With clawhammer banjo in hand and a four-piece rock band behind him, Athens, Ga. songwriter Don Chambers mesmerizes audiences with his foreboding charisma and world-weary growl that suggest a dark romance, the kind carried on by society’s castoffs, like carnies and freaks. Musically, Chambers and his band, GOAT, dip liberally into that sour mash of American primitivism, punctuated by beating on found objects that could include a typewriter, shopping cart, and ladder.
“Whenever I see any junk laying around, I’ll give it a thump, see if it has any sound in it,” says Chambers.
He once stopped in his tracks to listen to how the handle of a feather duster resonates against a comic book rack in a downtown newsstand: “Every once in a while, the handle would hit one of the brackets. Every time he hit it, it made a different tone. I found myself standing there listening for like five minutes while this guy was accidentally playing the comic book stand.”
Despite the fascination with unconventional percussion, more typical instruments define GOAT’s sound. Bassist Lisa Hargon, slide guitarist Patrick Hargon, pedal steel player Matt “Pistol” Stoesel, and drummer Brandon McDearis unite to create a haunting Appalachian texture reminiscent of Tom Waits and largely inspired by traditional roots music.
“I love work songs, travel songs, broken heart songs, of course murder ballads,” says Chambers. “I like the plainness of it. The language those old songs used which had a poetry unto itself that can sound like somebody’s talking to you on the front porch. But the way they tell the stories is also beautiful.”
But Chambers laughs when he hears a suggestion that his songs are dark. “I don’t really think what it’s about when I’m writing the song, so if it’s dark, that’s coming from somewhere else that I don’t even know about. Maybe I don’t want to know about that.
“The seedier side of life stuff has always attracted me,” he adds. “Carnies, and what goes on behind the circus tent…. I’ve always tried to go to the county fairs and all that, take pictures, and soak up the language of the barkers. My heroes are musicians, and circus performers and Houdini.”
Already covering territory as varied and exotic as his heroes, this year alone, Chambers has played stages in London, Berlin, and the Netherlands, where long-time friends the Drive-By Truckers backed him for a few shows. Most stunning to Chambers himself was performing with GOAT in Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium at Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam — a benefit for Music Cares.
“The Ryman was honestly nothing I ever really dreamed of being able to do,” he says. “It was just awesome to play in that building. The sound in that building, and what it gave back to you on stage was amazing.”
With three-quarters of the new album complete (recorded with Bill Doss of Olivia Tremor Control and The Sunshine Fix), Chambers anticipates touring this year behind the follow-up to last year’s self-titled album (and Chambers’ 2001 solo disc, Back in the Woods).
Currently, the return trip to Charleston beckons, where he hopes to find some good sounds, perhaps banging on the underside of a pier with a sledgehammer. Regardless of just what GOAT will bang on, their sonic primitivism always reveals a tantalizing peek at the gritty dark romance behind the circus tent.
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