By Victoria Karol

The Ghosts of Johnson City
Am I Born to Die? (CD/MP3)

Ghosts of Johnson CityGather ’round children, and listen well, for here be grisly tales of murder, tragedy, and letters from the dead. It is telling that The Ghosts of Johnson City released their debut album, Am I Born to Die?, in the spookiest of months, October. The body count is high and narratives of suffering and struggle are central to this hefty folk concept album, wherein we slip between life and the afterlife as if lost in an Appalachian horror film helmed by David Lynch.

Central to GoJC is Amos Libby, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, and in this case, historian. Described by the band as an “archival project,” Am I Born to Die? contains 15 traditional songs, some of them centuries old, that made their way to Libby as he grew up in Eastern Tennessee. Each song tells the tale of an old soul at a point of turmoil; a wayward son dying at sea, a young man headed to the gallows for murder, a bootlegger defending her still from the law. Their shared experience is that they all bear the weight of consequence — in this life or the next.

Libby and collaborators Erik Winter, Erik Neilson (a contributor to this magazine), and Douglas Porter bring fresh life to these stories with remarkably clean but deeply emotional playing. Each string rings out like a bell, afloat on the heaving chest of Winter’s eerie harmonium. The devil-may-care wildness of much old-time music is replaced by measured, deliberate instrumentation, using bright threads of mandolin or violin to break up the darkness (and boy, is it dark). With Libby on lead vocals, Neilson and Porter provide haunting harmonies that add depth and modernity.

Am I Born to Die? isn’t perfect; it can occasionally feel monotonous when it should be meditative, and when reprieves from the gloom show up (“Faded Coat of Blue” and “Rye Whiskey” are two) it feels like a welcome parting of the clouds. But this isn’t cocktail-party music, it’s a deep study of oral and musical traditions, a history lesson, and a doorway to another time that opens further with repeated listens.

RIYL: “Swamp Murders” on the ID channel; southern gothic novels; Steep Canyon Rangers; The Black Twig Pickers

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