Decent Folk

Summer Hymns' summer hymns define the purdy South

"I just got done frying up some bacon and eggs," says Summer Hymns leader Zachary Gresham with a lazy, Jimmy Carter drawl. "Now I just have to wash the pot."

Cleaning up after breakfast at two in the afternoon, Gresham is living the life most would-be rock stars dream about. He just ditched his latest temp job, something he describes as "putting up 3,000 windows in the Atlanta ghetto," and later this week, he'll pack into a van with his buddies to play gigs and see the country. During the few days of downtime before the tour, he wakes up late, fries up cholesterol-packed breakfasts, plays some guitar and chats on the phone. It sure beats working.

"I'm finally able to do the things that I've always wanted to do," Gresham says. "I started doing this because I liked being in front of people, and it's something that I guess I've gotten good enough at to pursue. I try not to think about it too much. I try not to analyze it."

The latest Athens, Georgia, band to almost make the 
big time: Summer Hymns.
The latest Athens, Georgia, band to almost make the big time: Summer Hymns.

Talking to Gresham, it seems impossible to believe that he loves being in front of a crowd. He mumbles and stutters with an endearing mountain of nervous energy. He doesn't suffer from the pretentious, typically self-important hubris of a burgeoning cult hero; he bears the weight of a wealth of humility. At one point he even fields a compliment with a bashful "geez Louise." But Gresham's candor defies the slack-jawed naïveté of his country-boy demeanor.

"I grew up in a Baptist church. That's enough to make anyone not religious by the time they are 21," he says directly. "Music is my religion. Creativity is my communion."

His work fronting Summer Hymns makes this statement immediately evident. With the band's latest, Clemency, Gresham's high-pitched narratives are confessional and literate, and -- like the name of his band -- constantly hinting at the ethereal. Sonically, Gresham leads the band through poppy psyche-country that places him alongside like-minded contemporaries such as Clem Snide, Sparklehorse and Centro-matic.

Opting out of the band's usual home-recorded tradition, they migrated to Nashville to record Clemency with Mark Nevers, a member of Lambchop whose production credits include Vic Chestnutt and the Silver Jews. Under Nevers's guidance they abandoned some of the spacey elements of their two earlier efforts and built the record on simple sounds: weepy pedal steel licks, swaying beats, acoustic guitars and lofty vocal melodies. In "Be Anywhere" he croons, "I don't want to believe," again and again over a wash of pedal steel. It's one of the defining moments of the record, rich with emotional weight and simple, disarming sincerity. Think of it as Neil Young and Crazy Horse for the Starbucks generation. Or maybe not.

"I grew up listening to what my parents had in their stack of records," Gresham says. "Neil Young was in there, but I don't think he had more of an influence on my subconscious musical wiring than Hall & Oates or Duran Duran. Maybe if I had a good soul voice, people would say I sound like John Hall…or Oates…or whichever one had the soul voice. The things I like don't have that much to do with what I sound like. I like Bob Dylan, but I don't write songs like him. I don't listen to other songwriters as mentors; I just try to enjoy them."

Gresham's mentors are a little more nepotistic. He spent most of his childhood in the Atlanta burbs, but in the summers he retreated to his grandmother's house in a rural area between Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama. There she taught him how to play piano and kindled his interest in music. He talks about those summers with timid nostalgia, reminiscing about singing songs around the piano and spending summer evenings on the front porch.

"It was more of a slow-paced environment," he says. "At home it was the suburbs, and we did normal stuff that suburban kids do: go to movies and Six Flags and hang out. But when I went to my grandmother's it was different. I used to sing in church and play piano. There is a certain folk background that is still in me a little bit from back then. I was exposed to folk music by playing songs and stuff, not by listening to it."

By the time he was a teenager his ears were full of alternative-nation staples, seminal innovators like the Pixies and Pavement. And as a freshman in high school he did what any hot-blooded, music-loving, postadolescent male would: He got a cheap guitar, gathered up some school chums and channeled his angst into what he lovingly refers to as an "awfully obnoxious punk band." A far cry from the poignant balladeering of Summer Hymns.

"Eventually, I grew dissatisfied by sounding like every other indie band that worships Pavement," Gresham says. "I needed to listen to more kinds of stuff and play more kinds of stuff. I started getting into Krautrock and psychedelic music and the Harry Smith Folk Anthology. I didn't want to play noise rock, and I thought it made sense to start fresh with a new outlook."

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