Heaven is Music: A Conversation with Jamie Barrier of The Pine Hill Haints

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Abraham Rowe

A cemetery may be an unlikely rehearsal space, but Pine Hill Cemetery proved to be the place where Jamie Barrier and his fellow musicians would hone the sound of The Pine Hill Haints. Taking its name from both the location and an archaic English term for “haunting,” the band melds roots influences into a unique sound that befits its self-described “Alabama Ghost Country” style of music. On May 14, the band will release The Song Companion of a Lonestar Cowboy [Single Lock Records]. Recently, we caught up with Barrier by phone.

Birmingham Stages: Jamie, thanks for your time. Where is your home base these days?

Jamie Barrier: You could say Florence or Muscle Shoals. I  live about 30 or 40 minutes north of the Tennessee River – I live in Tennessee right on the line. It’s where my family has been since 1814 or 1815.

Birmingham Stages: It’s hard to interview any artist without bringing up the past year. How did you spend your time since touring wasn’t an option?

Barrier: I did a lot of skateboarding and I did a lot of surfing. I live out in the woods so, COVID or not, I’m always writing and playing. I live so far from another human being – at times it was like it only existed on the news. I had COVID but may case wasn’t so bad.

Birmingham StagesWe are enjoying The Song Companion of a Lonestar Cowboy. Were the songs on this album newer compositions, older compositions or a mixture of both?

Barrier: You know, it’s both. I’m always writing and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. The songs may not be good, but I’ve never had a problem writing. We play a lot of shows and [songs] get played a million times before we ever record them. For example, “Back to Alabama” – I remember rehearsing that with an accordion player back around 2008 or 2009. There are a lot of songs that I’ll just forget about and they’ll go unused and that’s what that one was. We played a show in Pensacola about four years ago and a boy came to the gig – there a lot of people that bootleg us – and he said, “Hey man, I bootlegged a show years back and I can’t find this on any of your records. Do you have a title for it?” and I was like, “I forgot all about that song” [laughs]. There you have it – I put it on the new record.

Birmingham Stages: The ability to woodshed songs before you record them sounds like a great way to refine them before going into the studio.

Barrier: It is. You can tell from the reactions if they have any merit or not. With our instrumentation, there’s only so much you can do without sounding monotonous so it’s good to play a lot and get things as unique and individual as you can. It’s a fun challenge.

Birmingham Stages: How do you reconcile the pros and cons of the current musical climate in the age of iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and other modern outlets?

Barrier: There a lot of people glued to the phone and there are advantages to be taken from it. I’m negative as far as all that stuff goes. I like to get out and play and go camping and travel and play music. Anything that’s driving people like cattle where they can be marketed and owned – I instantly get my hackles raised. Being from Alabama, we get accused of being these mountain and survivor types, so I feel resistance to the way the world is going. Everything I’ve learned has been out on the trail – I’ll see a band and friends will say, “Wait until you get to Michigan and see this band.”

Birmingham Stages: According to your bio, you grew up in a musical household. If you will, talk about the influence that had on you.

Barrier: I never knew them, but several years ago there was a band called The Barrier Brothers and they would play the Grand Ole Opry and they were known all around the Tennessee Valley. I always heard about them and I’m kin to Hank Williams and Johnny Horton. So when I was a kid that was always around. The first time I heard Black Sabbath, I was all in on it. My brothers play music and my uncle plays music and I was raised in the church so music has always been a heavy part of my life. I’ve always been told that Heaven is music.

Birmingham Stages: You mentioned the styles you were exposed to in your youth – country, gospel and hard rock – and all of those influences can be heard in your songs.

Barrier: You play in these big cities and you got San Francisco and play with a folk or bluegrass group and it is so good. What they’re doing is so pure, but in Alabama you have to be a jack of all trades. You’ve got to know your Skynyrd and you’ve got to know your hip-hop and Sabbath and your fiddle tunes. I feel like when you’re from somewhere with a lot more people, people are very selective. But if you’re where we’re from, you’ve got to know how to do some plumbing and change the oil. Musically, it’s the same. I like it that way.

Birmingham Stages: I know that every region of the country has great music, but I’ve always felt so privileged to come from the South. The fact that Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta are all within easy driving distance is still amazing to me.

Barrier: The ace up our sleeve is the religious element – the shadow of the Cross. Everybody in our area was either forced here from slavery or prison camps or they were seeking some type of religious freedom. We have a weird mix of God and the devil in this area that you may not have in the rest of the country. Everything here is about life after death. Soul music comes from the grave and the Second Line in New Orleans – that jazz music comes from the grave and rejoicing while you follow that coffin. That’s a special thing we have in the South.

Birmingham Stages: What are your band’s plans in the coming weeks and months?

Barrier: I’m trying to be patient. A year ago, we had 14 gigs in Japan, a 21-date tour in Europe and two tours out West. We had to cancel every one of them. Last April, we hit the hard lockdown and in my primitive mind I thought we’d sit tight for two weeks and it would all blow over. I kept constantly trying to set things up but they weren’t going to happen. I’m finally just letting them come to me. I want go west this summer so bad, but I’m going to try not to force it.

The Pine Hill Haints will release The Song Companion of a Lonestar Cowboy on Friday, May 14. For more information, visit www.thepinehillhaints.com.