"Country's got some growin' to do," declares Mount Moriah guitarist and founder Jenks Miller over the phone.
"Yeah," sighs vocalist/guitarist Heather McEntire, who is also on the line.
The Durham group, which includes Casey Toll on bass and a variety of drummers or multi-instrumentalists given the session or the show, ostensibly make country music. Guitars twang. When there are strings, they do that half-depressed, half-confident lilt that, when it peppers the right ballad, can make you cry. McEntire sounds like a young Dolly Parton, her voice vulnerable and confident all at once.
On their new album, Miracle Temple, released in February and their first with Merge Records, Mount Moriah expands to a widescreen portrayal of small but loaded moments of generational discord. Cramming new South attitudes inside the old with delicacy and swagger, they are backed by Nashville-sounding arrangements and guest appearances from Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls and studio expert Allyn Love on pedal steel.
Country music has defied traditional values in the past. That part isn't new. Johnny Cash, synonymous with "country," is a paragon of liberal humanism; Loretta Lynn's "The Pill" was groundbreaking. "Alt-country" arrived to rectify an imbalance enacted by the often conservative mainstream. Recent CMT-friendly fare such as Eric Church's "Homeboy" and Jason Aldean's lyrical nods to hip-hop adjust a problematic reputation of racial animus. For better and worse, the now-viral "Accidental Racist"—an overly reductive collaboration between LL Cool J and Brad Paisley—is a symptom of the same tide.
Rather than being in defiance of the South or its values, Mount Moriah is very much in line with the South (and arguably the country) in 2013 as it attempts to acknowledge the past while it sorts out its values for the present and future.
Let's begin with "The Reckoning," from Mount Moriah's 2011 self-released, self-titled album. The song begins as a politely paced toe-tapper, and McEntire softly sings, "Momma rest your mind/ I've found a lover, she is gentle and kind," making that surprising pronoun easy to miss. And if you miss it, it may not immediately be clear that you are hearing a country-fried tale of coming out.
Old-fashioned prejudices encouraged by Christian fundamentalism are attacked. "If your old good book says its true/ Back of your knees locked to the seat of the pew," goes the chorus. "If it feels this painful and pure/ I will reckon you."
The narrator politely chides and then threatens the mother, without speaking out of turn. The song treads the precarious balance of respecting one's elders and forging new social values, long overdue.
McEntire bluntly discusses her approach to songwriting—no-nonsense, but empathetic: "You kind of have to know your enemy, you know?"
The second verse of "The Reckoning" is answered with Miller's soft guitar solo that hints at rage and frustration. On a record from his heavy metal band, Horseback, Miller's guitar might have exploded into roar of noise. Here, it walks away with an angry stomp.
Mount Moriah brings an insider-outsider approach to their music. Here is a metalhead and a punk rocker—McEntire was in noisemakers Bellafea—with deep-seated country knowledge, signed to indie heroes Merge, and powered by a "personal is political" attitude to songwriting.
"We're asking questions," McEntire clarifies. "Like, what can we take from our heritage? What do we want to preserve? What do we want to change?" But when appropriate, they musically roll their eyes at country stereotypes that need to be tossed in the trash.
"Everything we're bringing to this music is sincere," McEntire emphasizes. "And it comes from what we're listening to and what we've grown up listening to."
McEntire was raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where "country music is in the air and the land." With a tinge of irritation, she jokes, "It's hard to avoid." She speaks fondly of country coming from the family radio and proudly mentions that her grandfather was a bluegrass musician. Miller recounts idyllic childhood memories of attending bluegrass festivals.
At a certain point, though, the impulse to defy tradition took hold. "As an angry teenager, I saw it all as a thing to rebel against," Miller recalls, adding that he unwisely connected the rich, varied music to "very backward ways of thinking." Later, Miller and McEntire found themselves returning to the music of their childhood.
Miller credits the "academic" approach he took to music with assisting his country rediscovery: "Through my own experience of being a musician and understanding what was happening on a technical level, an appreciation for the good things that this music represented had been recast."
Self-reflection aided McEntire's return. She rattles off a series of questions she asked herself as an adult, looking back at her youth: "How did I come from a Southern Baptist? My whole family lives on one road, pretty isolated and a fairly narrow-minded or homogenous subculture. How did I come from that and get to where I am now?" Mount Moriah is a way of finding answers to those questions.
"Sometimes, traditional ideas don't allow you to be who you are or to grow in the direction you need to grow," Miller observes. "And one way of acknowledging those traditional ideas and also making room for new ideas is to create this ambiguous space."
Miracle Temple plays fast and loose with genre rules, embracing ambiguity. "Rosemary" begins with a indie pop drum fill and slinks along with the controlled chaos of jazz. The bass lines thump like they're lifted by a dance-pop record from New Order. "Union Street Bridge" weaves teenage kicks memories ("I ate mushrooms on a dare," McEntire confesses) around a menacing post-rock rumble.
Consider Miller's mysterious solo on "Eureka Springs," which quotes the Allman Brothers Band's "Blue Sky," though it feels more casual and relaxed—not less assured, mind you, but less intent on impressing you. It is a knowing tribute to Southern rock's guitar gods, tempered by a punk rock rejection of macho stadium-friendly ego-tripping, once vital and now played-out.
Mount Moriah are ironists, not in the snarky, above-it-all sense—their music oozes sincerity—but by way of a well-developed self-awareness. They refuse to get caught up in the mannered "rustic" moves far too common in po-faced Americana-courting bands such as Mumford & Sons or the Lumineers. "I think there's a tendency to try to copy something from the past in order to make it feel authentic," Miller says diplomatically. "And some bands are just pinned in a style."
Roots music remains "living and breathing," explains Miller. It's an attitude that belies his instinctive, visceral playing: "This is not such a fragile form that if you inject something new into it, it's going to melt or explode, you know? It's a dynamic thing."
There is little nostalgia on Miracle Temple, no idealized visions of a nonexistent, simpler time. McEntire's lyrics lean toward bittersweet narratives in which characters return to the past with hindsight and understanding.
There is a transgressive thrill to this mostly polite music. Yes, it's subversive, but Miller sees it as a key part of having a musical conversation with history: "I guess Mount Moriah does flip traditions, but at the same time, it's still the same thing. You don't have to look at us as flipping tradition to appreciate it as a musical form."
He pauses to recalibrate his thoughts: "Treating folk music and the traditional forms as breathing entities that have life can be meaningful today. Folk music has always been an expression of identity."
McEntire chimes in: "And of storytelling."
The quiet ways that Mount Moriah duck expectations are, according to McEntire, "a way to honor folk music and Southern music. Because it needs to be challenged."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The uses of the past."