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It's not uncommon for first-time audiences of The Clay States to glance around the venue, a song or two into a set, as if to reassure themselves that they're still in the same place--and same era--as they were just minutes before. The Alabama-based duo's stories come from the past so straight and undiluted that they can be unsettling at first, like scenes from a documentary made before cinema was invented.
Occasionally there's a vibe of the sheer vocal intensity of Buckingham Nicks, or a glimpse into the black-and-white Gothic rural fantasies of Gillian Welch, but the music of The Clay States is as far from "derivative" as it's possible to be. Lyrics are often sparse, laborious, fraught. Instrumentation alternates between cello, banjo, ukulele and traditional guitar to create layers of anachronism.
Their typical haunts for performance take place in buildings rich with turn-of-the-century industrial history--from the engine room of a steel mill to the antique pumping station of a former waterworks. "The idea is to get our sound to interact with the crumbling post-industrial South," Collins says. "The old brick, rusted pipe, and stairwells seem to sing back."