More than three years have passed since the last tour of the great Americana miners Magnolia Electric Co. The band has recorded no new music during that break, and its members have scattered to separate corners of the country.
But guitarist Jason Groth always believed that the five-piece would reconvene, that its end had not come to pass. Like his bandmates, he simply hoped that, when the time came, the band's architect and singer, Jason Molina, would be alive to lead the return.
Next week, the band will play its first four concerts since 2009, but Molina will not be there: He died in March, his 39-year-old organs finally failing after he abused alcohol—and largely concealed the issue—for a decade. Instead, a surrogate singer, Michael Taylor of Durham's Hiss Golden Messenger, and the remnants of Magnolia Electric Co., Groth included, will give Molina's songs one last farewell. The shows offer a chance at closure for a group that never actually broke up.
"All of us had moved to different places or started a new band or taken different jobs, but not one of us believed that the band was over," says Groth, who moved to Raleigh this summer after spending two decades in Bloomington, Ind., where he earned two degrees and joined a half-dozen bands. "All of us had this hope, but we knew that we wouldn't be able to tour until Jason was ready."
Molina tried to be ready: For years, he mostly hid his addiction, incorporating it into a personality that Groth calls stubborn and smart and into a songwriting pace that was feverish. In only 15 years, he released nearly 20 albums either under his own name, with Magnolia Electric Co. or its precursor, Songs: Ohia. His reams of songs shuffled between dog-eared folk and tender ballads, between raging electric rock and exquisite R&B. He was an active collaborator, too, constantly forming new partnerships on the road or as he'd move from city to city.
"I admired his ability to use location as the impetus for art," says Groth. "He'd meet people and maybe have only one recording session with them."
But during a tour of Europe by bus in 2009, his restlessness and addiction conspired to turn the trip into a train wreck. He barely slept for three weeks, his head spun by the ceaseless carousel of shows, interviews, tourist distractions and coach wheels that rolled even as the rest of the band retired for the night. (Groth is documenting that tour episodically on his revealing blog, The Beach Dog, at groakus.tumblr.com.) On the subsequent, and last, trip to Europe, Molina finally admitted he had a problem; more than a year later, he checked himself into rehab.
Molina bounced in and out of programs, joking at one point that he was again on tour—this time, of rehab centers. After a slump in productivity, he started to write songs again, going so far as to call Groth and suggest they meet and work on new material. Every time they'd set a date, though, Molina would bail. Sobriety teased Jason Molina.
"He would start bingeing again. Drunkenness and shame would keep him from showing. Jason's illness and subsequent death was from a disease that, for a long time, he thought he was able to control," says Groth. "But it got so out of hand that he was unwilling, or maybe unable, to decide every day when he woke up to not take a first drink and let it take over his life."
Many of Molina's best songs seemed to glimpse sadness rising at the horizon line—coming inevitably, but not quite there yet—or treated it as a state of being so inescapable it felt like second skin. "I've been as lonely as the world's first ghost," he offers in an especially reedy tenor near the start of what became the last album by Magnolia Electric Co., 2009's Josephine.
But during his final years, a network of old pals and collaborators, well-wishers and fans conspired to not leave him alone, to do everything possible to restore his health. On tour, his bandmates would hide liquor from him; when they came off the road, they morphed into a support network that, in some sense, attempted to hide Molina from the liquor. Groth remembers massive multi-state email chains, where friends would coordinate prospective rehabilitation programs and then celebrate his willingness to participate. When he passed out, friends would pick him up and take him where he needed to go.
As his addiction finally became public in 2011, donations to offset his living and medical expenses poured in after a plea from his family. Other requests for help followed, including an impassioned one from Molina's longtime friend, critic and Chunklet founder Henry Owings. "Jason Molina is not well. However, you could assist in his recovery," it closed. "I hope this helps. I love you, Jason."
One such songwriter who offered his assistance was Hiss Golden Messenger's Taylor. Magnolia Electric Co. and Taylor's former band, The Court and Spark, had toured together; they were both clear precursors to the rise of roots rock acts such as My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses. Their leaders had kept in touch. During conversations with Molina after he'd gone to rehab, Taylor worried that the process of addiction and recovery had burned through Molina's mind. Turns out, he was still drinking. "I thought it was because his brain had just been through hell, but now I understand that he was completely fucked up. It sounded like he was still in pain."
Still, Taylor wanted to help, so he encouraged Molina to take asylum in North Carolina. At the time, Taylor and his family lived in their first house in Durham. Taylor told Molina he'd set up a small studio in a spare room. He could rest and record with no pressure or expectation. But once again, Molina never made it, just as he never arrived for those sessions with Groth.
"It's tragic because this very young guy passed away, and he was in a lot of pain," Taylor says. He's been pouring through Molina's catalog lately, preparing to sing his songs. "But from an artistic standpoint, listening to these records with the perspective I have at the moment, I can see where he was going to go. I don't think his best music was behind him. It's sad to know that won't bear out in any healthy way."
Despite the loss it entailed, Groth says the time spent with Molina and in Magnolia Electric Co. was formative. It taught him about the needs of people and the power of friendship. When he organized a Bloomington tribute for Molina back in May, dozens of musicians flew in to participate in a five-hour concert that retraced his career chronologically.
Two months later, Groth and his wife moved into a Raleigh apartment off Wade Avenue. He received a two-year fellowship with the N.C. State Libraries system, where he manages the recording studios in the new multimedia-rich James B. Hunt Library. He learned that he'd won the fellowship only two weeks after Molina's death; now, he's able to walk to work and not pass the places where Molina used to live or where they used to see shows together.
"Going away was a relief because a change of location after a tragedy can be helpful," he says. "You can think about it more cerebrally, without signs around you all the time reminding you what's missing. "
This article appeared in print with the headline "Farewell transmission."