Times have definitely changed for the Mertons. They have a new drummer (Jeff Duncan) and a powerful new CD out on Black Dog Records, a label most closely associated with seminal alt.country band Blue Mountain. The new record is called Girandole, a somewhat obscure English word meaning a bunch of fireworks or bottle rockets shot off all at once in varying directions. Unlike the Mertons’ rougher-edged, self-produced first record (A Standing Ground, 1997), Girandole was recorded in virtual summer-camp luxury at Route 1 Recording in Monticello, MS.
Things have not always been so easy for these boys from Frankfort, Kentucky. They started ten years ago as a high school cover band, four guys anxious to play any paying gig. And, like many upstart bands, some of the places they have played over the years haven’t exactly been church socials.
“We played a show in a cockfighting venue once,” says singer and primary songwriter J.P. Hanly. “The [booking] agency called up and said, ‘We’ve got a gig for you this weekend, in Maysville.’ They didn’t really tell us much about the place, except it was called Grumpy’s. As we drove up, we saw it was actually called Grumpy’s Gravel Pit. And the pit? Well, the floor of the bar was totally gravel and in the middle was a recessed concrete pit with a drain and bloodstains around the drain.”
To exacerbate the situation, the gig came during a time when the Mertons were trying to wean themselves off cover material and establish an identity with their own material. “So, here we are in a time in our band’s life where we’re trying to be righteous and play our original stuff, and suddenly we find ourselves playing at a cockfighting bar and having to relearn all of our Guns n’ Roses covers,” Hanly recalls. “We learned a bunch of new songs that night just trying to keep ourselves from getting killed.…It really was dangerous. I had a guy threaten me with a knife to play an AC/DC song.”
Did you play it? “Hell, yes. We had just played an R.E.M. song and a Beatles song. He didn’t care; he wanted to hear some AC/DC.”
There’s still a bit of AC/DC in the Mertons’ music, along with a healthy dose of Son Volt and maybe a little Sex Pistols. Most of the songs on Girandole are fast and loud, but Hanly’s lyrics are complex and packed with ideas and images — not exactly metal material. And the hard-rock backing laid down by the Simpson brothers (Steve on lead guitar, Jason on bass) keeps the swell of words rushing forward. The effect, in fact, is not unlike the fireworks display describe by the new album’s title.