The Shiners are a bona fide “hillbilly” (their preferred term) music collective, a rural-route Continental Drifters. Just take a look at the CD-tray picture included with the Richmond, Va., band’s debut, Bonnie Blue. It shows the seven Shiners clutching, among other things, a banjo, a fiddle and a washboard and looking like they just wandered out of the cornfield that frames them in the shot. But with these folks, or at least the sounds they make, things are more Children of the Corn than Field of Dreams.
“We get the biggest kick out of all the reviews we’re seeing of Bonnie Blue,” says Jyl Freed, who, along with her husband Wes, is one of the two lead vocalists in the band. “At least 90 percent of them refer to the music as ‘dark’ or something to that effect. And there might maybe be one that doesn’t say ‘gothic.’”
With a painting of a demonic scarecrow hoisting a bottle of Night Owl wine adorning their CD booklet, and song titles such as “Conjureman” and “Devil’s X,” you can see where reviewers are coming from. Instead of fully formed stories, the lyrics tend to be sketches of shady characters presented in short, descriptive bursts, many of them inspired by Wes Freed’s drawings and cartoons. “He got a witchy cat and a burlap bag filled up with Mason jars/Liquor is his logic and madness is his wheel,” offers one cut, making Bonnie Blue a record you can envision as well as hear.
The fact that Wes did the album’s artwork supports the whole music collective/artists’ commune idea. Also consider that there are two married couples in the band, with ex-GWAR guy Steve Douglas and his banjo-fiend wife Terry joining the Freeds. Bonnie Blue was released by Douglas’ Planetary Records, which leads him to quip, “I run the label, so it wasn’t too hard to get signed.” Drummer-percussionist Brian Larson handles publicity for Planetary, and Terry does the graphic design. Upright bass player Greg Harrup made a video of the band’s travels, while Jyl handles all the band’s networking by virtue of her knowing–according to Douglas–“everybody in the country who has a computer and likes alt-country music.”
The seventh Shiner, Pittsburgh, Penn.-based Erin Snyder (also a member of The Deliberate Strangers), earns her keep just by showing up for the gigs–and sort of showing up for rehearsals. “We figured out a way [to rehearse] through modern technology, with the computers and networking,” explains Douglas. “We pull up a video camera and put a mic in the room, and she [Snyder] practices in Pittsburgh while we’re doing our set.” “We’re high-tech hillbillies,” adds Jyl with a laugh. And when you consider that pretty much everything needed to take a record from the studio to the shelves is in one room where The Shiners practice, they’re full-service ones to boot.
A couple members of the group have even branched out into film. Hell, who are we trying to kid? The Thrillbillys isn’t a film, it’s a drive-in movie, and that’s meant as a compliment. If the trailer is any indication, it’s wall-to-wall fast cars, convenience stores and back roads, awash in moonshine and the blood of dead carpetbaggers. Think Thunder Road meets Dukes of Hazzard, as directed by Roger Corman on a broken-shoestring budget. Starring Snyder, Wes Freed and Angry Johnny, The Thrillbillys is the first full-length effort from writer-director Jim Stramel, whose earlier works include My Ass Is Bleeding. (Um, you must have missed its airing on the Hallmark Hall of Fame.) The film is diesel-fueled by a soundtrack that features Angry Johnny and his outfit the Killbillies, Lancaster Country Prison, Kirk Rundstrum of Split Lip Rayfield, the Drive-By Truckers and Chatham County’s own Trailer Bride.
Of course, The Shiners are also on the soundtrack, and you just know that they love being surrounded by those kindred spirits, what Wes Freed refers to as “almost a Redneck Rat Pack kind of thing.” The Freeds and company like the old stuff, from Hank Sr. and George Jones to Waylon and Willie, but more directly they feed off the energy of the other bands that are out there doing the same kind of thing–their soundtrack mates–as well as others such as D.C.’s Honky Tonk Confidential and New York’s Demolition String Band.
The Shiners lineup features string instruments galore, then supplements ’em with the random accordion and boozy horn, bringing together bluegrass, honky-tonk, Southern rock and the carnival soul of The Band. It’s a versatile sound too. “We can go from full-tilt rocking with the Drive-By Truckers or we can roll into a little room somewhere that doesn’t even have a P.A. and set up and play the same songs,” says Douglas. “They work either way.”
With various band members hailing from Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee, you could say that Shiner plays indigenous music. It’s the classic case of returning to one’s roots, growing up with something and then going away from it, only to return to it with a greater appreciation. “It’s something where you can have old folks and kids,” says Douglas, discussing The Shiners’ near-vintage sound. “My little girl came out the other night and danced at the show all night, and she couldn’t have done that when I was in GWAR. She would have gotten used as a prop or something.”
At least one other factor has contributed to The Shiners’ style of music. “Terry’s a banjo addict,” Douglas says of his wife, “and there aren’t too many kinds of music that have banjos in them.” I suggest that the fact the band has a banjo separates them from the vast majority of the acts that are heard on mainstream country stations. “That,” adds Wes Freed, pausing before the punch line, “and about a million dollars.”