsh criticism scarred him for years. "I was so self-conscious about my voice for most of my life that I choked up every time I tried to sing," says 32-year-old Stinson, who works as a cook at Gato Bizco Café in Candler Park.
He spent most of his early 20s playing bass for generic rock bands, but it wasn't until the summer of 2006, when a few friends introduced him to the dark recesses of the tunnel in southwest Atlanta, that he truly found his voice. Now the warbling vocals that once caused Stinson's teachers so much distress howl without restraint while he bangs out broken chords on his guitar.
Such an extreme take on strum and catharsis has no home other than out here on the fringes of forgotten terminus, where a small but dedicated troop of like-minded artists have flourished for years between the cracks, far from the proper venues and commercial pursuits of higher profile scenes. What sets Stinson apart from his ramshackle peers is his push to hone his songwriting into a refined sound that could elevate him from the tunnel to the stage.
The impending sense of darkness that lingers behind Stinson's songs resonates with his past. When he was in the seventh grade, his family moved to Gadsden, Ala., a poor dead mill town, as he recalls. "It was a good place to be isolated. I didn't fit in at all." Eventually he wound up in Carrollton, where his job at a nursing home led him to bond with the elderly patients and, in turn, deal with a lot of death. Once he made his way to Atlanta the tunnel became a conduit to channel his anxieties.
"This tunnel is important for me because everyone is anonymous here. There is no scene. It's a strange space that negates the outside world. It has its own breadth, its own history, and it's where I can really let it out."
Watch CL's original video of Gashy's tunnel performance
Listen to Gashy "Mountain Low, Valley High"
Listen to Gashy "Swimming the Styx"
The tunnel's spectral allure has attracted others. Chris Clinton, who was the first of Stinson's friends to find it several years ago, performs there in the duo Wilson & Heath. Eventually, Matthew Proctor (formerly of Hubcap City), who fronts the group Pony Bones, began organizing semimonthly shows there. It soon became a place where musical misfits with names such as Lemon Kid, Shitty Bedford and Melissa Lonely gather around a bonfire to feed off of each other's energies.
As much as the tunnel has shaped Stinson's musical identity, it's also pushed him to reach for a higher plane of musicianship. The June release of his debut recording, a cassette tape dubbed Walking In the Midnight, features a collection of songs and field recordings culled from the last five years that are cut from equal parts Appalachian picking, humid drones and surrealist collages. The flip side features new recordings made with drummer and recent Houston, Texas, transplant Lance Higdon as Gashy and the Wounds.
The partially improvised excursions take shape around loose, rambling narratives that rarely paint a pretty picture. Words and composure get lost in Stinson's deranged, bellowing state. "I put myself into a trance when I play and fixate on how I felt during certain intense moments in my life," he says. "It's all dealing with some deeply personal shit that I could never put into words."
Songs with such death-afflicted titles as "Between Dying and a Dead Place" and "Swimming the Styx" are refined, but nowhere is his artistic growth more apparent than on "Mountain Low, Valley High." Originally recorded for a live cassette compilation called Tunnel Show Vol. 1, the older version creeps along with hissing noise and atmosphere. Glass bottles clink against the railroad tracks somewhere down the line while strangers grope their way through the darkness. The environment adds as much blown-out character to the song as Stinson's wilting harmonica wails.
The same song played with Higdon on drums and recorded in a controlled setting moves at a sharper, more countrified pace. It's still noisy and steeped in low-fi noise, but Stinson's howling vocalizations and the song's ramshackle melody become the focus. "I was never interested in any kind of punk aesthetic, I was always more into Marcel Duchamp's way of doing things," he says, referring to the French Dada and Surrealist artist of the early 20th century. "He didn't think it was the artist's task to keep making art because you're an artist, but to come up with something that you're trying to get across, say it and just shut up. Leave space for something else to be said."
While releasing newer recordings of his older songs gives new life to the noisy ghosts of his past, Stinson has a future goal in mind. "I'm working up to where I can someday play a real music venue," he says, trying not to slip off into the mud while walking along a rail like a tightrope.
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