Rivertown Records is a collective of musicians spread out across North Carolina. Many of them self-describe as punks or hardcore kids, but their common sound as musicians draws more from country and Appalachian folk music. They invited me to their annual meet up in Durham, at which I got righteously drunk with them and asked them nosy questions about their lives, and I still don’t know what a record collective is.
I grew up in the south of England hating punk. I didn’t know a thing about it, but I hated it. By playing country music to me, they have changed my mind. Stay with me, this will make sense.
The fat leaves of the rich North Carolina flora stir on their long vines as the humid breeze picks up, their sullen appendages seeming almost to drool toward the earth from the dense trees they cling to. Rainstorms are on the way; I’d been watching them on my phone for the past hour, though they seem to be lingering too long over Greensboro for the app to be accurate.
Punks are hanging out on the lawn, filling up a BB gun and balancing empty beer cans on top of a tree stump a few yards away. An unopened bottle of Heaven Hill sits on the trunk of someone’s car. The show is meant to start two hours from now, but part of the fun of today is that everyone gets to hang out first.
I was raised in a conservative British household and while my family were not the Dursleys, we certainly exhibited the kind of archetypal muggle psychology on which the British Empire was founded, being ostensibly stable bundles of unnamed but ever-present neuroses that tolerate eccentricity but despise queerness. The calculating paranoia and simpering self-loathing that lingers just beyond the edge of middle England’s consciousness is pretty boring in this period of history, but in the past it has oppressed entire peoples, plundered entire continents, a rich cultural heritage of I’m-not-genocidal-buts. In that privileged set I wallowed at the bottom of the schoolyard food chain, festering like Gollum into a repressed right wing misanthrope. I listened alone to classic rock and heavy metal. Fetishized flashy musicianship. Learned that punk emerged in the late seventies in anger at the rock royalty I worshiped three decades late. Decided punk must probably be some kind of class enemy. Teenage boys are the worst.
“You gonna try shooting a gun?” Jesse Boutchyard asks me with a nudge, smirking because there’s a gun and here’s a European. I grew up with rifles and shotguns, I tell him. My old man was captain of the Great Britain Rifle Team, but I keep it to myself because it seems like a lot of effort just to crap on a gentle joke. The ‘well actually’ reflex is still there, but weaker than it was a few years ago. My eyes drift over the bottle of Heaven Hill as I silence myself.
Jesse’s 7-year-old son Dillon is holding the gun to his bony shoulder. He’s being taught how to shoot by Matthew Paul Butler, a bearded, punk-patched musician who explains to Dillon how to use iron sights to aim. There’s something pleasantly fatherly to me about the image, and I wonder what causes the reaction: is it because I’ve lived in the USA long enough to see the cute side of gun culture, or am I thinking of my own upbringing? Matthew is with Dillon’s mother, so he and Jesse are co-parents as well as friends.
We’re at ‘The House With No Name’, a wooden home on the western edge of Durham, North Carolina on whose porch I felt truly welcome in America for the first time. I rarely come here sober. They picked the name of the place, in its capacity as an informal music venue around town, because they had to get rid of the old name. “It used to be called the Pussy Palace” Jesse has since told me with a grimace, but explained that after the girl who once insisted on that name moved out, they could no longer have that name as a household of two dudes.
I finally agreed to shoot some cans. Someone had opened the Heaven Hill and it was being passed around, so of course I had a deep swig. Being unnecessarily drunk is my culture, innit. With the bottom shelf bourbon searing my belly and making the sunlight less annoying I only missed a couple of shots before I’d put all the cans down, and the noises behind me were half impressed that a European can shoot, half disappointed that a European can shoot. It’s only a BB gun, lads, you should see me on a skeet shoot.
Other performers and their friends start to show up as the afternoon wears away. Being either members or close friends of Rivertown Records, most people already know each other. Aside from Jesse Boutchyard and Matthew Paul Butler I can also see Ben Rollins, Bob Fleming and Jon Charles Dwyer, all dressed punk, most bearded.
