Music News

Maylene and the Sons of Disaster

On the cover and liner of II, the latest CD by Maylene and the Sons of Disaster, singer Dallas Taylor and the rest of his bandmates portray members of the infamous "Ma" Barker gang of the 1920s and 1930s, just as they did on the Southern metalcore band's 2005 debut disc. But unlike the first album's photos, which captured the boys toting weapons in cocky, defiant fashion, the snaps that accompany the followup depict them in vivid death poses, as if they've just expired amid a brutal backwoods shootout. For Taylor, the contrast between these images was purely intentional. "I've always been intrigued by the good and the bad," he says. "I guess that's what keeps me who I am and keeps me wanting to stay on the right path."

The religiosity inherent in this last comment turns up frequently in Taylor's conversations. He's a proud Christian who's devoted his life to family and faith. But rather than hammering listeners with these views in a dogmatic manner, he prefers to create scenarios that acknowledge, and sometimes even glory in, the temptation to do wrong.

"Us being a Christian band and the way we write is kind of controversial," he concedes. "We're writing from the complete opposite point of view, which is kind of weird. We're playing the role of the sons, trying to warn people not to take the path we've taken. So on some songs, I'll write a song from the point of view of a son who has regrets and wishes he could turn his life around. But on another song, I write about how one son knew he was born to be evil, and kind of what happens to him. He knew he was going to have to pay for his sins some day."

In playing these parts, Taylor and the other Sons — bassist Roman Haviland, drummer Lee Turner and guitarists Scott Collum, Josh Cornutt and Josh Williams — don't skimp on aggressiveness. Their sophomore disc merges post-punk sensibilities and a touch of screamo with old-school boogie on tracks such as "Memories of the Grove," the high-impact opener, and the rip-roaring "Darkest of Kin," during which Taylor bellows, "God make me pay like the devil I am!" As the disc moves toward its inevitable conclusion, however, the tunes become more musically ambitious — especially the appropriately dour "Tales of the Runaways," which sports the line "Legends are made in shallow graves."

Granted, this material is influenced as much by the romantic mythology that's arisen from the Barker tale as by historical facts. During her heyday, Kate "Ma" Barker was said to have been a criminal mastermind, allegedly directing kidnappings, robberies and other brazen acts involving her ruthless offspring, Herman, Lloyd, Dock and Fred, who operated alongside lethal pal Alvin Karpis, nicknamed "Creepy." Most contemporary observers doubt this portrait is accurate, largely because of information supplied by Karpis, who died in 1979. In a memoir, he wrote that when it came time to plan the next job, the boys usually sent Ma to the movies — an appropriate destination given the role films have played in establishing her image. Think of 1970's Bloody Mama, in which Shelley Winters, as Ma, tells patrons and employees at a bank she and her lads are sticking up: "We're gonna play Simon Says." After gesturing at the submachine gun she's packing, she adds, "And this is Simon."

According to an account published in Haunting Sunshine, a book penned by Jack Powell, Ma and Fred died on January 16, 1935, at a house near Ocklawaha, Florida, during "the longest gunfight in the history of the Justice Department" — a four-hour-plus battle that began after Ma answered a knock on the door and then stepped aside to give Fred a clear shot at government agents on their trail. In subsequent years, Ocklawaha regularly staged reenactments of this historic scrap for a Ma Barker festival that attracted visitors such as Taylor, who traveled there with his family from nearby Ocala, his home town. He first saw the production at around age ten, and if his vivid memories are any indication, the thespians from Ocklawaha embroidered on actual events, too.

"It was really strange," he says. "You're just sitting there, hanging out on the street, and then they start telling you it's about to happen. And this old car comes flying by with them hanging out the back, shooting guns. And the cops are coming behind them, and they get out and run to this house. And the cops just sit out there, and they shoot back and forth between the house and the outside for a good fifteen minutes or so." Once the blasting finally stopped, he continues, "they send an old black man [a representative of Willie Woodberry, identified by Powell as the Barkers' handyman] in to see if they're dead. And you're just sitting there, eating a funnel cake."

These vignettes connected deeply with Taylor, who heard plenty about the Barkers from an early age. He remembers his grandfather telling him what it was like to eyeball the corpses of Ma and Fred, which were put on public display in Ocklawaha after the confrontation; his grandpa was just five years old at the time. In addition, he knew all about another tragic episode with even more of a personal connection. He says his great aunt was raped and murdered, and an African-American presumed to be responsible for the crime was lynched. The Taylor family has shots of the lynching, plus one taken by a police photographer of his great-grandmother seconds after seeing her daughter's body. Predictably, the images left a big impression on young Dallas, who notes, "I've always been scared but also fascinated by that whole other side of life."

By his teens, Taylor was expressing his hopes and fears as lead shouter for UNDERØATH, a Christian-oriented hardcore band that steadily gained popularity among believers and non-believers alike during his years at the helm. But in 2003, while traveling as part of that year's Warped Tour, Taylor was tossed from the band. The reasons for his ejection have long been unclear, but he doesn't hesitate to detail them.

"I was engaged, but my fiancée, she broke up with me," he says. "We were on the road, and I was having such a hard time going through the breakup — and I'm kind of compulsive. I wouldn't just ask the guys in the band, 'Do you think we're going to get back together?' I'd dwell on the situation. So I think it was stressful on them. It was stressful on me, too, being on the road, but it was stressful on them, because they didn't really know how to deal with the situation. So they asked me to leave."

At first Taylor felt bitter about the treatment he received, and no wonder. He was at a low ebb when his bandmates cast him out, and he had to work three jobs (installing gutters, delivering flowers and putting in time as a stocker at a clothing store) to make ends meet once his music career disintegrated. Moreover, UNDERØATH went on to greater popularity without him, reaching gold sales status for 2006's Define the Great Line. Still, he sees what happened as a blessing, not a curse. Taylor says he and the other guys in UNDERØATH "are best friends now," not to mention touring partners, and he scoffs at the idea that he's jealous of their success. He also speaks fondly of toiling at gutter-type gigs, because doing so kept him grounded and taught him that he can find happiness whether he achieves music stardom or not. Better yet, he goes on, "I worked things out with my fiancée and we got married, and I've got a kid now. And if I'd still be in UNDERØATH, I'd never had a family, and I'd never been in Maylene. So things work out for a reason. Some people call it coincidence, but I call it God choosing the path of my life."

The road forward may be tricky. After all, if the Sons of Disaster are worm food by the end of II, how can they return for a third album? Taylor hasn't settled on a strategy yet, but he thinks that approaching the recording as the equivalent of a book looking back on their lives might free him from the creative trap in which he finds himself. And even if that doesn't work, he knows everything will be all right anyhow. "I really believe that God has a plan for me," he says.

And a gory plan it is.

Visit our blogs more of our interview with Dallas Taylor of Maylene and the Sons of Disaster.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts