No doubt about it, “Medicine County” is a loping, country shuffle. So underscores the familiar pattern of the chords and melody, which resolve tidily at the end of each phrase, not to mention the languid, twangy, note-bending guitar licks.
But the vocals indicate there’s something more going on here. These male-female duet partners aren’t playing it straight; they’re singing, with rather playful woodenness, about living in a place where churches just about outnumber people, and buying liquor to make the best of the isolation is against the law. From the sound of things, you’d think they didn’t really want to be there. But that’s not the case at all.
Just ask Holly Golightly—the female half of that vocal performance—what a world-touring, English garage rock veteran like herself gets out of living on a small farm with horses, chickens and her musical partner, Lawyer Dave, in rural Madison County, Georgia (which, you’ll notice, sounds a lot like “Medicine County” if you tweak the vowel sounds just a bit).
“I like to get tacked up and just take off,” she explains of her fondness for horses and open spaces. “That’s my favorite thing in the world, and there’s no other motive to do it other than that’s where I am happiest—in the saddle. …I just mooch around on our property or on neighboring properties. I think that’s the only time I’m ever really relaxed.”
Back to where she once belonged
Surprising as it may seem for a musician linked to punk labels based in London and Long Beach (Damaged Goods and Sympathy For the Record Industry, respectively, each of which have put out several of her albums), a Jim Jarmusch indie film (she appears twice on the Broken Flowers soundtrack) and the biggest American garage rock sensations of the last decade (she dueted with Jack White on the White Stripes’ Elephant), Golightly’s present living situation is actually a lot like home. “I was born in the middle of nowhere and grew up in the middle of nowhere in England—I mean, as much as you can be in the middle of nowhere in England,” she says. “No close neighbors and no stores.”
Not that that was where Golightly preferred to be in her younger years. “All you want to do when you’re 15 is live in a city,” she observes. “You just want to be where the other punk rockers are. You want to be where the music’s happening and you can get a boyfriend and all that stuff. …Of course, when I hit 16 and I could travel on my own I was up in London every weekend going to gigs and learning to drink. By the time I was 21, I was desperate to go home. And I’ve spent from about the age of 21 ’til now trying to get home.”
However, that was no simple prospect: “In England it’s the total opposite of the States, because if you’re poor in England you can’t afford to live in the country. And in the States, if you’re poor you can’t afford to live in the city. …It suits us just fine. We can live on the pittance that we earn from playing music and not have to have day jobs. I mean, we live lean—I will say that. And we have fairly humble tastes. I mean, the house…by some people’s standards it’s still like camping, but by our standards, it’s total luxury compared with what it was like 18 months ago.” With hardy homesteader’s pride, and a former urban-dweller’s amusement, she notes, “We had an outhouse for six months.”
So you see, Golightly’s approach to both roots living and roots music is firmly and affectionately tongue-in-cheek. Long before her move to Madison County—really, since the early 1990s, if you count from the beginning of her tenure with the British girl group Thee Headcoatees—she’d been making albums that put a biting, somewhat punk spin—particularly because of her tart delivery—on all that was raw and elemental about pre-rock blues and other early musical flavors.
“What I have always liked and my record collection has reflected is roots music, in one form or another,” she says. “All I can do is what I do. And there’s no middle-class, white girl that can sing the blues. …But what they can do is lift the elements of it that they like and that they can do with conviction and give their treatment to.”
She’s of a mindset not entirely different from American-blues-loving British groups like the Kinks (whom she’s covered), the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, who—in their own ways—emulated the music they liked and connected with, regardless of where it came from. “Essentially it’s folk music,” she insists. “And that isn’t a geographical element. That’s something that can be got from anywhere. So if you think about Appalachian music…I mean, you know, it all came from somewhere else. It was germinated right there, but it was brought in from elsewhere. So I don’t think anything is exclusive to anybody.”
It takes two
Midway through the last decade, Golightly teamed up with Dave, who’d toured as her bass player, and shifted her rootsy emphasis a little more toward proto-country and away from touches like ’60s-style backwards reverb. Together, the two of them are known as Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs—a one-man-band is still a band, after all—and they’ve released three full-length albums and an EP.
Besides being an amused attempt to make sense of their surroundings (they weren’t, for instance, aware beforehand that Madison was dry), “Medicine County” is the title track of their third album as a two-person unit. “It wasn’t the catalyst for the whole record,” Golightly offers. “It was an addition. I think it’s really funny. Even when I hear it now, I just think it’s hilarious. The handful of our neighbors who are kind of in on the secret—because most people don’t know we play music even—they love it. They absolutely love it.”
