The Southern Gothic story-songs of country-rock singer Don Chambers hobble down lonely dirt roads, kicking up dust past ghost-town trailer parks, rusty littered yards and long-abandoned backwoods graveyards. On Zebulon, his latest CD recorded with the band Goat, Chambers serves up dark tales of hardship in the Deep South, with a moonshine voice and aching melodies. It's a vivid but sparely orchestrated album that smolders like the ashes of a midnight bonfire.
Zebulon was co-produced by Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood, which might account for some of the album's more distorted rock moments. The brawny guitars on tracks like "Open the Gates" or "Fire in the Kitchen" are thrilling. But Zebulon's most arresting moments arrive in the quieter songs, when Chambers slow-picks the banjo with bare rhythms that rattle along like a weary chain gang in a sun-scorched field.
Chambers composes searing narratives that are both wry and poignant. On "I Can Waltz," he croons, "I can waltz, with my wooden leg / My hearing's gone, but I know what you said... I got faults, but I can waltz." It's a beautifully sad portrait of a broken man hanging on in an indifferent world.
"I take a lot of notes when traveling," Chambers says. "Town names, street names, business names, signs and wonders all along the way. All this goes into a book to be visited later when I have forgotten the details and the directions. These are adventure songs, instructional and subjective, throw out the map and drive, the joy is in the journey."
Patterson Hood appears on two Zebulon tracks — "Falling Off the Edge of the World" and "Highwater" — while singer Liz Durret (niece to singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt) lends her mesmerizing voice for the harmonies on "Friar's Lantern," "Send Me No Angels" and "Bind My Wounds."
Goat is Matt "Pistol" Stoessel (guitar, pedal steel), Bandon McDearis (drums), Jim Wilson (ladder, percussion), Fritz Gibson (bass) and the ones who got away: Patrick Hargon (guitar), Lisa Hargon-Smith (bass) and Kevin Lane (bass).