Decent Folk

"I just got done frying up some bacon and eggs," Summer Hymns leader Zachary Gresham says with a lazy, Jimmy Carter drawl. "Now I just have to wash the pot."

Cleaning up after breakfast at 2 in the afternoon, Gresham is living the life most would-be rock stars dream about. He just ditched his latest temp job, something he describes as "putting up 3,000 windows in the Atlanta ghetto," and later this week, he'll pack into a van with his buddies to play gigs and see the country. During the few days of downtime before the tour, he wakes up late, fries up cholesterol-packed breakfasts, plays some guitar and chats on the phone. It sure beats working.

"I'm finally able to do the things that I've always wanted to do," Gresham says. "I started doing this because I liked being in front of people, and it's something that I guess I've gotten good enough at to pursue. I try not to think about it too much. I try not to analyze it."

Talking to Gresham, it seems impossible to believe that he loves being in front of a crowd. He mumbles and stutters with an endearing mountain of nervous energy. He doesn't suffer from the pretentious, typically self-important hubris of a burgeoning cult hero; he bears the weight of a wealth of humility. At one point he even fields a compliment with a bashful "geez Louise." But Gresham's candor defies the slack-jawed naïveté of his country-boy demeanor.

"I grew up in a Baptist church. That's enough to make anyone not religious by the time they are 21," he says directly. "Music is my religion. Creativity is my communion."

His work fronting Summer Hymns makes this statement immediately evident. With the band's latest, Clemency, Gresham's high-pitched narratives are confessional and literate, and--like the name of his band--constantly hinting at the ethereal. Sonically, Gresham leads the band through poppy psyche-country that places him alongside like-minded contemporaries like Clem Snide, Sparklehorse and Centro-matic.

Opting out of the band's usual home-recorded tradition, they migrated to Nashville to record Clemency with Mark Nevers, a member of Lambchop whose production credits include Vic Chestnutt and the Silver Jews. Under Nevers' guidance they abandoned some of the spacey elements of their two earlier efforts and built the record on simple sounds: weepy pedal steel licks, swaying beats, acoustic guitars and lofty vocal melodies. In "Be Anywhere" he croons, "I don't want to believe," again and again over a wash of pedal steel. It's one of the most defining moments of the record, rich with emotional weight and simple, disarming sincerity. Think of it as Neil Young and Crazy Horse for the Starbucks generation. Or maybe not.

"I grew up listening to what my parents had in their stack of records," Gresham says. "Neil Young was in there, but I don't think he had more of an influence on my subconscious musical wiring than Hall and Oates or Duran Duran. Maybe if I had a good soul voice, people would say I sound like John Hall...or Oates...or whichever one had the soul voice. The things I like don't have that much to do with what I sound like. I like Bob Dylan, but I don't write songs like him. I don't listen to other songwriters as mentors; I just try to enjoy them."

Gresham's mentors are a little more nepotistic. He spent most of his childhood in the Atlanta 'burbs, but in the summers he retreated to his grandmother's house in a rural area between Atlanta and Birmingham. There she taught him how to play piano and kindled his interest in music. He talks about those summers with timid nostalgia, reminiscing about singing songs around the piano and spending summer evenings on the front porch.

"It was more of a slow-paced environment," he says. "At home it was the suburbs, and we did normal stuff that suburban kids do--go to movies and Six Flags and hang out. But when I went to my grandmother's it was different. I used to sing in church and play piano. There is a certain folk background that is still in me a little bit from back then. I was exposed to folk music by playing songs and stuff, not by listening to it."

By the time he was a teen-ager his ears were full of alternative-nation staples, seminal innovators like the Pixies and Pavement. And as a freshman in high school he did what any hot-blooded, music-loving, postadolescent male would: He got a cheap guitar, gathered up some school chums and channeled his angst into what he lovingly refers to as an "awfully obnoxious punk band." A far cry from the poignant balladeering of Summer Hymns.

"Eventually, I grew dissatisfied by sounding like every other indie band that worships Pavement," Gresham says. "I needed to listen to more kinds of stuff and play more kinds of stuff. I started getting into Krautrock and psychedelic music and the Harry Smith Folk Anthology. I didn't want to play noise rock, and I thought it made sense to start fresh with a new outlook."

The most important catalyst for Gresham's new attitude happened when he was awarded a Hope Scholarship from the Georgia Lottery. He packed his bags for Athens, home of the University of Georgia and ground zero for independent music in the Southeast. As he became more serious about playing, he eventually dropped his anthropology and religion studies, with only four classes standing between him and a diploma. He became a fixture in the town's hyperactive indie-pop scene, rubbing shoulders and playing gigs with bands from the Elephant 6 and Kindercore labels.

"I don't really know what to say about that [Kindercore] scene," he admits. "I know a lot of people in those bands, and they are my friends, and I know that when many people hear 'Athens' they think 'Kindercore.' To some people it's a good thing, and to some people it's a bad thing. I don't really know if it's good or bad. Some people have probably checked us out only because we are from Athens."

The baggage that comes along with made-in-Athens is kind of overwhelming for Gresham. He thought about taking the band's hometown off the Clemency liner notes just so people would listen without prejudice.

"It's kind of hard to really see Athens for what it is when you're in the middle of it," he says. "It's a different kind of town. It's a transitional town because it's a college town. But I never thought about the music here before I got here. I didn't care about R.E.M. or anything like that, and when I came here I came to go to school, not be in a band. The scene here is mostly college cover bands that play frat parties and people who play small shows with their friends. But the town is very, very supportive, and that's why there are bands in Athens that are always on the verge of something bigger."

He almost seems to be referencing himself. Summer Hymns embodies every aspect of the band-on-the-verge cliché: Clemency is the most accessible, melodic and polished of their three full-length efforts, their critical buzz is deafening and, as the result of a new lineup (which replaces moonlighting members of indie darlings Of Montreal and Elf Power), the band is able to tour whenever it wants. Even though at 26 Gresham is still a pup by many standards, he is starting to feel like it's now or never.

"I've been playing music a long time," he says. "I tell myself, 'I'll keep doing it till I'm 25. If nothing happens, I move on.' And you get to 25 and you're like, 'I'll keep doing it till I'm 27.' Now I'm almost 27. I guess I'll give myself till 30."

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Nate Cavalieri