At just under 90 seconds, “Introduction”, the aptly titled first track of King Dude’s latest album, Burning Daylight, effectively sets the tone for all that follows. Over the sounds of a raging house fire and a funereal church organ, the Dude—aka Seattleite Thomas Jefferson Cowgill—announces that he’ll soon be wrapped in a death shroud and laid in the cold, cold ground. That opening suggests Burning Daylight isn’t going to be a collection of party-rock anthems, and that’s borne out by the rest of the record, which takes listeners to a place where the old, weird America is very much alive.
Over the spectral campfire strumming of “Barbara Anne”, for example, Cowgill employs a baritone voice that sounds like the creaking hinge of a jailhouse door to make his betrothed a series of dark promises: “And if I see that deputy he better run away, Barbara Anne/Because I’ll put this whole town in the ground if I have to, Barbara Anne.”
If that reads like a murder ballad that a folklorist might have collected in 1930s Appalachia, there’s a good reason for that. Hoping to step out of the shadows of his too-apparent British influences (particularly Death in June), Cowgill immersed himself in the Library of Congress’s Alan Lomax Collection, which includes a vast number of field recordings gathered from all over the U.S. and beyond
“When I was thinking of the theme of the record, of it being about a bleak, early-American-gospel vibe to some of it, that was just such a great wealth of a resource for me to choose my influences from,” he says by phone from the Emerald City. “There’s so much music there.”
Cowgill didn’t set out to copy any of those recordings, though. From the voice-of-doom rumble of his singing to the lo-fi dirt of his overall sound, the King Dude project has an aesthetic that’s Cowgill’s alone. Nonetheless, he shrugs off the suggestion that he’s blazing a unique trail. “I don’t think of them as my songs so much as an extension of a folk tradition, you know what I mean?” he says. “With my viewpoint. That’s the only difference—lyrically, and obviously how I record. But in essence, I think a lot of those songs could have happened 30 or 40 years ago, and they just would maybe have different lyrics or would have been recorded differently or something.”
Lest you think that King Dude is all about white lightning and unmarked graves, it should be noted that he does have a more accessible side. This comes to the fore on “You Can Break My Heart”, a ballad haunted by the ghost of some ’50s crooner. Cowgill says even poppier fare is in store. “I’m also obsessed with Phil Spector so much,” he notes. “When you see our full band, you’ll hear more of that big-beat ’60s sound. Of all the songs that I do solo, we’ve kind of rearranged a bunch of them. And, actually, we just rerecorded some of them as a band, and we’re going to release it as a 7-inch when we tour Europe.”
For the current tour, which sees King Dude opening for Chelsea Wolfe, Cowgill will be accompanied only by guitarist Nicholas Friesen for an acoustic set—all the better to contemplate terrible deeds best done in the shadows of the deep, dark woods.
King Dude plays the Media Club on Tuesday (January 15).