“In and around what we now call Nashville is extraordinarily haunted, every inch of it, I think. From the ancient box graves to the ghosts of the more-recent Cherokee and Creek and Shawnee and Chickasaw, there’s a lot if you listen,” says Elizabeth Elkins of Nashville’s amazingly cinematic (in music and storytelling) Granville Automatic. Like the ethereal spirits in their catalog of songs, Elkins and her songwriting partner Vanessa Olivarez write and perform songs that are hauntingly beautiful and linger long after their music fades.
Lyrically revisiting historic stories and anecdotes in and around Nashville’s part such as the city’s first Black business owner (“Ice Cream”), or the craziness of Jimi Hendrix’s live shows (“Marbles”), or 60s-era nursing home on 17th Avenue (“Tiny Televisions”), Elkins and Olivarez memorialize Music City’s shining glory and blistering shame. Their new single “Monsters In The Stars” courses through that vein, examining the ghosts (both literal and figurative) who remain unrestfully from the Trail of Tears – their memory a harsh reminder of the unjust and horrific forced relocation of 60,000 Native Americas by way of the government’s cruel Indian Removal Act in 1830.
“We both love stories, and Elizabeth does a lot of history digging – and this story, well, it’s not something that is taught very often,” says Olivarez sentimentally. “Growing up in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, the stories are out there but it takes some digging to really understand it, especially the geography of it since the lakes of TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] have changed the landscape significantly. It’s a really sad story.”
A tragic story and a blemish on America’s own storied past, at least 4,000 indigenous people from the Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Muscogee and Choctaw nations perished from the elements and disease while forced to make the trek. It’s this harsh and harrowing struggle that Granville Automatic immerse themselves in for their retelling in “Monsters In the Stars.”
Through their accomplished narrative, they avoid maudlin melodrama and revel in the emotional weight that extends through the centuries. “I walk above looking-glass water the reflection that I see / is another broken mirror another place that’s not for me,” echoing the desperation of displacement and the search for a sense of belonging. Hailing from the same sort of Americana-anchored storytelling of Suzanne Vega and Lucinda Williams, they transform sepia-toned memories of stories past into current experiences of tales present… like timeworn ghosts haunting a present day locations.
“I think a ghost is often an echo of a very strong action or emotion, and it’s still around,” explains Elkins about how wispy and ephemeral entities besiege their everyday life, including their songwriting. “Both of us absolutely believe in ghosts and have had numerous ghost experiences before the band, and several while touring. In fact, we have a future album about ghosts that we plan to write and record at haunted locations. I personally have heard ghosts and enjoy trying to figure out their stories. And if a song can keep somebody’s memory, or an action or feeling, alive – that’s important.”
Like the spooky campfire tales of childhood, these ghosts communicate to Elkins and Olivarez, perhaps not as spiritual phantoms whispering “boo” through the darkness, but as creative muses channeling musical inspiration.
But that doesn’t preclude the band from sometimes having experiences that cross over from the supernatural realm. “I’ve seen or experienced ghosts many times in my life,” confesses Elkins. “As a band, we have experienced four major ghost run-ins: a malevolent spirit in Savannah (we left town immediately actually after that); a military figure on the railroad tracks near the Evening Muse in Charlotte, North Carolina; an early 20th-century ambulance in the fog on Beachwood Drive in Los Angeles — and, if you’ve seen the cover of our second album An Army Without Music, well, we heard a player piano playing in that house at dusk for several minutes. The house had been empty for decades.”
However, the more benevolent spirits that inspire them to write and record such gorgeously picturesque alt-country songs, thankfully, prefer to take a more pleasant tenor for this otherworldly communication. “I think by opening up history and paying attention to stories in the air, you open up a pathway to ghosts,” concludes Elkins. “And, Nashville, well, of anywhere we’ve been, people believe in ghosts here and have so many stories. It’s a city built on graves and battles, there’s a lot to listen for.”