She’s fronted ultra-creepy Bloodshot Records outfit Trailer Bride for five albums, spent seven formative years with her Christian-missionary parents in Africa, and is obsessed with William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner. So, naturally, I wanted to tell you Mississippi-born singer/guitarist Melissa Swingle is a freaky, tortured Southern Gothic weirdo. But fact is, that just ain’t true.
Swingle and new Moaners bandmate Laura King are kind-hearted, likeable women who love rock ’n’ roll. And after spending some time with them, I prefer the real thing to the overcooked image: They carry bottles of obscure-brand hot sauce in their purses, smoke endless cigarettes in rock-club backrooms, drink green mint tea at soundcheck, and get hassled by strange cops over Swingle’s bug-eyed, movie-star shades at late-night, highway-stop Waffle Houses. They burn incense to cover the smell of urine in the $30-a-night motel rooms they have to stay in when it’s an off night and the gig barely covers gas money, falling asleep with a faint beer buzz and watching Mallrats on USA Up All Night through the dreamy haze of leaden, half-cracked eyelids. And to top it off, King moonlights in a Neil Diamond cover band in The Moaners’ hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C. But most importantly, Swingle and King blast out blessedly raw Delta-blues punk and grungy, foreboding Southern Rock.
“I’d been wanting to do something different for a while,” says Swingle, sitting with King at a bar-side table in Asheville, N.C.’s no-frills Grey Eagle Tavern. “I was tired of being pigeon-holed as alternative country [when I was with Trailer Bride], because—except for Hank Williams and Johnny Cash—I never really loved country music that much. … I felt I was beating a dead horse. It was getting less and less fun, and the audiences can tell. I wanted to play faster and harder.”
And that’s where King comes in. The pair met two years ago at the Honky-Tonk-A-Rama festival in Chapel Hill, where King’s band, Grand National (fronted by fIREHOSE’s Ed Crawford), was sharing the bill with Trailer Bride. “I was blown away,” says Swingle of King’s drumming. “I’d never seen anybody, male or female, hit as hard as she did with such precision.”
Swingle began writing songs to fit King’s style, often tuning down to anchor the low end, and the drums-and-guitar duo began rehearsing. Yep Roc Records apparently saw the chemistry, too, and released The Moaners’ debut earlier this year. Recorded at Southern Culture On the Skids founder Rick Miller’s studio, Dark Snack was cut in just 10 days. It’s a lot more efficient and economical with just two people in the band, and this concept translates to the road, too. On “Hard Times” the bottleneck-guitar-slingin’ Swingle autobiographically croons in her trademark syrupy drawl, “A four-piece band just won’t make ends meet / Tonight baby, it’s you and me.”
“Musicians are going through some hard times in the last few years,” Swingle explains. “So having fewer people to split the money with definitely helps.” But there are artistic incentives as well, she insists. “[Playing as a duo] is liberating. With Laura, I can go on any tangent I want, and she doesn’t have to know what key we’re in. It’s made me a better guitar player. I’m doing my own leads now and having a blast.”
“She’s getting better and better,” says King of her partner in crime. “And I am, too. I’m feeling more creative than I have in a really long time.”