By Keith Sharp
By their own admission, The Dead South’s Nate Hilts and Colton Crawford had no idea what they were doing when they formed a Bluegrass group in their native Regina in 2012.
Calling in from Cranbrook B.C in the midst of a pre-Christmas tour of Western Canada, guitarist/vocalist Hilts confirmed that they were entering unchartered waters when he noted he had to change the way he played guitar, joined forces with banjo player Colton Crawford brought in Danny Kenyon to play cello and entrusted Scott Pringle to learn how to play the mandolin.
“When we started to play together, the music we created was very organic, it was something that just seemed to work for us,” Hilts noted.
Certainly, the locals responded to these modern hillbillies dressed in white shirts, black pants, suspenders and black Travellers hats, their fans attending concerts wearing similar attire. “The image was an evolution,” Hilts explained. “When we first started to play, we decided to wear matching outfits but when we all started to wear suspenders, that seemed to catch on with our audience and we noticed people showing up at our gigs wearing similar outfits.”
Recording a five-song EP titled `The Ocean Went Mad And We Were To Blame’, The Dead South began to evolve their sound as they began performing around the Prairies, pulling enthusiastic crowds with their party-like performances.
Selected to perform at a Saskatchewan Music Association-sponsored showcase at Toronto’s Canada Music Week conference in 2014, the band were warned in advance not to expect too much from their performance. “The strange thing was, nobody knew how to class us so they listed us as an indie band, which meant we were matched with some other interesting bands which was great for us,” observed Hilts.
In the audience that night was Joerg Tresp, owner of German-based Devil Duck Records who was sufficiently impressed by The Dead South’s performance that he signed them to his Hamburg-based label.
“This opened up Europe for us and then Brian Heatherman flew to our performance at the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg and signed us to Curve Music in Canada, so many things happened so quickly,” Hilts confirmed.
When Jeremy Giacomin signed them for Paquin Booking Agency in Canada based on a successful Winnipeg showcase, the band was set to enjoy extensive exposure in both Europe and Western Canada and have even made forays into the United States.
“Who knew that Bluegrass music would be big in Europe but Country Music in general is very popular over there,”Hilts reports. “When we played in Prague, in the Czech Republic we were told that Country Music and Bluegrass had been a form of revolution for the populace against Soviet oppression.”
After releasing their debut album. `Good Company’ in 2014, The Dead South chose to re-release the album in early 2016 to capitalize on their new contacts and have now delivered a new album, ‘Illusion And Doubt’, “Boots” being the debut single.
“Yes it’s a fun album that reflects our evolution as writers and performers,” acknowledged Hilts. “There’s drinking songs (“Time For Crawlin”, “Smoochin In The Ditch”), mystery songs (“Miss Mary”, “Massacre Of El Karoke”) and even a song, “One Armed Man” which features me giving a loud cough.”
“We were recording that song and I accidently gave a loud cough,” laughed Hilts. “I said sorry, let’s do another take but (producer) Jason Plumb said, no, we are keeping that on the track.”
The Dead South may have been inspired by US-based Mumford And Sons but the whole renaissence of Country Music in Canada is also a source of inspiration to the band. “They say that Country Music is the new Pop Music,” enthused Hilts. “But you also look at bands like Washboard Union and even Sudbury’s Murder Murder and you can see there’s a lot of different forms of Country Music being released. Things are really positive right now.”