Maybe Pine Box Boys frontman Lester T. Raww never really had a chance, growing up in rural Arkansas with a mother who sang him to sleep every night with surreptitiously sinister lullabies, “Knoxville Girl” and “Fair Eleanor” and “Pretty Polly,” softly-intoned yet dark traditional tales of blood and murder and love-gone-wrong.
His fate was surely sealed during his teenage years, when his fancy turned to horror movies and slasher flicks. A creative sort — an artist and a musician — young Lester’s fondest wish was be the next Tom Savini, the makeup auteur behind George Romero’s landmark zombie creature features.
All which is by way of saying that it was no small wonder when, living in San Francisco in the early aughts, Raww and a few fellow neighborhood musicians started up an acoustic side project that took a gruesome left turn into the insidious realm of murder ballads.
“The way I grew up, I thought it was perfectly normal,” Lester says with an easy chuckle. “Doesn’t everybody sing songs about killing people? So I started pulling out these old songs where someone was always getting killed, and teaching them to the other guys.”
“And one day I said, hey, I’d like to try my hand writing one of these songs. It went over like gangbusters — the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack had just exploded, and everyone was listening to bluegrass and mountain music. Fourteen years later, we’re still doing it.”
They’re a morbidly colorful bunch, these Pine Box Boys, with Raww on lead vocals and guitar backed up by banjo player “Possum” Carvidi, upright bassist Col. Timothy Leather and drummer Steven “Your Uncle” Dodds. Theirs is a lively brand of mayhem-friendly neo-traditionalism, delivered with the appropriate level of cheek, and imbued with the feral energies of early rock ‘n’ roll.
The Boys been more than tolerably prolific, too, releasing a slew of records as the Pine Box Boys, and a few more under the nom de gruesome of Lester T. Raww and the Gravesite Quartet, all of the releases sharing similarly mordant titles, “Arkansas Killing Time” and “Tales from the Emancipated Head” and “Stab!” And of course, “Lester T. Raww’s Gravesite Quartet Sings Your Children to Sleep,” an album which, contrary to the self-advertisement of its title, is not in any way suitable for actual children.
The response to the Pine Box Boys’ sly but musically sophisticated murder-ballad schtick has been largely positive, Lester says, with but a few hiccups of protest along the way. He notes that the editor of a feminist publication back in San Francisco — a long-time PBB fan — politely told him she could no longer come to shows, having paid closer attention to the band’s lyrical content. Lester adds in his own defense that, “If you listen to enough of our songs, you realize that we are equal opportunity misanthropes.
“Most people who hear us get it,” he continues. “Occasionally, I get some politically correct do-gooders who disparage what we’re doing. But that’s when I know we’re probably doing something right. If no one’s offended, it probably means we’re getting a little too soft.”
The Pine Box Boys will play Preservation Pub Tuesday, June 20 at 9:30 p.m.