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, harbored just below the surface, are faced in the New South.
Produced by Jim White and Michael Rinne, Death By Dixie will be released May 19 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.”
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 the Great Recession 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 around 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 Gladwin to try his hand at more political songwriting.
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 experimental cult hero Southern musician 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 collaborator. Working in his country house outside of Athens, Ga., White transformed the sound of Death By Dixie with his unconventional production techniques. Using hammers, gas cans and kids’ toys, he and Gladwin created a sound that evoked the haunting, visceral images of the lyrics.
“It was incredibly freeing,” Gladwin says. “We completely transformed the original tracks recorded in Nashville. We spent more time talking more about characters and films than solos and techniques—more Travis Bickle than Travis Tritt.”
Upon returning to Nashville with Rinne and East, they put the songs back together—now with a whole new life.“This record doesn’t pretend the South is one simple thing,” Rinne says. “It’s a celebration of everything the South truly is.”
Glide is proud to premiere “Arkansas Serenade” from Death by Dixie (below). The track combines polished reflection alongside the timeless rock hooks reminiscent of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Some songs come quick, and others take years. “Arkansas Serenade” was born out of a conversation I had with my grandmother a decade ago when I was still in high school, recalls Gladwin to Glide. We were driving around the Arkansas town where I grew up—the same town she’d moved to as a child 65 years ago—and she told me about the places she used to go when she was a teenager. She pointed to a bombed-out downtown building next to the punk venue I used to play at, and she said that on the second floor there was a ballroom where she used to dance to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, who played there on the weekends. She met my grandfather at those dances when he came home from the war. After she told me that story, I broke into the building and, sure enough, there it was—a beat up ballroom floor, faded music notes painted on the wall.
When my grandmother died, I started thinking a lot about her life and the nights of her youth, before she grew up and had a family. Since high school, I’ve been in love with the Western-swing records of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and also Carolina Cotton—”Arkansas’ Yodeling Blonde Bombshell.” So I knew the soundtrack to those nights but I never knew the stories. After leaving home, I realized how unusual it was to grow up on the same streets as your parents and grandparents. I also began to realize that the nightly dramas of my teenage years were not that different from theirs.
“The characters in “Arkansas Serenade” are loosely based on my grandparents in the 1940s,” adds Gladwin. “It starts with the fascination and intrigue of young love, but then the characters deal with a relationship gone sour. The chorus asks the question, “What happens when your dreams don’t work out? What do you do when life turns a corner that you didn’t plan?” These are the questions everyone faces when life demands compromise. I didn’t understand it as a high school kid, but I know my grandmother dealt with a life she didn’t plan, even though she never really talked about it. There’s a saying that goes “When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.” When my grandmother died, so many of the stories of her life were left unspoken. I felt that loss, so with “Arkansas Serenade” I decided to write my own story to fill that void.”