The Pine Hill Haints are doing more than ever with as little as ever 

Try to forget for a moment the sort of shape-shifting that modern musical gear makes so easy. You need only touch a pedal to sonically (if not physically) transform an acoustic guitar into a shred-worthy, razor-edged electric. But there was a time—say, before Elvis shook it—when things were comparatively more primitive. Then the instrument itself, whatever that might have been and however it may have sounded, was what you had to work with.

What the Pine Hill Haints have to work with—even now, in 2010—shares much in common with that pre-effect-pedals era. Frontman Jamie Barrier has the most technologically advanced instrument of anybody in the group (a hollow body electric guitar), until he switches to old-time fiddle or banjo. His wife, Katie, has the washboard, mandolin and spooky musical saw in her arsenal. She's also the resident visual artist, designing things like album art, merch and an Opry-esque mic stand. ("She doesn't sing any Haints songs, but she is the core to that band," Barrier says.) Matt Bakula plays washtub bass and banjo, and a few others rotate in on snare drum and accordion.

If anything, those sound like the ingredients of some sort of postmodern jug band. The configuration was a necessity at first, but it's become a Haints signature. "I wish I could say that we had a sound we wanted and we were searching for it," Barrier says. "We walked into it dumb and blind. Used to be we were like, 'Eventually we're gonna have a standup bass and a drum kit.' But after a while we're like, 'Man, that bucket sounds cool.' After a few years, and when we actually did start touring...that's when, artistically, we got a lot deeper. People who heard us play kind of got it quicker than we did. We thought we sounded like John Lee Hooker or something."

Really, they didn't sound much like Hooker, or any of his predecessors. "In reality, the Haints were a punk band from day one," Barrier says. When Barrier and company let loose on their rustic instruments, they eventually found their groove with variations on a hyper, bopping—and yes, punk—train beat. They've gotten better and better at it (which is not to say they've smoothed all the rough edges) through several releases on their own tiny Arkam imprint and two—Ghost Dance and 2009's To Win or to Lose—on K Records, home also to Kimya Dawson and, early on, Modest Mouse.

Even though the Haints have stuck with their instruments and their train beats, they threw some major stylistic curveballs on their most recent album, introducing deconstructed-sounding flavors of calypso ("Bordello Black Widow") and reggae ("Never Gonna Die" and "Screamin' Jenny"). If Southern Gothic-inflected punk isn't precisely what you'd expect from jug band-ish instruments, tropical music is an even less obvious destination.

"That Caribbean and calypso and reggae, as much as we were like, 'Let's go for Johnny Cash and the Carter Family,' in reality what we're doing is more akin to music from the islands because it's all percussion," says Barrier.

He credits Bakula—who also writes and directs productions for an indie theater in Huntsville—with those songs. Says Barrier, "He'll write a play and he'll have two weeks and everybody will cram it and learn their lines and Matt will build the set and write the score and they'll show it and then it's gone. He'll have these incredible songs that were a part of the play. That's just one of his ways of keeping them alive."

As geographically motley-sounding as this latest recording might seem, there's nowhere the Haints are as identified with as Alabama. That's where the band started, and it's the home of the Pine Hill Cemetery that supplied both rehearsal space and a band name. Most importantly, Alabama local lore—ghost stories in particular—has inspired many of Barrier's songs.

"In the beginning," he says, "I never even thought that we would play a show. Or when we did start playing, I never thought we'd play out of state. So I used to really write a lot of songs—'Alabama This' or, 'This song is about a ghost story that took place over here.' I'm real into local stuff and all that, but I'm trying not to be too much like that now. I don't want to seem like I'm like, 'Alabama is number one.' "

Most of the wild tales on To Win—and even the most morbid of them are sung in a friendly, winning fashion—aren't place-specific. "Doublehead"—based on the Cherokee warrior who fought in the Chickamauga wars—is an exception.

"It's influenced by the Marty Robbins storytelling songs and that type of thing," Barrier says. "One of these days I would love to have a gunfighter ballads album. Doublehead, he's literally from where I'm from. It was such a good, straight local [story].... I was always fascinated that he burned down Nashville a couple of times."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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