w/ Blessed Feathers and Daphne Lee Martin. $8 advance, $10 doors. 9 p.m., Mar. 23. Cafe Nine, 250 State St., New Haven, cafenine.com
Just because Jenks Miller grew up with fundamentally Southern music doesn't mean he had to like it. Once a young resident of downtown Raleigh, N.C., Miller lived down the block from a gospel church that, as he recalls, "was rockin' very loud and awesome" every Sunday. "I would probably appreciate it more today. At the time, anything remotely religious was [something] I wouldn't give the time of day," says the 31-year-old guitarist of Mount Moriah, an alt-country trio (and often four-piece) openly smitten with Southern forms. "That has a lot to do with this place. The ways that the South has defined religion can be very constrictive." Though he didn't live in a particularly religious household, Miller did have parents who were into folk, country and bluegrass — all things he disliked or grew to dislike — and much to his chagrin, there were family outings to music festivals presented by the local traditional music organization PineCone.
On a sonic level, he couldn't stand all the twang. He didn't identify with the value systems either. "I guess I associated [those genres] with a stagnant way of thinking, and there was also the association of a lack of education in music," he says. "When I was very young, I was probably not listening to it properly, so I only heard those things. I only heard the negative aspects. I didn't have a way I could appreciate it." On top of all this, being surrounded by these styles framed them as pillars of blandness and tradition. Miller grew up a metal head, and as an adult, he still runs the the cutting, experimental metal outfit Horseback.
With time and "an adult mind," Miller's distaste softened, even turning to affection. The transition wasn't abrupt by any means; all along, Miller notes, there were a few players and elements he enjoyed above the genres named above. Neil Young's work with Crazy Horse became a gateway into Neil Young's solo work, which became crucial for Miller. "His ability to work with [both] folk music forms and more abstract, soundscape-y, sprawling rock epics was sort of that moment of awakening for me," Miller says. To a degree, Miller's story of being an aggressive musician who found something to relish about country, Americana and folk has happened before and will happen again. GG Allin, Swans' Michael Gira, Hank Williams III, Bad Religion's Greg Graffin, Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace and Rise Against's Tim McIlrath have all followed similar arcs.
Around 2005, Miller was shopping at the now-closed Schoolkids Records in Chapel Hill when he met Heather McEntire, who played in a post-punk outfit called Bellafea. The two started talking about recording something together, which jumpstarted a very fruitful relationship. Over time, Miller and McEntire would become friends, co-workers (she scored him a job at Schoolkids), roommates, bandmates and co-conspirators behind a small label called Holidays for Quince Records. The pair's first shared group was the poppy Un Deux Trois, which they began circa 2006. Eventually, Miller and McEntire's main focus would be Mount Moriah, a project that originally featured Miller on the mic and a rotating crew of performers. The reformatted two-piece's sound hewed close to the original Moriah's Americana-oriented blueprint, with McEntire now handling lead vocals.
Miller's favorite country musicians fall within the Bakersfield sound/outlaw country field, and he aims to keep one of those genres' key tenets thriving in Mount Moriah. "I feel like a lot of the early country records do a beautiful job of keeping the structure of the song afloat with really minimal means," he says, mentioning the relative absence of guitars. Mount Moriah's 2011 record had an abundance of negative space, Miller says, before bringing up Miracle Temple, their second full-length, which was released last month. "On this record, there's a little bit more happening, but at the same time, the band tries really hard to stay out of Heather's way so that her vocals remain the focal point and so it actually becomes a challenge to keep that space carved out."
At its core, Mount Moriah scratches a few itches for Miller. He jokes about facing "a challenge to keep things presentable" with this band (That means no noise sections or strange concepts), finds the musical sameness almost reassuring, and enjoys the pair tangling with traditional and historic music on their own terms. "On sort of a conceptual level, [Mount Moriah] is about re-engagement or recasting the ubiquitous parts of Southern culture in a way that we can relate to," he says, "and here we are today."