The Dead South has never identified as bluegrass purists. Whereas genre traditionalists seek replicas, the Canadian outfit builds upon a genuine love for the music, creating records that owe as much to the past as they do to the band’s idiosyncrasies. Groups like Old Crow Medicine Show and Trampled by Turtles provided gateways for Dead South frontman/guitarist Nate Hilts and banjoist Colton Crawford, who fell for a sound that was both out of time and somehow now, like ghosts materializing. Since their full-length debut, 2014’s Good Company, The Dead South has delivered a brand of bluegrass driven by guitar, cello, mandolin, banjo, and subject matter suited for Appalachian horror stories.
The band’s latest releases, Easy Listening for Jerks – Part 1 and 2, are cover EPs that allow the band to have it both ways. On Part I, the band pays its respects to elder statesmen and women, including versions of “Keep on the Sunny Side”, “You Are My Sunshine”, and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. On Part 2, they commemorate– from the purist’s perspective– secular bands from The Dead South’s personal record collections, such as The Doors’ “People Are Strange”, Ween’s “Help Me Scrape The Mucus Off My Brain,”, and CKY’s “96 Quite Bitter Beings”. The latter collection should come as no surprise given that the band has closed shows with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”.
In anticipation of the EPs’ March 4th release, I spoke with Nate Hilts about cover songs, guitar lessons, and Meat Loaf.
CF- First, I didn’t expect the hear a cover of The Misfits’ “Saturday Night”! I was out driving, listening to Part 2, and heard the opening chords. I thought it was an old doo wop song– but I heard the moans and thought, “Is this ‘Saturday Night’?” And then the verse began! A solid choice! And love for Graves-era Misfits, which never happens.
NH- Yeah, it’s a great song! I know it’s a big divide between Danzig and Michael Graves what songs are better.
Was your music background more metal?
I was more of the punk rock kid, a little bit of metal. Most of the other guys, like Scott [Pringle] and Colton, were more the metal guys.
How did you guys transition from punk and metal to more traditional sounds? I’m thinking of the punk and metal scenes with their ride-or-die, you’re-with-us-or-against-us allegiances…
I guess that I was the kid that listened to everything. There was no strictly punk or strictly metal. I was listening to tons of Meat Loaf and Neil Diamond growing up, Anne Murray…
I haven’t heard her name in a bit.
Exactly! It was nice to have that mix of music. When I first met Colton, it was that revival of bluegrass-ish music, with Old Crow Medicine Show and Trampled by Turtles really taking stuff by storm, and I really dug it. When I met Colton, he had just gotten a banjo, so we started hanging out, just jamming around. It was pretty natural.
How did you approach the covers in a way that made them yours? How did you “Dead South” them?
Yeah, good question. I guess it’s sometimes you just sit down and… For example, on EP 1, we took a bunch of those traditional songs. I originally did one of the songs, “Keep On the Sunny Side,” in a major key. I sent it to the guys, and the guys all did parts. Then we were listening to it and said, “This fucking sucks.” Then I took another look at it and said, “I got to make the song minor.” The minor key is where a lot of comfort is in songs, same with “You Are My Sunshine”. Throw it into the minor, make it dark and gloomy, but it still has some power to it.
Did you grow up with “You Are My Sunshine”?
To a degree, right? Everyone knows the chorus, but no one really pays attention to the sad words.
You cover a lot of stylistic ground with these EPs. Who was responsible for exposing you to a variety of sounds when you were a kid?
Well, right off the bat, my parents listened to a nice mix of good music– Shania Twain, all the way to Meat Loaf, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band… That’s kind of where it all started. And then once the age of LimeWire and Napster, where you download songs, the world just opened up. I started finding songs left and right. Then I was actually the one that started introducing other people to music, which was really cool. I couldn’t imagine only listening to one style of music for the rest of my life because I just love what people do with sounds.
I forget how important LimeWire, Napster, and Kazaa were to me. I’d always spent money at the record stores, but taking a chance on CD was a $20 risk, maybe a $30 risk if it was an import. And some stuff was simply impossible to track down, otherwise. Now we have Spotify essentially filling that filesharing void. What’s your take on Spotify?
It’s definitely a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you are available to anyone in the world who has Spotify. They might stumble upon you– that’s successful. The possibility of getting discovered and exposure on there is fantastic. The tough thing about Spotify is that they don’t pay a ton for spins, so that’s where a lot of negativity comes from with a lot of artists because it’s much more profitable for the artist when you’re actually buying a song from them to listen to it, as opposed to just spinning. However, if you’re spinning that song all day, every day, that helps.
The band-related radio stations that Spotify curates have been especially helpful to me. Have you found any bands through the Dead South Radio?
You know, actually, that’s a great question. I know that I’ve been pretty turned on to some bands. I can’t think of any off the top of my head right now. Because yeah, I love when you’re done listening to playlist, and it connects you somewhere else, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s good. That’s real good.”
