The album art for The Savage Radley’s debut record is a black and white photograph of lead singer Shaina Goodman’s dad and cousin.
It depicts an era before the economic boom that followed the end of WWII, before the masses were afforded the luxuries of indoor plumbing and color television. The two boys, surrounded on either side by a trusting hound dog, can’t be any older than 8 or 9. The pair of farm hands are scrawny and shirtless in the stifling Hickman, Kentucky heat. The scene reminds me of a photo of my grandparents stowed away in a box in their attic that I often revisit. They are pictured in front of a 1952 two-tone Ford in 1957. My grandmother’s holding her firstborn, her stern expression contrasting my grandfather’s smile. My grandparents were born and raised in Scottsville, Kentucky.
The Savage Radley’s music exhumes the often forgotten lives of rural southerners. Debut album “Kudzu” is a testament to the grit and relentless faith demonstrated by a generation reared in rural river towns in and after the Great Depression. We meet salt of the earth folks hellbent on making the best of their hard-luck. The struggles and small triumphs of blue-collar folks who pulled graveyard shifts, took dead-end factory jobs far from home, endured fruitless droughts and gut-wrenching setbacks until they saved enough money to be rid of the societal smudge of being poor white trash. Their music gives a voice to those forgotten Kodak photos we all have stowed away. They may be in storage now, lost among the clutter of a basement closet, but these images, portraits of teenage newlyweds and barefooted farm boys, are a window into the realities of an era all but forgotten.
“Kudzu” is alluring and raw, the old country and delta blues soundscapes brim with heartfelt authenticity rooted in the notion that we must cling tight to our ugliest memories. These moments of profound darkness undoubtedly damage us, but reveal the remarkable resiliency of the human spirit even in the wake of our gnarliest memories.
“We all grew up farm kids whose parents sat on front porches discussing things too heavy for us to hear,” Goodman said. “We’ve all faced hardships in light of those conversations, but mostly, we made out good. We still have each other.”
The Savage Radley consists of lead singer Goodman and drummer S Knox Montgomery, a Murray, Ky. native. The band formed in 2010 and have been crafting and perfecting the songs that comprise “Kudzu” for years. The album was produced by Skylar Wilson (Justin Townes Earle, Caitlin Rose, Andrew Combs) and recorded at Loud & Clear Studio in Paducah, Kentucky.
“Little River Town,” displays Goodman’s knack for storytelling. The track is reminiscent of Emmylou Harris’ “Red Dirt Girl”, a haunting recounting of the trappings of small town life. Where Harris’ song details her childhood best friend’s descent into darkness, “Little River Town” paints a vivid narrative of her kin’s fight to become part of the middle class. Goodman’s grandparents married young and with $50 dollars to their name headed North in hopes of higher wages and stability. Soon, however, we learn her granddaddy “worked all week just to wind up short”.
Her family’s bout with hard luck was eventually remedied by a gritty resolve and a little elbow grease. They moved back south to Hickman, Ky, where they “farmed for Old Man Thomas and bought him out,” she sings.
Once members of the middle class, Goodman’s family never worried about keeping count of their dollar bills-instead they were preoccupied with preserving the legacy of their last name.
“Gone,” is rough around the edges, a catchy outlaw country anthem that preaches accepting lovers and friends as they come, unruly flaws and all. “Love me and love my mess,” Goodman mouths off over gritty guitar riffs and heavy drumbeats.
It’s a love letter to Hickman, a place Mark Twain once described in a memoir as “a pretty town perched on a handsome hill.” It’s a nostalgic ode to the heartbreaks and tragedies that shaped her.
Goodman doesn’t flinch in recounting pain, instead it’s the fuel she uses to live firmly in the present.
“Hold tight to these hard times, the end is far away / Just keep it in mind or I’ll tell you every day it ain’t gone til it’s gone,” Goodman coos.
Goodman’s voice is pure, her southern drawl sweet enough to lead a Sunday school choir. While she uses the lived experiences of a bygone rural era as a lens for gripping storytelling, Goodman’s voice, alternating skillfully between heartfelt and feisty, scorned and introspective, is rooted in the present.
“Love Under Water,” details troubled love, a tune drenched in the seductive powers of the muddy waters of the Mississippi River.
“I lie to your face, honey I lied a lot,” Goodman sings. “But is it a matter left up to God? Or do you forgive me or not.”
On “Milk and Honey,” she’s lamenting the void left when a romance loses its spark.
“I don’t know what is wrong with these two hearts, they’ve been broke right from the start / Put them back together they fall apart, all in vain all for not, no trust,” she sings wistfully.
