June 3, 2009 12:00

A journey in song

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The Subterranean Bums hit the road

I was just a lad, nearly twenty-two Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you And now I’m lost, too late to pray Lord I’ve paid the cost on the lost highway

Marshall Owen caught a ride from a church in High Point to the newspaper office on Sunday afternoon. He carried his guitar in a form-fitting black bag down the hall and greeted the writer. The writer drove them to the Mexican restaurant in the suburban shopping center, where they talked about the recording of the new CD by Owen’s band. Then the musician walked out to the highway to catch the bus back to his house in Greensboro. From there, he and his partner in the band, Jack Carter, would be traveling to Atlanta.

The band is Subterranean Bums and the CD is called Cloak and Dagger, Voice and Brain. Maybe you haven’t heard of them. If that’s the case, then you should know that they’re the latest cresting wave on a heaving ocean of creative development in the Triad. The songs are mostly written by Carter and the majority of the arranging credit goes to Owen. Carter mainly plays acoustic guitar and Owen banjo, but sometimes they switch. Carter sings lead vocal and Owen takes care of harmony.

Both of them are 22 years old. They pull from a vast constellation of like-minded talents for instrumentation that includes trumpet, bowed upright bass, electric guitar, organ and fiddle. It would be pointless to name all their co-conspirators and all the bands each has played in, but let’s note that Subterranean Bums’ extended family includes Eating the Invaders, Anti Gravity Animated, the Buster Dillys, Burlap Sacks, Narcissistics Anonymous, Come Hell or High Water and the Tritium

Project. Many of the musical partnerships and friendships encapsulated in those names were forged at a Greensboro dive bar called the Flatiron.

And while Subterranean Bums may not be a familiar name to the average guy who takes his kids to the GYC Carnival in the coliseum parking lot, lots of people who appreciate music have taken notice. In the space of a week, they’ve performed on two shows on Guilford College’s campus station, filmed an internet video segment for www. monkeywhale.com, performed a concert with the multimedia Dotmatrix Project in Greensboro and hold their CD release party at the Flatiron. Not to mention hitting the road to Hickory before they roll on to Atlanta.

Jack Marshall slid into one of the corner booths at the Green Burro after the Dotmatrix show on a recent Thursday. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead, and he smiled with relief as the tension of performance fell away. He’s got a vagabond heart, this Jack Carter, maybe even more so than Marshall Owen, who has maintained a household in Greensboro while Carter has been living in Atlanta. Owen has a recording studio he calls the Bat Cave in the house in Greensboro, and it’s a place that typically attracts a lot of musicians. Carter lives in an Atlanta neighborhood called Little Five Points, and he said being around so many creative people there inspired him to write a new song every week. Part of Carter’s traveling experience is inscribed in a song called “Monterrey (Shiver),” which is about falling in love a girl without and communicating “for days” without language. Carter was in the Mexican city playing with a brass band. He later explained that his parents are Salvation Army ministers, and the Salvation Army uses brass bands instead of choirs.

His life is a rough-hewn, poetic kind of travelogue. “I was born in Atlanta,” he said. “We lived in Texas a little bit. I went to high school in Hickory. I went to UNC-Charlotte for a year. (I f***ing hated Charlotte.) I worked Jack Carter has rarely stayed in one place for most of his life.


UPPER LEFT: The Subterranean Bums mainly consist of Marshall Owen (center) and Jack Carter (right), but their first record and live performances include many collaborators. (photos by Quentin L. Richardson)


I spent some time in Winston-Salem working at a music school. I lost that job. I moved in with Marshall, and then I went to Atlanta. Who knows where I’ll be next year. I’m going back to Atlanta next week. Things are really taking off here in North Carolina. When I was here six or seven months ago it didn’t seem like as much was happening. North Carolina’s an exciting place to be right now. I tell people in Atlanta: ‘I don’t even know why I left.’” Carter’s vocal style and lyrics evoke the murky and disjointed cinematography of indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, which isn’t too surprising considering that the band’s name is a synthesis of two Jack Kerouac novels, The Subterraneans and Dharma Bums. Carter’s travel itch echoes Jarmusch’s first major film, Stranger Than Fiction, about an American road trip, and Kerouac’s famous novel, On The Road. Carter sings in a reedy and frail kind of yelp. The swoop of black hair flipped away from his forehead, and even the intensity he applies to his music gives him the look of a young Johnny Cash. Owen, meanwhile, resembles a 19th-century song-man incarnation of the Band’s Rick Danko.

Onstage the songs hold a sardonic edge and a little bleeding heart. The arrangements are sophisticated, but the music conjures simple pleasures. Carter, Owen and their family of players stomp and pick, sing harmonies and take obvious pleasure in their small contributions.

“These words, they float around my head thru my ears and into my heart,” Carter sings with a little help from his friends. “These sounds they form visions in my head of an Oklahoma thunderstorm/ Oh, to feel nothing, a vacant scene/ I’m just a marionette without any strings/ Oh, to be so poor, bruised, bloodied and sore/ I got all that I need, I don’t want anymore.”

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