Keeping track of bands gets overwhelming these days. I’m not sure if it’s my memory slipping as I get older? If my priorities are elsewhere…
Well, that’s true. And it’s like what we were saying– there’s so many now. It’s just an open world.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I think it can actually cause a lot of ADHD with bands too. “I’m really into this band… Oh, now, the next band this week,” and it flies all over the place. So again, I think it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s always great to be able to discover bands. But when you have so many options, it’s easy to forget about some band that you were really into a month ago.
Getting back to the EPs, did Dead Sound start by covering songs? Find some common ground and go from there?
No, actually, we just started writing and jamming right off the hop. Covers are a foreign thing to us. But there was always this idea of when we were doing these EPs of doing whatever the hell we wanted with them. We had that project mindset of, “It’s just for fun, we’ll do as many as we want, and make them for the rest of our lives.”
At the beginning of COVID, we all got some recording gear because we’re all separated and weren’t able to see each other. This was a really good learning experience on how to use Pro Tools, how to take songs and make them our own a little bit. It was a good learning experience.
Were are you familiar with Pro Tools before?
No, not at all, and it’s not very user-friendly (laughs)!
Was that frustrating on your end or did that inspire you maybe down the road to do production work, to be on the other side of the glass?
Yeah, actually, I think one day that’d be fantastic. However, at the beginning it was super frustrating, to the point where I’d start trying to record something; then I’d to do something here, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and nothing was working. But then once you get the hang of it, start playing around, and actually doing research, it’s a lot of fun and really cool to do.
What was the process for choosing the songs you’d cover? Were there any arguments?
Actually, it was pretty easy. We all get along pretty, pretty well. The arguments are very far and few between, so it’s great. But when it came to EP 1, we went with the traditional side because we work with the publishing company called Pure Music. They were throwing around the idea of maybe going into their catalog, doing a couple of versions of our own. Then we thought, “Well if we’re going to do that, why don’t we just start this EP project? We’ll start with traditional sound for the first one.” Then that grew into doing a second one, which is more songs we grew up with. Basically, what we did for the second one was everyone picked a song that was their choice. Then we all picked a communal song, which was “Chop Suey”.
Concerning the traditional songs, did you have specific versions in mind that you used as the basis for your version?
For sure for “Matterhorn” by the Country Gentlemen. That was the version that we’re going off of. We changed that around a little bit. We added in a couple of minor drops here and there that aren’t in the original song, but that one, definitely. With “Keep On the Sunny Side,’ we wanted to do the Carter [Family] version of that. For “You Are My Sunshine”, I actually looked around at a couple, and I liked the Jimmie Davis one the best, so that’s why it shows that one. Then we did “Flint Hill Special”. Colton just rips on the banjo on that one. We had that one for sure because Colton just killed it.
Did you come across songs that you considered uncoverable?
Yeah, I kind of thought that with “Chop Suey”, not so much because I didn’t think that the playing ability of everyone wasn’t good enough. However, trying to sing like Serj Tankian, that’s not an easy feat, you know?
You’ve toured the world at this point. Have those opportunities exposed you to bands you’d never heard otherwise?
Oh, yeah, tons. Just from the festivals around the world, you come across a lot of cool bands, or a band gets to open for you that you’ve never heard of and then you create cool relationships that way, which is really nice.
What are some acts that have stuck with you?
Definitely, one that we just toured with–The Rainbow Girls. They’re from California, and I had never heard of them before, and now I’m listening to them quite regularly because they’re just so good. Max Paul Maria from Germany, he’s toured with us a handful of times, and he opens up quite a bit for us. I go back to listen to his stuff quite a bit, too. Actually, one that I didn’t discover because of this, but one that we’re pretty pumped about, was when we got to go on tour with Trampled by Turtles and play Red Rocks.
What was that like for you? It must have been tremendous…
It was amazing! It was that thing where every day on stage, I thought, “Man, I’m incredibly thankful,” and I just didn’t know how to articulate it on stage, ever. It was something else. I remember when we walked out on the Red Rock stage, and we looked up, and there were ten thousand people in the amphitheater. I looked over at Scott, and he’s got tears running down his eyes. Oh man, so cool.
I was going to ask if you’d become jaded at all, given your nonstop touring and COVID, but you sound as if you still have that fire…
No, I definitely don’t think we’re jaded by playing shows or anything. One thing that does happen is exhaustion, though. Every once a while, you get pretty beat, and then you think, “Oh, I got another show tonight,” which at the end of the show, you feel great because all the energy is back, but when you’re going in a little exhausted and defeated, it’s a little tough sometimes.
Were you thankful for the break that COVID afforded you?