“Kudzu,” is destined to be blared from the speakers of pick-up trucks; sung along to by slurred Southern drawls in rowdy juke joints and honky tonks. At the very least it is a striking debut that immediately places the West Ky. outfit among a crop of country songwriters like Margo Price and Monkeys Eyebrow native Kelsey Waldon, who craft genuine country music that reaches the masses with no help from country radio.
The Savage Radley’s music lives on winding, dusty gravel roads that lead to the swampy waters of Murphy’s Pond, where cypress tress grow and live for upwards to 1,000 years. It lives in the friendly conversation overheard in local tackle shops.
It lives in the tears that stream down Goodman’s face when she makes a visit to her kin’s gravestones.
“I saw Christine the other day, well I laid down beside her grave / Hey, little lady you’ve been gone too long, look at your grand-baby know she’s writing songs,” Goodman sings in “Little River Town”.
Kudzu drops June 30. The Savage Radley will play an album release show at Maiden Alley Cinema in Paducah at 8 p.m. Friday with Secular Pets.
Check out an interview with The Savage Radley’s Stephen Montgomery below.
So while Shaina grew up in Hickman, I actually grew up in Murray, which by almost anyone’s standard is a small town, but it isn’t as small as Hickman is. There’s a lot of similarities, but it’s also worlds apart. Growing up in Western Kentucky is kind of a hard thing to put your finger on, and we’re all shaped in some way by our environment. But it’s kind of this shifting puzzle piece figuring out how you fit into it. You know? The struggle of it in a vague way is also part of the inspiration somehow.
Do you feel like your music ever rebels against the trappings of small town life?
I guess in a way there’s a sort of rebellion in the music, but it’s almost this fruitless rebellion. Like, playing music is a way of coping with that boredom you were talking about, but it’s that boredom that pushes you or allows you to pick up an instrument to pass the time in the first place. Things move slower around here, no doubt about it, and there’s a lot of beauty and heartache in a place like this. It’s love/hate. Maybe we want to rebel against it, but we’re still very much living within it. I choose not to believe I’m trapped, but that’s how towns like these trap people. Everyone is trapped but nobody believes it. I’m not sure I’m any different.
What music/songwriters did y’all grow up on?
It’s eclectic. And Shaina and I have different backgrounds. While she was probably listening to the old country stuff, I was probaby listening to all those Epitaph Records and Fat Wreck Chords bands, punk and ska stuff. I like to imagine she was singing along to Patsy Cline the same time I was in my garage trying to learn the drums to Goldfinger songs. There’s a lot of stuff we overlap on now, but ultimately we meet in the middle between these two pretty different worlds.
When did you start writing songs? Was music/songwriting something you inherited from your family?
I started trying to write songs in middle school. It might be earlier for Shaina, but there’s an element of it that’s always there from a young age. She definitely wrote all the songs for this record, it’s very much written from her perspective, but we’re both songwriters. What we both got from our families, best I can tell, was a healthy dosage of church songs, albeit different selections and variations. She’s a farmer’s daughter, and I’m a preacher’s son. Religion kind of ruled all, more specifically a Protestant Christian type of religion. My parents would have us sing blessings before every meal, something I didn’t realize it was kind of weird until high school. That kind of makes it sound like I was raised in a cult, but really my family has always been super supportive.
How long have you been working on Kudzu? Is this the band’s official debut?
I mean, all our lives basically. Yeah, it’s the official debut. We started playing together back in 2010. Shaina wrote all these songs, and they’ve been through a long incubation period. We played a lot of different variations of them over the years. We recorded it back in 2015, and it’s finally coming out June 30th, 2017. Like I said, things just move slower around here.
I was immediately struck by the band’s name and love the fact it is an ode to Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird. I’m personally a huge fan of southern gothic fiction, writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor are my idols. I feel like your songs kind’ve evoke the same feeling a good short story does. Gritty and real and a little spooky. Do you think that just comes naturally having grown up in a small rural town or is it something you’re purposefully trying to achieve?
Yeah, you’re touching on something I’ve always thought about her songs. She and I both took this short story writing class in college, taught by Dale Ray Phillips who wrote My People’s Waltz, which if you’re into the whole southern Gothic thing, it’s a masterpiece. I’d be remorse if I didn’t mention it and we’re talking about fiction. It’s a masterpiece even if you’re not into the southern Gothic thing, but I think her songwriting comes out of the same sort of tradition as those literary greats. There’s a lot of the same imagery, the setting is very present, and there’s a strong sense of it. As to whether it comes naturally or it’s on purpose, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. It’s like, you have to have a certain gift for it, but you still got to develop that gift. Either way, I think it’s great you’re making those comparisons.