Returning to Texas after performing at a memorial concert for Hank Williams Sr. in Alabama last month, Willie Nelson and his band were arrested for possession of more than a pound of marijuana and over three ounces of psilocybin mushrooms. Nelson is 73. The youngest musician on board was 50.
The connection between good-time country music and altered states of mind is nothing new: Bands like Oakley Hall—a New York quintet that draws members and influences from across the American map—lights fires from roots music's straw men. Nelson is a longtime member of the outlaw wing of country music, and—like Nelson— Oakley Hall is disproving the fallacy that American traditional music has to be fenced in with straight edges.
Though he doesn't mention his van's payload, front man Pat Sullivan sounds like a road-worn veteran versed in tour language when he calls from a stop in Los Angeles: "After the South, we did the industrial corridor then went north and Vancouver," he says. "Tomorrow, we hit the desert." Oakley Hall has been touring hard since its formation in 2004, especially for its latest, Gypsum Strings. The record takes its title from jimson, the weed commonly found in North Carolina and used for its largely unpleasant psychotropic properties.
Sullivan—whose articulate speech is in line with a sharp intellect housed in a tall mountain-man hippie frame, like Neil from British comedy The Young Ones with his thin beard and long, stringy hair—acknowledges the state's influence on Oakley Hall's wayside country: Singer and guitarist Rachel Cox is from the mountain town of Glenville in Jackson County, nearby the Smokies and the Cherokee reservation. She played in her family's band there—alongside her father—but it was as part of the freeform music collective centered around Winston-Salem's The Wherehouse that provided a backdrop for Oakley Hall's formation.
That's where Cox met Sullivan, who was frequenting the space on tours and recording with his first stab at country, Crazee and Heaven, and still playing with his last band, Oneida. Bassist Jesse Barnes and fiddler Claudia Mogel survived to form Oakley Hall with Sullivan and Cox. After Wherehouse/PS 211 members Will Dyar and Steve Tesh left the band, drummer Greg Anderson and guitarist Fred Wallace were added for the solid sextet now in place.
Much has been made of the band's nontraditional approach to Americana music: While they arrange things similarly to country songs with storytelling lyrics and group harmonies accentuated by guitar flourishes, Mogel plugs her fiddle into a wall of Marshall stacks, and Wallace—whose background is in old style banjo and who once played with high-lonesome legend Roscoe Holcombe—"started stringing his guitar like a banjo," says Sullivan. Sullivan acknowledges the influence of Texan Doug Sahm, who played "traditionally structured [music], but with weird effects."
Traditional forms funneled through new ideas get people bunched up about Oakley Hall, from the keyboard clicks of music critics to the fixated stares of instant converts. As the outlaws rebelled against the polished Nashville Sound, Oakley Hall is a bit of a huge square peg in the close-knit circles of indie rock and country. They supply the uncomfortable feeling of non-definition. They're too straight with their big country harmonies for the indie kids, and their big riffs and tendency to stretch passages into seemingly endless spirals alienate slight purists looking for something different but familiar. It was apparent in the eyes of the crowd when Oakley Hall recently opened for Calexico, a band that's managed to ride the line between indie rock and full-on mariachi. But there's nothing more enticing to people than something they can't classify. Well, maybe Willie's stash, but that's debatable.
Oakley Hall plays at Local 506 on Wednesday, Oct. 25 with The Hellsayers and Charles Latham and Thursday, Oct. 26 at Kings for The Raleigh Hatchet's Hatchetfest with Birds of Avalon and Heads on Sticks. Wednesday's show starts at 9 p.m. and runs $8. The Kings show starts at 10 p.m.