With a local music career pushing 30 years [with the band Teenage Love, of which John Sewell is also a member—Ed.] the perpetually embalmed Rus Harper is decomposing into something of a renaissance period with his latest act, the Melungeons. Deformed, debauched, bastard spawn of Leadbelly, the Gun Club, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Nick Cave, the band is a virtual who’s who of usual local suspects (bassist Brad Deaton, drummer Kevin Trotter, guitarist Bill Irwin, and Doug Hemphill on harmonica). The Melungeons’ debut disc, Blackwater Swamp, offers 14 tracks of gutbucket blues and eerie Americana; it’s an odd twist for Harper, whose earlier acts seemed to privilege aural destruction over melody.
But the lyrics cover Harper’s usual obsessions—sex, death, and dissipation. The most surprising thing about Blackwater Swamp is the way that the band deftly employs restraint more often than bombast, delivering a slow burn that might be even more scarring for the listener. Well into his career, Harper has proven that he’s more than a one-trick pony. It’s the damnedest thing: He actually sings here, and pulls it off with aplomb. He must have finally sealed that deal with Satan that he’s been brokering for a lifetime.