Ebenezer & the Hymnasters: murder ballads for a new era 

“Folkestra” fiddles with visual and arcane fare includes belly dancing

"Murder ballads.” Say it with me now: murder ballads. The phrase sounds like the punk rock of another era, doesn’t it? And it certainly fits. That’s just one of the numerous forms that Ebenezer & the Hymnasters work into the band’s distinctive, washboards-and-guitars sound. Founded by Bruce Benedict and Kyle Ragsdale, formerly of Emory Salem, in August last year, the eight members of Ebenezer & the Hymnasters have quickly picked up a cult following around town with their fusion of old-timey folk, punk and religious sensibilities.

NUVO: You’ve described the genesis of the band as “an accidental brainchild”; can you elaborate?

Benedict: We did an art opening last August, and Kyle Ragsdale [singer/tambourine] and I called up a bunch of our friends to do the gig, and everybody liked it. We thought, “This is an interesting sound [and] an interesting group of people.” It accidentally sprung together from all these people that we knew.

NUVO: How would you describe your sound?

Benedict: It’s definitely rooted in folk music and singer-songwriter fare; for example, we take some traditional murder ballads and rework them. We really try to create a more quirky sound. We do these things as sort of a punk folk — it’s really loud, going from a sweet fiddle to a sort of driving rock. It’s taking a more traditional bluegrass music and giving it a punk feel, performing it with more intensity.

NUVO: I have to admit I’ve never heard of a murder ballad, but it just cries out for explanation.

Benedict: It’s a traditional folk song where you’d write a story about a guy who wants to marry this girl but ends up killing her before they married. There are lots of these different stories — a Romeo and Juliet-esque folk song, where someone dies in the song. There are enough of these songs that they have their own genre. Instead of taking these songs and making museum pieces of them, we try to give them more heart and feel.

NUVO: Your look and feel is quirky all right; I’d call it sort of an 1800s neo-Victorian style.

Benedict: Well, two of our musicians are visual artists, and they have an interest in the arcane. One collects old funerary art, and another is interested in ’30s and ’40s imagery. They sort of lend a lot to our look. For our big photo shoot we went to Crown Hill Cemetery because we’re definitely interested in reflecting upon scenes of death and mourning in a way, and embracing and appreciating it as a community of the arts.

NUVO: What are some of the themes you approach?

Benedict: We wrote a song called “Pleasant Street,” based on a poem Kyle Ragsdale wrote when he and a friend both lost their fathers within a week of each other. At first glance we thought, “That’s really depressing; who writes songs about their dads dying? That’s not cool, that’s not hip.” But it’s music that has some serious content, and is also a song that’s well-written, well-put-together and well-performed.

NUVO: What do your stage shows tend to be like?

Benedict: Our shows tend to be more like a musical revue — almost a community musical. We’ll always have some sort of visual thing someone in the band put together. It’s more than just seeing another band do anther song.

NUVO: Your songs often have a lot of religious content.

Benedict: A lot of us you’ll find sitting on a church pew on a Sunday morning. We appreciate some music that has religious content and reflects a fuller picture of humanity. A lot of great American folk music has a religious air. I’ve written for a lot of different religious groups. Writing songs for a church and writing songs for a folk band isn’t too different. Themes of love and life and death and loss. n

Editors’ note: Ebenezer & the Hymnasters have just released a five-song EP and are in the studio working on a full-length album, expected for release in August 2007. The band’s next performances will take place at the Harrison Center for the Arts on June 2 and June 9. For more information, visit www.myspace.com/hymnaster.

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