One hundred percent. I think that we got so good at just going through the motions of, “We’re in this, and we chose to do this.” We’re getting a lot of great opportunities and touring the country with a lot of good turnouts. You keep pushing through, and then you think, “When is the next time we can take a break?” That time never really came until COVID. Before COVID, we had planned to tour the rest of 2020– holy shit, that sounds weird to say– and then we were going to take a few months break to chill out for a bit. And then the break ended up happening early, for eighteen months, and now we’re playing a year and a half catch up with tours!
Were you able to relax and rejuvenate, or did you use that time to write?
Little bit of both. I did some writing, have been playing with some new techniques, did some learning. I took some guitar lessons for a bit. I started learning how to use my voice differently, It was actually very beneficial for skill and recovery.
Did you ever think you’d become a student again at this point in your career?
One hundred percent. Like I said, at the beginning of COVID, I took those lessons, and I wish that I would have kept going. Probably, the next time I get a break, I’m going to hop back into some lessons.
What did you focus on?
Well, I’m one of those dumb guitar players that doesn’t really know what he’s playing. When I write songs, I write by ear– I have no idea what key I’m in, anything like that. Basically, the stuff I was learning was just knowing where exactly I am all the time, where every chord is, exactly what I’m playing, and not just going by sound. I’m learning some jazz chords, too.
Will some of those chords make their way onto the next record?
Oh, yeah, I think a couple of those chords because you can get some pretty nasty sounds, which I like.
Back to the EPs again, what makes for a good cover song?
I think what makes a good cover song is when you listen to it and you don’t even question whether it’s the original or not. You’re just so happy that you’re listening to it.
How do you get in the headspace to cover someone else’s song, since you didn’t write it?
Oh, man, it’s tough. It’s basically, “Let’s not ruin this thing!” (Laughs) Because a lot of times when you cover the song, it’s because you really like it and respect the artist, so you’ve got to get into an interesting mindset because you can’t copy it one hundred percent, unless you’re just nailing it. You got to make a cool version of it that you think is respectable enough to present.
Is recording another person’s song different? Did you feel like you were giving up some amount of control in the studio because they weren’t your songs?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s interesting too because the whole process was different. With EP 1, we recorded them all individually. For example, I would start a song, and I would track my guitar and vocals. Then I’d send it to someone else, not knowing what they’re going to do. They would just listen and then add a part, and then send it to the next guy, and then send it to the next guy. And then you think, “Oh, wow this is what everyone did. That was really cool.” That worked out great. Then you share some notes and then might have to redo a couple of parts, but normally, we’re in a studio doing that kind of stuff, so you can work on it in a moment.
With EP 2, we actually got together and went into a studio in Kelowna (British Columbia). This is also a lot different too because we didn’t practice any of these songs going in. We basically went in and said, “Okay, here’s how the song should go,” and then we would build it in that moment.
Was that chain mail approach a leap of faith, sending out ideas and hoping for the best?
Oh, no. I got a hundred percent confidence in these guys.
Did you pick up any techniques or philosophical approaches that you can apply to your next session?
Well, actually quite a bit. We actually know what the hell we are talking about a little more now when we’re in the studio, so that’ll be a lot easier for the engineers. I think that it gave us all a lot better sense because we’ve actually produced most of our albums, but, again, without really knowing what we’re doing. I think that our knowledge on how to produce stuff is really expanded with all of this, and we’re going to take that into the next album and see what kind of fun shit we can do.
What are some of your favorite cover songs?
Favorite cover songs? Oh, man… Colter Wall’s cover of “Big Iron” is incredible. Viagra Boys’ cover of “In Spite of Ourselves” is so good.
Are there any Dead South covers that you’re fond of?
I’m not too sure, actually? Okay, I’m sure this is just something that I should do, that I should go and take a nice dive down the rabbit hole!
At this point, you’ve released a live record [Served Live (2021)] and you have the covers EPs coming out. Some bands use these as transitional pieces, with the live record serving as a greatest hits collection, and a covers record giving a nod to the past, signaling a reset. Do these releases suggest a new era for The Dead South? Or is this just one more stop in your discography?
Ah, just one more stop. Basically, the live album and the EPs, it was all happenstance because of COVID. We weren’t going to release a live album yet because it was supposed to be the Served Cold tour where we’d get everywhere that we’ve played and then we pick out a bunch of different songs. But because it was cut off early, and we didn’t know when this stuff was going to pick back up again, we might as well start going on that live album because we were already recording shows. And the EPs, it was a good time to throw them in because we’re like, “Oh, now is a good time to start that project. So let’s do it.”
What’s on the horizon for you guys?
Yes, so we started touring again in September, and basically, we’re three weeks on, three weeks off, all the way till January.
I was going to close with that question, but you mentioned Meat Loaf a couple of times, and he recently passed away. Any memories or thoughts you’d like to share?
Oh man, I don’t have anything that’s too relevant to share. I just love Meat Loaf. I have that first album. It was something else! But I still don’t know when he says, “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that…” I still don’t know what that is (laughs)!
One of life’s unsolved mysteries…