Not many bands can claim that they were formed in a cemetery. But it was a perfect and appropriately poetic setting for the birth of roots music trailblazers The Pine Hill Haints. Just to address the obvious, the word “haint,” of archaic English origin, means to haunt or to inhabit aggressively. And with a medium-like connection, The Haints have spent the last two decades resurrecting all kinds of music that has passed out of the mainstream – in a style they call “Alabama Ghost Country.”
“Twenty-five years ago, there was a group of us in Auburn and we were all into roots music,” recalls front man Jamie Barrier of their beginnings. “Meanwhile, me and my roommates had started a skateboard company. Whenever the police would come after us, everybody would run in a different direction, so they’d have to choose which of the eight they were going to chase. But every skater knew to meet up right beside my apartment, which was next to the Pine Hill Cemetery. I could open a window and walk out into the cemetery. It got to where we’d go into the cemetery with acoustic instruments and just jam.
“In some ways, we preceded the whole roots movement,” he continues. “But in other ways, nobody preceded anything. I guess where we were coming from has a lot more teeth for me than what’s happening now. People are almost afraid to say they love country without trying to up the rock side. But I think about the Carter Family just playing “You Are My Sunshine.” The purity and emotion of that. It’s almost like the hardest angle to find in country music today, so we wanted to really go there.”
On the band’s latest long-player, The Song Companion of a Lonestar Cowboy, they go there and to other colorful places on the Americana and Appalachian trail. The fifteen song sequence kicks off with “Fall Asleep” and “Back to Alabama,” a fiery pair of rockabilly-meets-Irish-jig rave-ups, then winds through standout tracks like the Bo Diddley-grooved “Pretty Thing,” a pounding tom-tom and fiddle take on the traditional “John Henry” and the catchy, cajun-flavored squeezebox pop of “Lone Star Kid.” There are excursions into Sun Records-style country (“Midnight Mayor” and “Louise”) and swampy blues (the saw-singing “Wade in the Water” and “Downtown Blues,” which features guest J.D. Wilkes on harmonica). Throughout, Barrier’s strong tenor voice rings familiar and friendly, with deep echoes of everything from John Lee Hooker to Buddy Holly to Johnny Cash. And the band plays with a sense of abandon that comes from thousands of gigs behind them. It all sounds deceptively simple, but anyone who plays music knows better.The Haints do something very few roots bands can, which is to transcend influences and sculpt age-old sounds into soul music for our time.