Rivertown Records started in 2008, in Charlotte. I ask Ben about where they got the name. “Jesse, Matthew and myself lived in an apartment complex there called the Riviera, which we nicknamed Rivertown.” Asking around, it seems like Ben was the one that named it but nobody can remember for sure, and it’s not exactly contested history. They’d pass a guitar round, “and” Ben tells me “a bottle of whiskey and a couple shitty blunts”, and then they’d play in turns.
The impromptu music sessions at the Rivertown apartment started to crystallize into something else. “We would do shows there. Back then we just trying to figure out anything about playing music, because even setting up and recording was something we’d never done, so we’re like ‘let’s do that’.” They were playing house shows so often that their name caught on pretty fast all around town, even in a city as big as Charlotte.
But about two years ago Rivertown got serious. Jesse’s understanding of the history, I notice, has an almost scholarly level of detail. “We were like ‘hey we’re all doing this thing a lot more seriously than we were five or six years ago – why don’t we actually do this for real?’ And so we started Rivertown Records as a collective, at that point.”
“We were doing this and we started writing songs. Very shitty songs but…songs!”
The big decal they wear on their sleeveless denim jackets was designed by Lauren Bennett when she lived in Boone. Someone else had spent eight months in 2014 promising to make the Rivertown logo, but as Lauren puts it, “he’s an even worse procrastinator than I am.” Her house had a basement where they’d host shows, and she wound up making the logo that now forms all the Rivertown patches.
There are two outsiders to Rivertown playing today: Isaiah Hartsell and Alexa Rose. I didn’t realize right away that they weren’t members of Rivertown, just friends of it. The structure of it is confusing to me, and I realize as the fast grey clouds bunch up overhead that I don’t actually know what a record collective is. A knot of anxiety sits in my chest as it occurs to me I have to ask someone about it, but for some opaque reason an old and pointless self-consciousness clings to the insides of my rib cage, makes me worry that asking stupid questions is going to hurt me in some way. Someone with awkward social skills like that should not be a journalist, I tell myself, and I drink some more as I start conducting the interview with Isaiah.
That nervousness has a little political history to it. Like many people who were nasty as kids and who try to reform themselves as adults, my body still receives the occasional command from the angry Tory boy who hated punk. So much of that music originated screaming out of the poorer boroughs of a London that was starting to choke its inhabitants to death in the late 1970s. That asphyxiation was no accident but the deliberate project of England’s privately educated elites, who were tired of their post-war obligation to pay for ordinary folk to live in basic dignity, and wanted to squeeze them dry. So much English punk excoriates the lucky wankers and their boarding schools (for example The Jam’s The Eton Rifles), who don’t know their own countrymen but feel entitled to command and punish them all the same.
I told myself as a teenager that I hated punk because of the sound, and only discovered much later it’s because I hated the message, because I believed Britain is a meritocracy. I went to a second-rate independent school, a wannabe Marlborough or Eton which taught the stoicism of those schools but which had none of the ancient aristocratic mystery, and far less access to the levers of high society. Middle income parents of students at this more underwhelming end of the private school market will remortgage their houses to pay for it, not so their kids get a shot at becoming Prime Minister, but just to grow up more confident and work-obsessed than the riff-raff. By far the biggest fans of meritocracy in British society are the elite 7% whose education was paid for, an irony we apparently don’t like to spend too much time thinking about.
The techniques of buggering this air of self-importance into us are intense but free form, not so much a cerebral ideological education as a sewage pipe who knows how to push shit in the proper direction by its own gravity. When these boys grow up and (probably) fuck pigs and form Tory governments, people comment that their behavior is like Lord of the Flies, when in fact that book is literally about them. This is the colonial class that once upon a time founded capitalist slavery, established the hut tax, killed millions with famine and then laughed about it, and… encouraged Brexit through its anachronistic sense of entitlement. The pettiest of the petit bourgeois. Being a dropout of that set is like being an unemployed colonial officer, not actively out to hurt anyone but unable to one hundred percent reverse one’s training as a self-loathing bully. My reasoning has always been that it’s better to watch that officer than pretend he isn’t there, because then if you work at it you might finally kill the bastard.
