Death by Dixie isn’t just a record; it’s a reckoning. The new album from The Last Tycoon, the Americana project of Atlanta-based songwriter John Gladwin, reflects on what it means to be Southern in the 21st century; it explores how old wounds, harboring just below the surface, are faced in the New South.
Produced by Jim White and Michael Rinne, Death By Dixie is released May 19th on Silent Kino Records. Amidst the boom of the contemporary Americana scene, Death by Dixie stands out in its refusal to romanticize. “A lot of artists sing about a two-dimensional, cartoon version of the South”, says Rinne. “John is determined to capture the real thing in his writing.”
The title track, for instance, comes from the idea of the South as a work in progress. Gladwin explains, “The modern city of Atlanta is a metropolis inconceivable 100 years ago. And yet, the city faces so many of the same issues it did a century ago.” Instead of running from that tension, he chooses to embrace it. “I want to sing about the South I actually live in—a place that is both progressing to new heights and struggling to shake off its complicated past.”
Even though Gladwin was raised in small town Arkansas, The Last Tycoon was born 6,000 miles from Dixieland. As the American economy crashed and burned in 2009 and a new depression loomed over the country, he moved to Stockholm, Sweden. “This sound and style grew out of playing to roomfuls of Europeans, who expected a certain stereotype when I told them where I was from – so I started to play with expectations and conventions.”
The Last Tycoon became a way to explore his Southern roots from half a world away. Moving from a conservative Southern town to Socialist Stockholm encouraged him to explore more political songwriting. Written in the vein of Woody Guthrie, songs like “Jesus Christ, Union Man” came directly from living in Sweden. It’s a song that’s part Southern Gospel hymn and part Swedish Labor anthem.
After several years in Stockholm, Gladwin chose his Southern roots over expatriatism and relocated to Georgia. After recording Death by Dixie in Nashville with Rinne, engineer Anderson East, and young Nashville musicians like Spencer Cullum Jr. (Steelism, Miranda Lambert), Gladwin teamed up with Jim White to create the cinematic layers of tension he wanted for this record. A songwriter known for his work with David Byrne and Aimee Mann as well as his acclaimed BBC documentary Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus, White was the perfect partner for this. Working in his country house outside of Athens, Georgia, White transformed the sound of Death By Dixie with his unconventional production techniques. Using hammers, gas cans and kids’ toys, together they created a sound that evoked the haunting, visceral images of the lyrics.
“It was incredibly freeing. We completely transformed the original tracks recorded in Nashville. We talked more about characters and films than solos and techniques—more Travis Bickle than Travis Tritt.” Then returning to Nashville with Rinne and East, they put the songs back together—now with a whole new life.
Death by Dixie is released May 19th via Silent Kino Records.