When Madonna released “Like a Prayer” in 1989, she couldn’t have prophesized that 17 years later on a porch in Georgia, a bluegrass group called the Packway Handle Band would unearth her sexified gospel song and record it to the sound of crickets chirping under the dark Athens sky. Actually, the Packway Handle Band themselves probably didn’t predict gospel in their future—though they did harbor a soft spot for ’80s pop, having spent the first years since their 2001 inception serving up bluegrass covers of the Cars and Talking Heads. But then came their debut, Chaff Harvest, with hardy bluegrass originals and a few traditional classics, including the feisty drug tune “Tell it to Me” and “In the Pines,” a sort of campfire lament.
“Songs about cocaine are kind of fun when you play them after a song about a graveyard,” chuckles guitarist Josh Erwin. And he admits that it’s this playfulness, or sense of the absurd, that led the group back to the Madonna 1980s and smack dab into a gospel revival album called (Sinner) You Better Get Ready.
Mandolin player Michael Paynter’s tenor joined with Erwin’s baritone is piously spun into harmonies bound by banjo, fiddle and bass. But there’s something mischievously irreverent, too. Could be the breakneck fingerpicking or the Madonna cover at the end of the disk, though more likely it’s the deadpan delivery of lines like, “while I was prayin’, somebody touched me.”
Erwin says the fire and brimstone concept was rewarding because it allowed the band to discover old ditties they’d never heard before. Just don’t expect the revival to last.
“We moved to the gospel thing, and that’s a lot of fun,” Erwin says, “but now it’s like…maybe we’ll move to Turkish stuff. Our bass player plays a Turkish lute.”
The Packway Handle Band plays the Old Post Pub Thursday, Feb. 16, at 9 PM.