Before the show starts I find Isaiah Hartsell. The storm is minutes away now, I can feel the thick, warm wind that is its warning, but for the moment the House With No Name is tickled by gorgeous beams of direct sunlight. “I’m not a part of Rivertown but I’d like to be part of the gatherings,” he tells me. Isaiah has a gentle manner, but a streak of wicked sharpness slips into his humor almost imperceptibly, like an acupuncturist’s needle. “I met Matthew Paul Butler about a year and a half ago. We met at Atomic Fern, in Durham, and from then on it was a connection, a quick connection, because we have the same sort of background.”
A lot of the Rivertown boys describe to me a similar upbringing: the South, Christianity, emotionally stunted dads. I asked Isaiah, “was it something you rejected?”
“Well sure. I mean, maybe not rejected so much as stepped away from. Rejection’s a strong word. None of us want to be-”
“I ask that with my own baggage,” I blurt out, anxious to come across as relatable rather than nosy. The colonial officer sees that I see him, and shrinks away.
Isaiah nods kindly, and continues to tell me about how he first related with the others. He and Butler “didn’t know each other at all, and then when we started talking more and more he really liked my music. I already knew his music and so it went from talking about music to him saying ‘you should come with us to play some music’.”
It’s not hard to see that he’s trying to keep his admiration for the others on the down low, the obviousness of which I find charming. “Everybody just welcomed you in, as we were taught to do as young people in the church. Which I’m guessing they know a lot about too because of their upbringing. I knew when they brought it up that I know exactly how to talk to these guys.”
We talk for a while about his dad, about the way Isaiah was heavily influenced as a musician by his old man’s obsessive gravitation around Cat Stevens, and how my strongest sonic relation with my own father is through our mutual adoration for The Who. Isaiah’s description of his dad, a singer-songwriter, is of someone whose musical fiefdom was an overbearing one. “We had to follow his lead creatively. When I was old enough to think for myself I stepped away from that and started writing my own songs. When I realized at 17 this guy’s not my everything, he’s just my dad. Now that I’m 21 I realize that he’s just a piece of shit. He controlled what he could, and then he couldn’t control any more, and then he ditched.”
He seems serene about this act of sulking abandonment, so I’m moved instead to press him some more on Rivertown and whether or not he feels like he belongs. “You said to me a few minutes ago that you’re not really part of Rivertown,” I begin, before adding “I don’t actually know about the structure of Rivertown,” and then take a heavy swig of beer to sidestep my another gale of my impostor syndrome. “Has someone come up to you and said ‘will you join this record collective?’”
“Do you want that to happen?”
He tries to be evasive about it, stumbling through a bashful monologue about how chill he wants to be about the question. “You don’t just push yourself into a group of people, you sort of ease your way in,” he says. “It’s a collective of guys who’ve grown up together. I by no means want to step on anything.” I press him again, about what he wants, he breaks: “If, if, if, when it happens, I’ll be ecstatic,” he finally confesses, and seems relieved to be out with it. “But for now I’m just happy to be in the same house as these guys.”
Soon afterward Isaiah plays his set as the house show started in earnest. It has a honeyed melancholy to it that leaves more energy in the room than was there at the start.
The other outsider to Rivertown, Alexa Rose, I’ve seen perform here before. Alexa is 22, lives now in Boone, North Carolina but grew up in the Appalachian Mountains – and has been striking out as a full time musician for several months. I don’t speak to her until after several sets, including hers, have been played, so as I interview her in the next porch along as the rain hammers darkly overhead I wonder if she can tell how drunk I am.
“The first person I knew who was part of this collective was Jon Dwyer,” she tells me, “we ended up playing this house show in Lynchburg, and that’s where I met Jesse and Bob and a couple other people there. I remember it was a great night, such a great show; everyone was listening so intently, and I knew that I’d found this community of people who wanted to listen and who were also writing, and who wanted to articulate something with their writing.”
I’d been present earlier to see Alexa and Bob Fleming discussing recent difficulties in their respective lives, and had witnessed the way the conversation had gravitated towards music and community by the end. “There are some very clear common threads that everyone here is singing about,” I started to list. “Dealing with dads, dealing with love and loss, with religion-”
“Or dealing with happy things,” Alexa adds gently, “drawing any life experience you have, that’s what Bob and I were both saying, we have had tough weeks, and to be able to come here to this community and share this music but also have music shared with us, it just sorta reiterates that thing where this is how you make life okay.”
