Pinebox Serenade pretty much called it quits in 2016.
It was around then that the wave of story-driven Americana music led by bands such as Fleet Foxes, The Decembrists and Bon Iver was broken apart over a groundswell for stomp & holler bands ho-ing and hey-ing the genre into radio-friendly mediocrity.
“We just kind of quietly put this thing to bed with no real intention to come back to it,” singer and guitarist Chris Welch says. “This kind of music was less popular, and it was hard to book shows. There was just nobody else to play with.”
What had started as a three-piece string band in January of 2004 and grown to include as many as eight members dissolved as its members moved to other projects — namely the indie rock ‘n’ soul band Chris Welch & The Cicada Killers.
Things were looking pretty good for the Cicada Killers at the end of 2019. They booked a European tour, scheduled studio time, and the band was a few days away from playing their last show of the year opening for The 40 Acre Mule and Pleasant Grove at DoubleWide.
They also had plans to start doing stuff with Pinebox Serenade again.
“I sort of missed writing these songs, like, story songs,” Welch says. “I talked to [fiddle player] Holly [Manning] about wanting to start it back again. We originally were going to come back as a four-piece string band style — upright bass, violin and mandolin — but after the stroke happened, I needed a drummer.”
Welch suffered a stroke in December 2019. If you thought the pandemic was the ultimate plan-killer, imagine being a vocalist and guitarist who can’t sing or play.
“It happened on a Wednesday,” Welch remembers. “I lost my right arm and left leg, so I couldn't use either. I was in a wheelchair, and my singing voice was gone.”
Knowing that Welch was a musician, the folks at Pate Rehabilitation in Anna designated an hour of time during each visit for Welch to practice guitar.
Welch remembers struggling to get through Social Distortion’s “Ball & Chain” in a room with poor acoustics wondering if he would ever be able to play like he used to.
“I started to jam with one of the drummers from one of my other bands,” Welch says. “I couldn't even really play. It was driving me crazy … It was good to have a drumbeat to play along to. Even though it was terrible, it came back relatively quick, I guess, but I still can't do everything.”
One day after returning home from rehab, Welch penned a song that he had been working through in his mind since he first went to the hospital, “Strangled Brain.”
“You know, you kind of feel like you're strangled [after a stroke], like you can't do it, you can't breathe, you can't answer,” Welch says. “When you’re not able to do things you did before, not be able to play songs you wrote or even walk, that’s when you realize that it's your brain.”
Welch points to his brain — that useful organ that we think with, which houses all of our memories, an organ we are conscious of while being unconscious of its processes:>“That's where all of that comes from,” he says.
“Strangled Brain” is the last track of four new songs on Pinebox Serenade’s Haphazardly EP, available on all platforms and 7-inch vinyl on Friday, March 5.
The other tracks on the EP take inspiration from historical events from the dark side of American life. “Finger of God” is about Welch’s time working in the areas of Dallas and Garland affected by the 2019 tornadoes, “Built Me a Gallows” is a blues song drawn from the history of public execution and “Peggy” tells the story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders from the perspective of the Phantom Killer’s wife.
“To me, it’s the human experience,” Manning says of the subject of “Peggy.” “I know that with the pandemic and [February's record winter storm], I marched a little bit closer to being a psychopath than I was before all this started, but we're applying our perspective of standard of living to these scenarios.
“I think it's important for us to remember how privileged we are now that that can't just happen. You know? Like, the Texarkana Lovers Lane murders wouldn't have happened nowadays.”
Haphazardly is just the first batch of new material from Pinebox Serenade, with live shows in the works for when things get back to normal. While it may seem counterintuitive to combat dark times with dark music, Welch and company say that it has always been this music that has gotten people through the hardest of times.
“The music that really kind of took me, like Leonard Cohen or things like that, when I was growing up, that's what got me, that's what made me feel something,” Welch says. “That's why I want to go that direction.”
“It's a pillar of the genre,” Manning adds. “It's a sad song of songs. It's the muck that people have to get through that I think keep it relevant.”
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