Centralia Massacre is one of Knoxville’s ever-evolving folk bands, known best for a string of stellar live shows at the Preservation Pub and an effortless old-school charm. The down-home harmonies produced between guitar and ukulele player Laura Bost and banjo picker James Maples soar to sweet, soulful highs and drop to understated, plaintive lows, with plenty of middle ground in between. Upright bass player Johnny Walker rounds out the group, striking a modern, jazzy vibe.
But Centralia Massacre’s real distinction is its songwriting. The band’s self-released album Right at Home came out earlier this year and has been a local sleeper hit. With songs like the feisty “What a Woman’s Gotta Do” and the more melancholy “Capitalist,” it’s easy to draw comparisons to everyone from Syd Straw to the Avett Brothers.
But it’s the band’s song “Couch,” an ode to domestic bliss, that has captured Knoxville hearts. With the warm-and-fuzzy lyrics and two-part harmonies, it’s impossible not to fall for its charms. But don’t expect such straightforward musing from the band all the time. “We’re not completely traditional, but not exactly experimental,” explains Bost. “There’s just a convergence of lots of influences. James has a strong folk background, and I have more of a country background, and I also studied jazz.”
“If you listen to the record it sounds like the days of our grandparents,” Maples continues. “Playing folk music is really just a statement of where we’re from. It’s our reflections on days more like our grandparents lived. It’s us going back to our roots.”
Bost and Maples met serendipitously at a Pilot Light gig gone haywire. At the time Maples was playing as Centralia Massacre—the name comes from two incidents: the 1864 execution of 24 unarmed Union soldiers by Confederate guerillas in Centralia, Mo., and a fatal labor riot in Centralia, Wash., in 1919—by himself, while Bost was a member of local popsters Hudson K. After the night’s headliners cancelled due to a bout of food poisoning, both groups stepped up to round out the evening with an intimate show. That started the ball rolling.
A few weeks later, Bost joined Maples as a back-up singer for a show at the Old City’s Basement Gallery, which led the two to organize regular free showcases for folk music aptly named Folk Fight. By then the two were joined by Walker and had begun rounding out their signature sound. “There’s such a good folk community in Knoxville, and the crowds that Folk Fight was drawing were amazing,” Maples claims. “It was all really well timed, and it was good to see so many good folks band together and support each other.”
The band’s hometown success has had them playing all over town in various venues, but the group has forged some connections outside of Tennessee as well. Maples says the group has befriended the Lexington folk community and has played with several Ohio folk outfits. He’s ecstatic about playing with Cincinnati folk band the Tillers, a group Maples calls “just phenomenal,” in October. The two bands will perform two shows here, at WDVX’s Blue Plate Special and later at Preservation Pub.
It was at last week’s show at Preservation Pub that Centralia Massacre debuted its latest incarnation, with the addition of drummer Steve Corrigan from local bands the LoneTones and Same as It Ever Was. “Basically we talked to him and asked him to practice, and the show went great,” says Maples. “One thing it will allow us to do is play lots of types of music. We definitely already have the ball rolling for our second album in early 2009 and a few of the new songs we’ve already been playing live, so we’ll have them down and it’ll be quick to record.”
“Adding Steve on drums will just enable the sound to grow, and our sound just evolves over time,” adds Bost. “We loved being a duet and trio, but at the same time we want to do more rockin’ shows. We just enjoy music so much; we want to play all kinds of shows. We’ve used a lot of guest musicians at shows before, so it will definitely expand our possibilities.”
Just one problem. “We’ve always been able to fit the upright bass, amps, and mics in [Bost’s car], but definitely not a set of drums,” Bost says. It’s a challenge the group will have to overcome before heading to Louisville in November to play the Good Folk Fest alongside legend Daniel Johnston.