“And something I really like about Jon Dwyer’s sets is that he’ll always open a set with an old ballad or an old mountain themed song. And I mean, I just say that because that’s where we’re both from, and it’s where I’ve lived and I kind of sense that, this sort of 1-4-1 structure of these songs.”
People talk about Jon Dwyer as someone who is definitely going places. They’re all in motion, but I notice that special attention is given to the careers of Jon and Alexa; and for my own part, I’ve sat down at the bar Jesse works at when Jon’s music is playing in the background, and seen people get up from their table and walk to the bar specifically to ask who the artist is. Jon sings with a delicate potency that cracks gently around the edges, rather like his smile, which has an arrestingly powerful fragility. His and Alexa’s music reflects the sorrow and poverty of the Appalachian landscape with a beauty that makes little sense of my life experience, and yet the timbre of it pulls at a set of repressed emotions in a way that feels comfortingly ancient.
The delicate cadence of Alexa Rose’s music is inspired by the backdrop of her childhood, which she expanded through her education when she minored in Appalachian music. Hers is, notably, not punk music, the absence of which I ask her about. “That’s the thing that makes Rivertown Records so cool,” she says enthusiastically, “it’s somewhat punk but not totally. It’s very encompassing of several different things. But from what I’ve gathered from it Rivertown’s wrapped up in mountain culture; it’s got a little bit of the old, little bit of the new, and I guess if you had to classify it, it would be punk, but it isn’t.”
Jesse is known by folks in the scene all along the east coast as ‘punk rock Jesse’, and his heavy earrings and blue hair and 1-3-1-2 finger tattoos make him look the part. He’s been responsible for most of my musical education of the past few months: I’ve learned more about London punk from him in half a year than I did from living in London itself for six years, partly because I’m finally ready to listen to it but mostly because I was always afraid of checking out a scene that (rightly) sees my upbringing as the enemy. It’s easier in America; here my accent sounds like an advert, not like some tosser about to give them the sack.
Similar to Matthew Paul Butler’s solo work and some aspects of Ben Rollins’s Evel Arc, Jesse Boutchyard’s musical project Severed Fingers is an amalgamation of country sound and punk/hardcore iconography. His vocals are where his working class fury is projected most powerfully, growling melodies about the tug of alcoholism, the premature loss of his father, and fear and pain in his own fatherhood. Jesse’s work is the most anarchic – and I mean that politically – of the Rivertown sets I’ve seen, which fits the way the DIY record label describes itself on the Facebook page: “Rivertown Records NC has a strict ethos on equality for all people and will never support in any capacity any form of bigotry, fascism or any other forms of hate.” If you’d told teenage me that I would one day consider someone like Jesse as a dear friend, and moreover would take music pointers from a punk, I’d…probably not have known how to form a coherent sentence in response but if I could have, it would’ve been some variation of ‘pull the other one’. It’s a comforting thought, to know how far I’ve traveled from home.
That includes shedding my old world snobbery about the South, of which most Europeans have highly sensationalized preconceptions that come mostly from information provided by wealthy Northerners, who travel more and so get more opportunities to tell Europeans about what America is like.
North Carolina’s forays into news media that have made it to be heard across the Pond over the past year have not exactly been glowing. I would like to list the stories about the state that friends back in the UK actually heard about. Misreporting on a village whose skepticism of solar power may not have been fully scientifically literate went viral in December, giving everyone back home a chance to have a good laugh at backwards North Carolina for fearing clean energy – even though NC ranks 3rd in the US for solar power. A 15-year-old high schooler from Iowa running for President under the name ‘Deez Nuts’ ended up earning a surprise 9% in a North Carolina voting poll last August. The white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, who murdered 9 people in a black church in Charleston last year, was eventually caught in NC. Of course there have been numerous Drumpf rallies in the state, which is a swing state, that have provided plenty of click fodder for European news consumers captivated by Drumpf’s karaoke fascist roadshow. And in April the British government issued a travel warning to LGBTQ tourists thinking of heading to NC thanks to the pointlessly divisive and violent ‘House Bill 2’, which attempts to police the public bathroom use of queer and trans people.
