One theory often floated says that the best art rarely ever comes from a major cultural center. Shakespeare was from the small-ass town of Warwickshire. Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan? Both Midwesterners. Sure, provincials eventually end up in a supposed hub of culture, or their brash styles leach into hipper (but, paradoxically, less interesting) locales, but that isn't where the really excellent, lasting stuff seems to get its start.
With its focus on the local and regional, a citywide music festival like Hopscotch makes a strong case for this pro-provincial theory. More specifically, the second Hopscotch celebrates the full spectrum of the South, flipping the frustrating stereotypes and played-out clichés that don't need to be explained to anybody kicking around in the Triangle but that, nevertheless, persist elsewhere whenever the area's invoked.
Mount Moriah is the Durham country-rock band led by Heather McEntire and Jenks Miller, musicians whose roots rest in metal and post-punk. Yelawolf is a poetic, white, skate-rat rapper from Gadsden, Ala. Together, they represent Southerners caught between the past and present. Songs like Mount Moriah's "Plane," which opens with the line "I fell for you in your attic," and Yelawolf's backroads murder ballad "Pop the Trunk" place both storytellers squarely in the Southern Gothic tradition. But their work also makes it clear that they respectfully intend to update the region's more problematic precedents, even while highlighting the variance of Southern living.
On "Reckoning," from Mount Moriah's self-titled debut, vocalist McEntire croons, "Momma, rest your mind/ I found a lover, she's gentle and kind," her song's narrator deftly coming out to a parent whose beliefs in the Bible remain stalwart. If country radio still played anything that sounded like country, this pronoun would sneak by unnoticed—and that's a huge part of its casually subversive brilliance. Midway through "Reckoning," there's a wizened guitar solo that artfully suggests Nashville while sounding triumphant enough for a hook that cheekily threatens mom with "I will reckon you." It's heavy-hearted, too, conveying the pangs of guilt that exist when a knotty respect for sometimes-ignorant elders interferes with your own life.
Yelawolf is another Southern subversive. He's country and hip-hop at the same—not due to cornball fusion but by circumstance, because the South's just wonderfully weird like that. He's from a self-described Gummo-esque upbringing that places meth labs and sweatpants in the same aesthetic arena as hood-ass house parties and Adidas tracksuits. His beats can twang like roots music, thump like crunk and headbang like beer metal at the same time; his lyrics are novelistic attempts to reconcile supposed contradictions of his region. On "I Wish," from last year's Trunk Muzik 0–60, Yelawolf describes Confederate flags on pick-up trucks blasting gangsta rap; he's amused by the image but sensitive to the weird contingencies of tradition conflicting with the present. "His daddy was a dope man," Yela sings. "Lynyrd Skynyrd didn't talk about moving keys of coke, man." These so-called rednecks relate to this rap shit just like everybody else.
Baltimore-via-Greenville, N.C., synth punks Future Islands and Raleigh-Wilmington electro soulsters The Foreign Exchange help destroy stereotypes of the South as an unsophisticated place that's slow to change. Both groups are sleek and elaborate, though tempered with a homely sincerity that's rarely allowed in such robotic pop.
Future Islands vocalist Samuel Herring's lyrics are cryptic, a little arty even, but they're all break-up songs—with someone or something or somewhere. Even as Herring mines the awful feeling of dashed hopes, he avoids urbane hipster cynicism with excited declarations of perseverance, intensified by William Cashion's confident basslines and Gerrit Welmers' warm, electronic soundscapes. The group's latest, On the Water, is a quiet affair with nature-sound interludes and a somber attitude best represented by the hopeful hook of "Balance." Reminding the hopeless that things will get better, Herring intones, "It just takes time," like he's a close friend giving you advice over several beers.
The Foreign Exchange recently released Dear Friends, a stunning live record; last year, they offered the lovesick Authenticity. They are an existential R&B group. Phonte Coleman, formerly of the legendary Durham rap crew Little Brother, sings his way into a difficult, more mature role as a grown-ass frontman and 30-something husband and father. And producer Nicolay Rook, from the Netherlands but now living in Wilmington, is similarly ill-at-ease but just as willing to explore the odd feeling of mental and spatial displacement. His production for the group mixes propulsive European electronica and house with the more natural sounds of rock, country and R&B. It's cosmopolitan but relaxed, openhearted and appropriate for Southern city living.
British avant-garage rockers Dan Melchior und Das Menace and confessional noiseniks Xiu Xiu, originally from the Bay Area, represent an equally vital aspect of the South: the transplants. Both artists relocated to Durham, illustrative of a significant number of creative types who enter the inviting and exciting South and sometimes realize it offers an escape from the obnoxious, much more expensive milieus of the East and West coasts. In turn, they add to its fascinating plurality.
"Inconsequential Things," from Das Menace's 2010 self-titled cassette, finds a monotone Melchior declaring, "sometimes a nasty song is what you need," as what sounds like two Krautrock instrumentals battle it out with each other in the background. It's a mission statement for the prolific painter and recording artist: Melchior's work sounds anachronistic and impossible, like Delta blues bounced by Syd Barrett across the Atlantic and back again, dragging the dungeon rhythms of British post-punk with it. Other areas may not tolerate such beautiful noise, unable to figure out how to contextualize it—next-level or simply passé?—but the sophisticated, primal groove is a perfect fit for the South.
In a series of darkly comedic, bitter blog entries, Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart expressed disdain for Durham upon first moving here: "More than a few times I have wished that my rotten little town of Durham, NC would be destroyed by a fire storm." He's occasionally lashed out at the city since, but the city's small but very weird, supportive and open-minded scene is perfect for the broken, howling noise-pop Stewart makes, on albums with titles like Knife Play and Dear God, I Hate Myself. Stewart's vitriol is actually a common response from someone new to the South, especially a confrontational personality like his. I've gone through a similar phase: Everyone's so fucking nice and reasonable here, you know? Where are all the snarky dilettantes and scoffing scenesters to scream at? For whatever reason, they're just not here.