Trailer Bride – Snake Charmers
The group’s regional reputation was spreading, and eventually insurgent-country linchpin Bloodshot Records offered Trailer Bride a home. Smelling Salts appeared on Bloodshot last year, and once drummer Goolsby’s guitar/lap steel whiz brother Scott was drafted, Swingle finally had her band the way she wanted it. August 1999 saw the release of the group’s third album, Whine De Lune, on Bloodshot. (Trailer Bride also contributed a song to the recent Knitters tribute album, and Swingle duets with Alejandro Escovedo on a haunting cover of the Gun Club’s “Sex Beat” from Escovedo’s Bourbonitis Blues.)
While reviewers have been generally favorable toward Trailer Bride, some critics have questioned the group’s “validity,” suggesting that in both her choice of band name and her and melting-pot approach to songwriting, Swingle might be mocking the very social and musical heritage she professes to be part of. Is Trailer Bride playing country noir, or ersatz bluegrass? Are they doing a cod-Appalachian waltz, or a pseudo-European polka?
This “cultural appropriation” argument is something Swingle has heard before, and while it doesn’t particularly stick in her craw, she’s not unwilling to address the debate.
“I lived in a trailer a long time ago and not for very long,” Swingle explains, “but no, I’m not making fun of people who live in trailers. I like the humility of the title and I feel like it’s good luck. This is an African superstition — when I lived in Africa, most people, when they have a baby born, will not give a baby a high-falutin’ name because that’s supposed to attract evil spirits. The president there at the time, for example, his last name translated as ‘cesspool.’ [laughs] Some folks have said why don’t I call it the Melissa Swingle Band, and I do perform under my name when I do solo shows. But when me, Brad, Daryl and Scott get together, something else takes over, and that’s the Trailer Bride that takes over.
“I must say, I’m pretty sure people either love us or they don’t on the basis of my voice. Whine De Lune, that’s obviously a play on words, and a lot of the songs, if you heard just me singing the words, you’d think, ‘Golly, she’s just whining about everything!’ I can’t help my voice! It’s probably an acquired taste — I gave my CD to one of my neighbors, he’s a farmer, about 70 or something, and he said he thought my music was ‘interesting, but a little out of tune.’ [laughing] But I’ve found that like with most musicians who don’t have an immediate type of voice, like Bob Dylan or Neil Young, they’ll grow on you.”
Her voice has stories to tell, too. For someone relatively new at the game, Swingle displays an instinctive songwriter’s grasp of economy, subtext and wordplay. In the standout track on Whine De Lune, a low-key slab of harmonica/slide guitar chug called “Work On The Railroad”, Swingle’s female protagonist applies for the job of pounding spikes, pleading, “Mister, please hire me/The boxcars are locked again/I got two long arms and/They’re as strong as they are thin,” only to be rebuked by the foreman, who caustically advises her to head back home where she belongs. Despite its working-class tone, the song’s message is a feminist one — although Swingle is quick to point out that it “could mean anybody who’s trying to do something but finding it really hard. It’s supposed to evoke an angst, an emotion.”
Brilliantly blending pathos and hilarity is the mandolin/lap steel groovefest “Pasture”, which sounds like surf music played by Balkan hill-dwellers. It somehow manages to tie together notions of reincarnation, how getting older means you get put out to pasture (“It’s just a rusty barbed-wire fence away”), and, as Swingle puts it, the fact that “I noticed how one or two cows remind me of people; they have a look in their eye of people that I used to know. I don’t necessarily believe in reincarnation but — what if? The song is from the point of view of an old woman who goes, ‘What if, when I die, I become one of those cows?’ That’s why, in the second verse, she’s frying up some steak and she can’t stand the smell because, who knows? It’s but by the grace of God there go I!”
Even if the average club-crawler isn’t keeping up with the metaphors, metaphysics and meanderings of the characters who populate Swingle’s yarns, there’s always the music itself. Trailer Bride can stomp with the best of ’em and brings to the table some offbeat elements that make a definite impression.
Chief among those is Swingle’s saw — which, for the uninitiated, is just that: a steel saw, gripped between knees and left hand, the upper (non-toothed) edge stroked with a heavily rosined bow. The resulting vibrations, their pitch altered by bending the saw, emit a ghostly, theremin-like moan. “We finally figured out how to mike it,” says Swingle with a laugh. “At first it was kinda hairy with a lot of feedback and stuff. But it gets a great response, and we’re thinking of expanding and having saw duets, even trios.”
Just the same, Trailer Bride continues to meet occasional resistance, even outright hostility, from some audiences. The challenge of converting nonbelievers is, for Swingle, part of the buzz she gets from making music.
“We played in New York at the Continental Club and we were smashed in between two punk bands. Just this sea of leather jackets,” she recalls. “When we started, they just stood there crossing their arms going, ‘My God, hillbillies…’ But by the end of the set they were cheering and screaming for more. That to me is the most rewarding experience, when we’re playing in front of people who aren’t ‘supposed’ to like us but we turn ’em on to something new.
“On the other hand, some times we’ll be playing with other No Depression-type bands and they’ll do straight-up country all night. Then they get to us and people are drawing their breath thinking, ‘This is not country music!’ I know the bluegrass purists run away screaming. They must think I’m a freak. But it’s just so much fun to be a freak!”
With a knowing little chuckle, Swingle adds, “Don’t get me wrong, I love the old-time music. But you know what? I’ve always wanted to be different.”
Fred Mills calls his home in Tucson, Arizona, his personal slice of heaven, but still has fond memories, and dreams, of growing up in North Carolina.