Golightly and Dave recorded a lot of the album in a vacant Primitive Baptist Church near their home, and the irony of making their music in that setting isn’t lost on them. Even so, Golightly says the locale wasn’t entirely premeditated. “It had been empty a long time and a lady who runs a kind of junk store in a town up the road, I got to talking to her and she had the keys to it because she was the caretaker,” she says. “It was coincidence. I said we’d just moved in and that we’d looked at a couple of old churches as a potential for converting into a house. …She said, ‘Oh, there’s a church up the road for sale.’…So it was a complete fluke, really. I mean, it could have just as easily been the bathroom.”
“When He Comes,” a stomping number powered by bottleneck, washboard and handclaps, takes up a rather common theme for gospel and gospel-themed music—being prepared and on the lookout for the second coming of Jesus—only, as you might expect from Golightly and Dave, theirs is not a particularly earnest approach to the subject. “That’s a little bit over the line, that one, I think,” she admits. The song is poker-faced role-play, inspired by what—best they can make out—are seriously apocalyptic religious camps nearby.
“We don’t know what goes on there, because we’re too afraid to go and drive up there,” Golightly relates wryly. “It’s like the sort of pseudo-military camo netting over the archway into it. We don’t know what they do there, but we know they’ve got missile launches. You know, they’re ready.”
The Brokeoffs’ brand of humor has an egalitarian streak. Just as easily as they laugh about others’ eccentricities, they acknowledge that they’re not exactly the paragons of normalcy (and that those camp-dwellers aren’t necessarily the norm; that, being a short drive from Athens, they’re actually surrounded by a great variety of folks). As Golightly points out, “We’re sort of isolated on our little parcel of land and nobody knows what we do.”
Comedy Central, of a sort
Besides irreverence of a religious nature—which would certainly also include “Getting’ High For Jesus” on their previous album, Dirt Don’t Hurt—they put their twist on slightly less controversial material. The boozy, swinging R&B number “Eyes In the Back Of My Head” is one example. The theme—calling out a lover’s rambling ways—is immediately recognizable, but there’s no venom to it, since they’ve couched it in a ridiculous, parental-sounding threat: To paraphrase, I’ve got an extra pair of eyeballs trained on you that never miss a thing.
“Blood On the Saddle” is an old western number, done quite sentimentally—once upon a time—by Tex Ritter. But in Golightly and the Brokeoffs’ hands, with the album’s only guest, Tom Heinl, singing bass, it lands somewhere between sing-songy and artfully deadpan, and sounds like a different song altogether. “We had Tom Heinl do his really nice, low, deep part, because he was staying with us at the time and he really loved the song as well,” says Golightly. “And that’s his forte, is doing sort of pastiche on old country songs.”
On the last album, Golightly and Dave also did a rollicking duet called “My 45,” which sounded a bit like Johnny and June’s “Jackson” shot through with dark, murderous humor. In other words, it wasn’t something the sainted country couple would’ve ever sung. But it was funny. “It never occurred to me until after the fact that that would be a reference that came up,” responds Golightly to the comparison. “It just seemed like a real fun, normal song for us to do that we could do really tongue-in-cheek and have fun doing.”
Matters of taste
Duet singing was a big motivator in her move from solo act fronting a four-piece, electric guitar-and-organ combo to the more stripped-down Brokeoffs configuration, in which Dave serves as multi-instrumentalist, even playing a homemade percussion rig with his feet live. “Most of what I’ve done historically, I’ve done all the singing,” Golightly explains. “And there’s nothing I like better than singing against somebody else. And especially male-female duets; I think the music industry is sadly lacking in really good ones. …And depending on whose delivery it is, you can really think it’s very cheesy. …We just try really hard to not make our duets like that.”
They needn’t worry about that, any more than they need to worry about being mistaken for Madison County natives (unlike Golightly the expat, Dave is from Texas), who consider the lack of a proper bathroom less of a deal-breaker in a living situation than not having room for a baby grand piano, and who happen to leave the farm and roam the rock clubs of the States and beyond for weeks or months at a time.
Playing as a duo certainly makes it cheaper to tour. That, plus the affordable living situation they’ve set up, is enabling them to—for the very first time in either of their music-making lives—not have to do any other work on the side, although Golightly is teaching a horseback riding lesson here and there, solely by word of mouth. (Her previous career experience includes training horses and working in social housing in the U.K., neither of which are exactly lightweight jobs).
“That’s living luxuriously—being able to just do the thing that you want to do, and to be able to afford to do it,” she says. “But we had to cut out some of the sort of high-class living along the way. I mean, it’s a very small sacrifice, really.”
Talking about the big picture—contentedness, that is—they’re not so tongue-in-cheek at all. “I think we would both say—if Dave was here I’m sure he’d say too—we’re both really happy with where we are and we don’t plan on leaving any time soon,” Golightly sums up, as she stands outside the supermarket, rather than on her own little plot, for the sake of cell phone reception. “And if the rapture happens, which we’re told it’s going to… We’d be the ones that would be left behind, anyway. Bring it on, I say. It would be nice and quiet.”