Deliberate Strangers – High on the Hog Wild
A certain post-modern confluence of backgrounds typifies the latest roots rock scare. Deliberate Strangers singer-guitarist-mandolinist Tom Moran is a veteran of the 1980s Boston punk scene, having spent years as a guitarist for The Five. Bassist-vocalist Stephanie Vargo (who has been told her first words were “Oh lonesome me”) grew up in Appalachia surrounded by old country and gospel music.
Together they began writing songs that reflected those influences. When the time came to form a band, they placed an ad for a banjo player and a mournful-sounding fiddler willing to play odd country music and put up with a lot of cigarette smoke. First came Jimmy Earl Delmore (guitar, banjo, and harp), who had spent years on the bar-band circuit playing everything from Top-40 to polkas at weddings. And after a series of auditions they refer to as “the trip to fiddle hell,” they found Erin “Scratchy” Hutter. Scratchy, who sports a Nine Inch Nails button on her jacket, is a classically trained violinist (and washboard player) who performs with the Butler Symphony, teaches violin and admits to hating bluegrass.
It makes for a distinct blend. Their debut CD, Hog Wild & Pig Bitin’ Mad, is, on first listen, a very traditional, back porch, hillbilly-sounding album. The instrumentation, song structure and vocal styles create both foot-stomping hoedowns and heartbreaking ballads. When inspected more closely, however, one discovers things going on that you would never hear on an old country record. Small things, really, but they reveal those diverse influences. They also have a sense of humor, both wry and over-the-top, that allows them to have fun with the genre while still conveying great respect. This is most evident on the pairing of the traditional “Pretty Polly”, a murder ballad sure to please any hillbilly goth fans out there, with “Willie”, a hilarious tale of the perpetrator of the crime (and, as the song would have you believe, of every murder ever sung about).
The Strangers’ open-minded approach allows for growth in many directions. While Moran and Vargo are the primary creative force, the influence of the others is also apparent, particularly live, where their easy rapport is evident.
In a business that typically rewards conformity, this band has decided to follow their own vision and instincts, and to be deliberately strange. To paraphrase a traditional hymn covered on the CD, the Strangers are “Workin’ on a Building”. In this case, it’s built on traditional foundations, but creates a structure unique in beauty and design.