It’s morning in Hartford, Connecticut, and Kym Register is yawning in the lobby of a Holiday Inn. The leader of the country-punk band that was called Loamlands for a decade—until the recent release of its superb new record as Kym Register + Meltdown Rodeo—is out on tour playing some solo shows, continuing a personal challenge that began with the sparely accompanied Lez Dance in 2019.
Despite Register’s prominence in Durham nightlife and activism, the spotlight is not their comfort zone.
“It’s hard to recognize myself as a musician with something to say,” they confide. “I’m better in community than I am alone, but I also want to know what it’s like to feel secure in my own self.”
Register’s vision of community is antiracist, anti-capitalist, intuitive, accountable to marginalized people, and above all, they say, “relational,” their favorite word. That vision lives in the Pinhook, the bar and venue they cofounded downtown almost 15 years ago. It also lives in their songs of love and hate and struggle, which ground queer perspectives and stories in the rich, bitter soil of Southern music.
Register’s new record, Meltdown Rodeo, opens with a marked focus on anti–Black racism. “Scottsboro,” featuring Rissi Palmer and Kamara Thomas, tells the story of nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape by two white women in 1931, resulting in a court battle that shaped the civil rights movement. And “Blue” is roiled by strong mixed feelings about Joni Mitchell, after Register’s love of the classic album crashed into the discovery that Mitchell later portrayed a caricatured Black man on the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
This experience of turning over something beautiful only to find something horrible underneath is one that an attentive Southerner like Register—whose bar’s website has a land acknowledgment and whose bedside reading runs to the likes of Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie—knows all too well. You believe that the legacy of white colonialism can be found anywhere you dare look. And yet, somehow, you never see it coming when the tables turn on you.
In a ghostly photograph taken in 1903, a small, plain two-story plantation house sits on hundreds of acres of cotton in northeast Louisiana. Nobody is sure when it was built. It predates Tensas Parish, founded in 1843. The house still stood until a few years ago, when it finally collapsed through neglect. John Black drives by its ruin all the time.
“When you think of plantations, you think of Charleston and these big, fine, elaborate houses,” says Black, who works for Tensas Parish as a local historian. “But on this side of the Mississippi, they were made for working. They could be large, but they weren’t fancy.”
Black, who is white, was born and raised in the parish. He’s especially familiar with this particular house because he lives just a few miles from it and even played there, as a child, with the African-American family who owned it then.
Tensas Parish is rural and dispersed, with under 5,000 residents and a 32 percent poverty rate. In the 19th century, it was one of Louisiana’s leading cotton producers and, thus, largest slaveholding parishes. According to Black, Tensas is unique in that “the African American descendants and the people who own the land today are the same as before the Civil War, and many families still work for the same people. Black and white, you either have or you have not—there’s no in-between. We all get along because we have to. We have to rely on each other because there’s nobody else.”
Black routinely checks the internet for new information on local history. In February 2022, he typed two search terms together. One was “John W. Register,” a Tensas sheriff who bought the nearby plantation after the Civil War and ran it until the early 1900s. The other was its name: “Loamland.” Black was surprised when a North Carolina band came up. Curious, he found them on Instagram and started typing a message.
When Register read the message, they were taking orders at the Pinhook bar.
“I had to pause, like, ‘I’m going to get back to that,’” they remember. “Then I felt really fiery, like, ‘What the fuck?’ I was burning.”
It was the first they’d ever heard of a Loamland Plantation. They remembered founding bandmate Will Hackney coming up with the band name in a brainstorming session.
Register returned to Ancestry.com, where they’d already been researching their family history.
“I hadn’t found a lot of direct connection to enslavement, which of course there is,” they say. “The feeling was that we were poor whites, a feeling of not as much accountability, until I saw this.”
With a specific name to study, everything started lining up. “My dad’s family, which I don’t know well at all, started colonizing in the late 1600s in Duplin County, and then you can see this web of movement across the continental U.S.,” Register explains. “Right before the Civil War, a John Register moved to Louisiana.”
They could only conclude that, somehow, they had unknowingly named their band after a plantation hidden deep in the roots of their family tree.
After emancipation, as John Black notes, slavery carried on in other forms, including inmate labor, to which a sheriff might have had ready access.
“As sheriff, Register’s legacy was bringing back ‘white supremacy’ to Tensas Parish after Reconstruction,” Black says. “His obituary in The Tensas Gazette says as much.”
So the old name had to go. The new one came from a phrase Register blurted out in a moment of exuberant stress while doing sound tech for the Country Soul Songbook. The question was how to make the name change responsibly.
Register wrote two new songs for the album and an open letter about the former band name. “Mine is, among other things, a history bleak with genocide and displacement,” part of the letter reads. “These are things I am aware of and will forever be unpacking. And yet I wasn’t prepared to be directly connected to a southern plantation—much less have that connection be intertwined with the art that I make in my journey to understand some pretty complex stories of the south.”
This is a difficult story to tell from a stage. But it’s rewarding, and perhaps Register is finally certain of being a musician with something to say.
“I feel lucky to be able to do this,” they say, referring to both the white privilege of being able to trace genealogy and having a platform to talk about it. “I think about whiteness and the wealth that comes from historical extraction, and I am able to be an artist. It would be so self-indulgent if I didn’t try to grow and connect. There’s shame that makes us not tell our true stories. But there’s not anything I want to hide.”
This was happening just as Register was being signed by New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records, which released Meltdown Rodeo last month. More than half of the album consists of new versions, recorded at Sylvan Esso’s forest studio, of songs Register released in their solo period, refreshed by a stable, dynamic new band. It features Sinclair Palmer on bass and synths, Matt Phillips on guitar and pedal steel, and Joe Westerlund on percussion. They carry Register’s grainy yet clarion voice on a supple, dancing churn, often with a dreamy or even happy feeling that belies the heavy themes.
Near the end comes the slinky, strutting song “Meltdown Radio,” the ballad of a vulnerable cowboy, with lyrics that seem subtly self-reflective through new eyes: “You walk through this town like you’ve got nothing to prove,” Register sings. “You walk through this town like you know just how to move.”
The album closes with “Loamlands,” a surging almanac of struggle and resilience in the South, defended as “a hotbed of resistance to the whiteness that keeps trying to bury you.” As the name is interred, history is held to light. But what to make of this incredible coincidence?
“I’m a Pisces,” says Register, who has never thought for a moment that it was anything other than an energetic connection, a cosmic debt come calling. “Shit like this happens all the time if we pay attention to it, but we’re so seated in individualism and capitalism and materiality. It’s the artist’s job to pay attention to that energy. I decided to make a big deal about it publicly, and it makes sense that it’s hard to believe. Who would want to share the racist-ass history of their whiteness with everybody, including some people who are proud of it?”
And anyway, perhaps it’s not such a huge coincidence—when it comes to white supremacy in the South, the die is so loaded. Seek, and you shall find.
But history is memory, a slippery thing. When I asked Will Hackney if he’d named Loamlands, he dug up an email thread showing that in fact, he and Register had contributed one word each, “loam” and “lands.”
Even more striking was reading a message in which Register mulls over the name.
“Loamlands has yet to grow on me,” they wrote. “It leaves a weird feeling in my mouth after saying it … whatever that means.”
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