music (2006-38)

Western Wonderland

Oakley Hall is what country would sound like, if Nashville didn’t suck

by Kevin Crowe

When Pat Sullivan (a.k.a. Papa Crazee) was in Oneida, there seemed to be no limit to successful experimentation. Their songs could, at times, sound like music coming out of a Medieval monastery, like a Gregorian chant, with a spacey-electric wiggling, noodling reverb as a backbone, à la Terry Riley.

Everything was electrified, bursting with a thunderous, Zeusian charge. And the lyrics always had that repetitious, chanting quality, as they went beyond Gregorian or Benedictine chants, past deep-throated Tibetan Hannyashingyou and trance-like Zen mantras. They were postminimalist, more diatonic than chromatic, as their repetitions hypnotized listeners with pulsing, insistent patterns, mathematically progressing, akin to a Fibonacci sequence, building towards crescendo. Bet Rhys Chatham was proud. But for Pat Sullivan, maybe it just got old. He left in ’97.

“Jesse (Barnes) and myself had a band with Claudia (Mogel) at the same time I was in Oneida,” Sullivan says. “It was very much a traditional Gram Parsons kind of band…. It’s become more focused and more electric now.”

Nowadays Oneida goes on without Sullivan, still playing mad scientists with sound, still making their strange musical fetishes work. And Sullivan moved forward, too, first on to more traditional arrangements with a band they called Crazee & Heaven, a short-lived group that would become the framework for his next project. In 2002, he brought together a few avant-gardes and traditionalists to form Oakley Hall.

“What was nice about it,” Sullivan explains, “we could play heavier stuff and the more traditional arrangements in the same set. It was very liberating.”

There have been some lineup changes since ’02, but since Rachel Cox (of the Podunks and Ospreys) joined in ’04, the sestet has been able to evolve as a cohesive, forceful front.

“We think of ourselves as a rock’n’roll band, a string band in harmony,” Sullivan says, dismissing critics who are wont to label the sound as alt-country. “The actual product we have is different from an alt-country approach. We find it to be a limiting term. It’s all roots rock. Calling it ‘country’ just because it is, I dunno. Who cares?”

Their newest album, Gypsum Strings , may be a strange mix of styles, ranging from gypsy musical sensibilities to Flamenco dexterity to something that can sound like ’70s psych rock, with dueling vocals, hard-hitting trance numbers and downhome country riffs. But Oakley Hall’s repertoire isn’t just a disparate collection of genres; there’s logic to their manic ways, as they infuse their finger-pickings with exploratory rhythms and dicey tonal oscillations. Nevertheless, their vocals remain grounded in a folksy lexicon, and they always seem ready to out-ballad the so-so countrified folk heroes we’re sick of seeing on CMT.

Oakley Hall, more so than today’s wannabe Southern pop-country stars, keeps the old southern twanging resonance pure, with an ever-present tinge of Willie Nelsonian rebellion, reminding us of what good old country music might’ve evolved into if Nashvillian egomania hadn’t stagnated the genre’s authenticity.

“In the modern age, everyone has access to the same information,” Sullivan says. “We can all get the same records. Not to say that there isn’t some validity to geography. My personal approach is pretty kitchen-sink, really. With six of us, we all bring something different to the table.”

There’s a bona fide Appalachian sound when they’re onstage, but it’ll be distorted by Cajun backbeats and Greg Anderson’s surf drum dexterity more often than not, all while Fred Wallace manages to evoke the spirit of Django Reinhardt from time to time.

“That is what we want to do,” Sullivan says. “I think the old record had a framework, but the last one was built on interpretations…. It’s difficult to get a flow with so many people. There’s no definite prerequisite; we go collectively to where we feel. I think that’ll continue to happen.”

Even the band’s name was born out of esoterica, a reference to the novelist Oakley Maxwell Hall. Hall is best known for Wizard , a dark Western infused with psychological matèriel and McCarthian hysteria. It became a favorite of postmodern stalwart Thomas Pynchon, perhaps influencing his historical masterpiece Mason & Dixon .

“We actually struck up a correspondence with him,” Sullivan says of the band’s namesake. “I think he may have bought three albums actually. He’s a rock’n’roller. All his friends are jealous that he has a band named after him.”

Who: Oakley Hall and Calexico