I had a couple of opportunities as a reporter to try and put my thumb on a different pulse when I lived there. I tried to be a bit fairer than my inherited preconceptions when I covered the community reaction to a police shooting in Raleigh and the activism surrounding HB2, in either case trying to explore a little cross section of the state that is just as North Carolinian as its more well-known conservatism but which takes a very different view of individual liberty. Rivertown Records represents in my mind the pinnacle of that exploration, where I’ve become convinced that the best way to get to know a red state is to meet its rebels.
Bob Fleming did a good job of embodying this when he found out that there was going to be a Drumpf rally in Greensboro, where he lives. Bob is burly, broad-shouldered, with an accent that twangs pleasantly, and he has the kind of warmly communicative facial expressions that don’t let anything as trifling as his thick beard get in the way of being seen. In other words, to my foreign eyes he comes across as very Southern. When he heard about Drumpf coming to Greensboro, his immediate response was put out a call to arms on Facebook for other men to join him in standing next to the rally, wearing Daisy Dukes and giving out free hugs. The call read: “who among you are man enough to join us in making some rednecks and out-of-towners uncomfortable at the Drumpf rally Tuesday?” and Bob later added “if you’d like to join us feel free, but remember, we don’t need violence to express our opinion. There has been more than enough violence recently for a lifetime. Let love win.” It feels important to note that at the rally he was draped in the North Carolina flag.
Bob’s set at the Rivertown Records show hits me hard. He sings in softly graveled tones, soaked in bourbon and seasoned with hard times. At this point night had fallen and the booze in my system had softened me up plenty, as had the company of good people curious about why a foreigner who grew up with ignorant disdain for country and punk was so eager to find out about it now. The buzz of the alcohol had shooed the nutty anxiety of the colonial officer way into the trees, and as Bob starts his set I ponder, for nowhere near the first time, the relationship between the tug of alcoholism and the harmful English neuroses that feed our icy paranoia. The alternative to communally poisoning ourselves as a salve for our worries seems too often to be existing miserably as a sub-human bag of nerves, whose panicked indifference to the agony and humiliation of others prolongs their pain. It frightens me how easily I can imagine my older self becoming one of those sad Englishmen who end up an alcoholic because they don’t keep track of how desperately their repression self-medicates from the bottle, and the imagery feels like the ancient whisper of culture.
It is a particular song that eventually does it, eases the breath out of me, make me choke up. Bob invites Jon Dwyer on stage to sing with him, but even before their vocals began my jaw started to shudder with emotion at the soft folksy cadence of the chord progression flowing from his guitar. The lyrics evoke an immediate and harrowing sense of loss simply from describing a moment of paddling in a stream somewhere. By the time they reach the chorus my vision is blurred with tears. “The cool dirty water at the edge of July washes away all my sins, while I wander and drunkenly roam, dear Lord, please let me come home. I just need to find home.”
Thanks to some visa-related fuckery and other fun reasons, I hadn’t left the United States for nearly a year at this point. This fact hadn’t bothered me at all until, weirdly, the Boaty McBoatface scandal hit the news in the UK and abroad, shortly before the Rivertown gig. What struck me was that there’s a whimsical and surreal part of British culture and habit that clearly I have a fondness for, the wellspring of Monty Python and David Bowie and other valves for our quiet desperation; but I’d ignored its existence for all those months away, probably to protect myself from activating some vague urge to self-destruct. When Boaty’s elected name was sacrificed in the name of seriousness, I felt powerfully as if some conflict between the absurd and the boring was being fought at the heart of my home nation, and that this conflict was old, maybe hundreds of years old. I felt that the serious side is the one that spawned the Empire and our meanness and, some instinct hinted at me, at the oppressive tedium that sits at the root of my anxiety. I felt as if Boaty McBoatface was murdered by my colonial officer, by Bowie’s Thin White Duke, some peculiarly British shittiness that follows us around like a poisonous gas.
And there is something about Bob’s song which, as it pierces my skin and drips into me, turns that cerebral fussing into an overwhelming sadness. Luckily it’s dark when bands are playing in The House With No Name so I can slip out to the porch to collect myself in relative stealth as Bob’s set continues. After several minutes that tap is still very much running when Jesse, walking outside to have a cigarette, points to me with a huge smile and says “hey look, we got one!”
