So there I am, slumping in my favorite chair on the back porch of my Tucson digs, when into my peripheral window slithers a large black-and-yellow-banded bull snake. Suddenly I am on full alert, for despite the fact that bull snakes out here are considered good neighbors — they trim back the rat population, and their territorial nature helps keep rattlers from coming around — they are, after all, snakes. And this one’s seven feet long, easy.
This normally wouldn’t be of interest here. Except for the fact that at that very moment, I’ve got Whine De Lune, the new album from North Carolina band Trailer Bride, playing in the background, and there’s a number on it titled “Too Many Snakes”. A catchy country-blues, the ditty features leader Melissa Swingle warbling out the following plea: “Patrick was a good man/He drove out all the snakes/That’s why they made him a Saint/St. Patrick, we are calling on you/We got too many snakes ’round here, yes we do/Got too many snakes ’round here.” Uh-huh.
Serpentine synchronicity or no, the coincidence almost seems serendipitous. The past week or so has found me listening to Whine De Lune and its predecessor, Smelling Salts, on a daily basis — so frequently, in fact, that my nightly repose has begun to be invaded by memory-dreams of North Carolina.
“Well, I certainly hope they were good dreams!” laughs Swingle when I confess that her music’s gotten way deeper under my skin than I’d planned. Turns out she lives in rural Chatham County, not far from where I lived (in a trailer, believe it or not) in the ’70s while attending college in nearby Chapel Hill. Back then, many a weekend was spent at neighborhood pig pickings featuring plenty of down-home hoot, holler and twang. So now it seems oddly appropriate that Swingle’s music, itself an eclectic collision of hillbilly rock, minimalist blues and funky country, additionally conjures memories of those earlier gatherings. In fact, a line like “too many snakes ’round here” is something a local might utter — then and now.
“Yeah, it sure is,” agrees Swingle, in a soft Tarheel drawl. “I think sometimes I absorb the dialogue and subconsciously it’ll come out. That is a North Carolina thing — ‘He’s a snake, watch out for him!’ I had a neighbor tell me that one time, warning me about somebody. And there’s a major literal part in that song, too: My drummer, whose place we practice at, has a huge six-foot boa constrictor that got out. I was going down the hallway and there it was. I screamed bloody murder! The very next song I wrote was ‘Too Many Snakes’. He still has that damn snake. Some people like ‘em, but I dunno…”
The name Trailer Bride has to be one of the great band monikers. Like fellow Carolinians Southern Culture On The Skids, or Flat Duo Jets, or even Two Dollar Pistols, the imagery of the name conveys a hint of the music contained within, a bit of the characters behind it. An album title like Whine De Lune delves further into the imagery. Before you even hear the record, you sense it’s a breed apart, the way it subtly envisions the Debussy composition “Claire de Lune” (a favorite of Swingle’s late grandmother, it turns out) transplanted to a blue-collar setting, suggesting an exotic blending of crass and class.
The group employs some very traditional instrumentation: guitars, mandolin, banjo, standup bass, lap steel, harmonica, bowed saw. It’s just that the music comes out different, and that’s partly due to Swingle’s voice, a lazy, nasal, blue-note-sliding whine (think of a cross between Lucinda Williams and P.J. Harvey) that, wedded to her often gothic or mordant brand of storytelling, further emphasizes the band’s uniqueness. Like the South itself, Trailer Bride’s charisma rests in its idiosyncrasies.
Yet by her own account, Swingle was a late bloomer, musically speaking, not even picking up a guitar until she was 28. In fact, there’s not much in her pre-Trailer Bride life to suggest she’d one day be fronting one of North Carolina’s best combos. Growing up the daughter of a pair of Baptist missionaries, Swingle was exposed to everything from the Beatles and Cat Stevens (her father’s favorites), to gospel and classical (her mother’s), to the tribal rhythms and sounds of Africa’s Ivory Coast, where her family moved when she was 11.
She attended missionary school in Africa, an experience she now characterizes as valuable: “I realized not just what an American I am, but what a Southerner I am. I was surrounded by other missionaries’ kids from Illinois, Indiana, and they’d make fun of my accent. So that’s why, maybe, when I started making music it just came out Southern. I wanted to latch onto an identity.”
After graduating from high school, Swingle returned to the States, eventually marrying and migrating to Chapel Hill around ’89. She was drawn to the town’s bustling music scene but at that point was content to pursue a career as a visual artist (some of her oil paintings adorn Trailer Bride’s CD sleeves). “At the time I didn’t realize I had a talent to make up my own music,” she says. “Every time I paint, I have to have music; good music puts me ‘in the spot.’ But I’d gotten burned buying lots of stuff, so I finally decided maybe I should make my own music.”
Around the same time, in ’93, Swingle became pregnant with her daughter, Isabel, an event that would prove doubly fortuitous. “See, I used to chain-smoke while I painted,” she continues. “So the smoking of course had to go. Then I decided maybe the paint fumes, the turpentine, might be bad as well. So I stopped painting for nine months, and I thought I’d go insane! I worked on really learning guitar then, and I had no luck at doing covers at all so I made up my own songs. It was like opening up a floodgate! Boom, I found what I liked.”
Trailer Bride made its debut at the tail end of 1994, just Swingle and a drummer girlfriend. After a year or more of shifting lineups, things began to come together, starting with the inclusion of drummer Brad Goolsby. After completion of a self-titled debut in ’96 for the homegrown Walt label, standup bassist Daryl White came into the fold.