Right next to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, the music of Jeff Zentner is a visceral reminder of the spiritual roots of the South. Jeff is a soulful, bluesy Southern Gothic musician and member of Alt-Country band Creech Holler, and is, incidentally, related to successful LDS artist Michael R. Hicks. After a time playing in Nashville, Tennessee (where many a musical dream is born and dies), he has since moved to Asheville, but continues to create and record solo music. Earlier this year he released a solo album, The Dying Days of Summer. His music is a testament to the music that echoed in the deepest, darkest hollers of Appalachia in the early 1900s.
First of all, explain what “Southern Gothic” means.
A: I use the phrase a bit differently than it’s used in reference to literature. I make Southern music. I play the slide guitar, I play the banjo, I play the mandolin and pedal steel. All of this instrumentation is interwoven into the music of the American South. There’s the Southern part. The Gothic part comes as a sort of shorthand to express the idea that I like to write songs that tend toward the melancholy and explore themes such as love, loss, and death. I actually wouldn’t have come up with the phrase to describe my music. It’s sort of been pushed on me by listeners, and I don’t object in the slightest. When I first started Creech Holler, I thought people who loved R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and old-timey musicians like Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcombe would be our main fanbase. But we actually started drawing a bunch of 16 Horsepower and Nick Cave fans. This was baffling to me, since I wasn’t very familiar with these musicians. When I started my solo project, I thought it would be Ryan Adams or Damien Jurado fans that would be drawn to it. And that’s proven true, but it’s the kind of Ryan Adams fan who keeps their Ryan Adams CDs next to the Nick Cave CDs.
Many of our listeners might not know that there are differences in southern music. Your music seems to draw heavily from an Appalachian influence. What are your main influences?
A: My main musical influences are the old blues guys like John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Son House and the old-timey Appalachian musicians like Dock Boggs, Hobart Smith, Roscoe Holcombe, etc. When I started writing songs, though, they came out a lot more in the direction of my main songwriting influences: Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen. But I have incredibly diverse musical tastes. On any given day, I’ll listen to Whiskeytown and Jeff Buckley, then some medieval Spanish music, then some African music, then some Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. All of it influences me. But I’d say my biggest influences lately are writers. Cormac McCarthy, Joe Bolton (a Kentuckian like yourself), Jim Harrison, Russell Banks, Chris Offut, Larry Brown, a bunch of other Southern writers like Harry Crews and Flannery O’ Connor.
How are you connected to well-known LDS musician Michael R. Hicks?
A: Mike is my brother-in-law. He’s married to my wife’s sister. He’s the coolest guy on earth and super talented. But it’s really funny how different the musical worlds we inhabit are. I don’t envision my music being used for EFY anytime soon.
Tell us about the history of Creech Holler.
A: Creech Holler formed when I was living in Nashville. I opened a show for a really great punk-blues band called The Black Diamond Heavies. Creech Holler’s drummer was there. He and I got to talking and decided to form a band. This was back in 2004. And things just went from there. We’ve recorded two albums and played a bunch of shows. We kept playing shows even after 2006, when I moved from Nashville to Asheville, North Carolina. We don’t play much anymore because now my drummer lives in Memphis, my bass player lives in Nashville, and I live in Asheville. But when the opportunity presents, we play.
You have stated you write decidedly non-LDS music. How has the LDS church indirectly influenced your music?
A: I say that I write decidedly non-LDS music because it seems to me that the primary value placed on “LDS music” is that it be “uplifting.” I don’t know exactly what that phrase means, but it appears to mean sticking to a fairly well-defined pop style with sunny lyrics that don’t really acknowledge the darker side of life. My music is nothing like that.
I’ve always been fascinated by dark things. Dark stories, dark movies, dark themes. The LDS Church gives me some light to compete with the darkness. Living with that tension is part of what drives me to make music. It’s sort of similar to the way that people like Johnny Cash grew up. Writing music that delves into the darker side of life from a foundation of faith.
Do you think that the folk spirituality of the South influences the imagery and themes of your music?
A: Absolutely. Creech Holler’s first album is called “With Signs Following,” which makes reference to the Bible passage cited by snakehandler religions in the South, that says that one of the signs that will follow the true believers is that they’ll be able to take up serpents and not be harmed. On the cover of that album is a ghost tree. In the South, people hang bottles on trees to catch evil spirits before they can get to your house. It’s an old folk superstition.
Is there a strong LDS Church where you are, or are you in a small minority? Does this cause a problem with “fitting in?”
A: We’re in a small minority, but we have a very cool branch. That doesn’t mean I “fit in.” I’ll never really fit anywhere I go. As an LDS person, I don’t really fit in outside of the LDS world. But I have 5 tattoos, so I don’t really fit in easily in the LDS world either. But that’s fine, I’m comfortable with both.
Do you see yourself pursuing music as a career?
A: Not really. I love my wife, my son, my front porch, my Blue Ridge Mountains, and having a roof over my head too much to spend much time on the road, which is really the only way to make even a subsistence living as a musician. I always want to have the freedom to make unpopular and obscure music without resenting the fact that it doesn’t pay the rent. I think a lot of people don’t realize how big a musician has to be before they make enough money to even quit the day job. I used to run into Gillian Welch at the grocery store in Nashville. She buys the generic paper towels.
Do you get opportunities to tour the South? Any interesting shows coming up?
A: There used to be more opportunities. They’ve dried up a little bit, especially with the birth of my son 4 months ago. But I’ll always get the itch to perform. So no particularly interesting shows coming up. But I am part of an interesting project. I was approached some time ago by a British blues musician named Cypress Grove who had worked with Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the LA punk-blues band The Gun Club before Jeffrey died. He wanted me to play on some songs that he and Jeffrey had written before Jeffrey’s death. He got together some really cool people to make this record. Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, Lydia Lunch, Mark Lanegan, Isobell Campbell, David Eugene Edwards, Mick Harvey, The Raveonettes, the Sadies, and more.
So I got to play on a track with Mark Lanegan, one with Mark and Isobell, and one with David Eugene Edwards. That should be coming out in awhile. Nick Cave has a deal where the release can’t coincide with any of his other releases, and he’s doing a ton of stuff right now.
Where can interested listeners hear more about your music?