The Rivertown folks have a culture of making each other cry; it’s never a contest but they regard putting each other to tears as a thing of great value. “It’s kind of our thing,” explains Kamala Lee, a photographer who is artistically attached to Rivertown Records in what is clearly a deep way.
After Bob’s set I set out to find him and ask some questions about his relationship to Rivertown, and I’m surprised when he tells me how recently he came aboard. “I think it was November,” he says thoughtfully. “I met Jon Dwyer two months before that, at a show in Greensboro. I was so stoked on his music and I went up to him and I was like ‘fuck, like, you understand what I’m wanting to do’.” Bob just put out his second record, Hiraeth, and works a job just enough to sustain himself so that he can focus on traveling to play music, topping it up with temp work when he needs to.
I have to ask. “So I heard that song about exile,” I gush to him, “and I haven’t been home in a year, and I have only been starting to appreciate in the last couple of weeks how much I miss it. And as you saw I wept like a fucking baby. What’s that song?”
“It’s called Hiraeth,” he replies. “And it’s a word that means homesickness for a home that may never have existed in the first place, or a home you can’t go back to. It’s not necessarily about not having a place to live or not being…for me, I’m in a constant state of leaving and going somewhere and not coming back and being extremely happy about. But for the most part, I haven’t felt myself at home in a long time. And I learned that word four or five months ago and it just fucking hit me like a ton of bricks and I’m like ‘I get that’.”
In case it wasn’t already painfully obvious: I know nothing about country. Or punk. Or, let’s face it, barely anything about the South. But it was an encounter with some amalgamation of these things that brought me into communion with my Hiraeth, in which Southern punks made me cry for a home that only exists in the inscrutable fantasies that I’ve cooked up to bolster my justifications for never wanting to live there again. There probably is some connection between the British colonizer and the Southern man; both were created by nefarious design and historical circumstance in the name of cruelty and profit, and the still-open wounds of racism carved into the world by European plunderers required that they be transformed into what James Baldwin called “those who think of themselves as white”. And anyone who tries to reject that design is essentially trying to think of themselves as something less oppressively vacuous, knowing, again as Baldwin wrote, that “no community can be based on such a principle – or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie” as whiteness.
But where I left my home in disgust at the mad isolation I neurotically imposed on myself there (albeit as only one of many reasons), these troublemakers and boozers in North Carolina take a more courageous approach and love their home at home, warts and all. This isn’t hand-wringing or self-flagellation but a countercultural communion, the flamenco juerga of the Southern mountains and plains. I feel the world should know there are those who rebel for the South but not for the Confederacy, who want to chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ with a bellyful of barbecue, who know that when bluegrass music weaves across the wind it does so on Cherokee land. Something tells me if they were British, these guys would have definitely voted for a £200 million polar research vessel to be named Boaty McBoatface.
In between two sets an unexpected announcement is made, headed by Ben Rollins. Everyone gets called outside so that Alexa Rose and Isaiah Hartsell could be inducted into Rivertown Records as full members, and they had printed jackets for both of them. They both accepted them graciously, to heartfelt cheers. I don’t need to record much more about this than my memory of Isaiah’s face as he was invited in as a full member. He’d been so coy when I pressed him a few hours before about how much he wanted this, but even then his shoulders had shifted with a buoyancy that hinted at someone who couldn’t fully contain themselves at the thought. Now his look of joy and surprise at being inducted into Rivertown was unrestrained, and wonderful, and the rush of belonging he felt was writ as clear on his face as any emotion I can remember seeing anyone experience.
Alexa had said to me earlier that evening: “I would not necessarily call myself a punk artist, but something just really fits with them. I feel the heart in what they’re doing. Maybe that’s it, maybe it’s the sense of place you get, from the heart in their writing.” At one point in time I wondered if my sudden gut connection to the old ballads sung by Jon and Alexa and Bob was because of their English roots. But that feels like an absurd theory now, stretched, contrived. It came from my silly yearning to feel actual belonging in a landscape that I don’t despise, and simply wanting something does not make it real. In truth, the sense of place is entirely their creation. But I am welcomed into it, sheltered in drunken warmth from my own exile.
Images: Blue Nervana Photography