Everyone please welcome The Serpents of Bienville's newest contributor, Vernon T. Hightower! I was fortunate to meet the great Vernon T. Hightower almost twenty years ago through mutual friends. We immediately struck a bond nerding out on punk rock music and skateboarding. Travis exposed me to all kinds of bands I had never listened to, and was one of the most honest, encouraging people I was fortunate enough to be around. His humor is contagious, along with his original, creative energy. Together we started a project working with younger kids skateboarding, much of the time driving them around to spots to skate that they didn’t have access to. This project eventually led to a skateboard/ music festival I put together in the late nineties, focusing on punk rock and hardcore bands. At this point Vernon had moved off to Auburn for college, eventually he and I lost touch. Little did I know that he was playing with a band that I loved called “The Immortal Lee County Killers”, continuing on to play with one of the most influential bands in the South, “The Pine Hill Haints”. Later, I will be publishing an interview I did with Jamie from “The Pine Hill Haints” that you will love, so stay tuned.
Almost ten years later I moved back to our hometown, and so had Vernon. He and I reconnected. Nothing had changed, he was still that awesome, encouraging friend, but now with an incredible wife to match. I was lucky to get to see their band “Heat Lightning” a few times, and they were high energy, loud, and amazing. The common thread in all the music Vernon does is the South. That gritty, spooky, lo fi old Southern Rock n Roll feel is always apparent in everything he does. Vernon has such a love for this area, one that honestly might rival ours. It was natural to ask him to be involved with The Serpents of Bienville. His interview turned out to be pretty amazing, he definitely showed that love of the area through story telling, some stories being almost mythical. I think you guys will love it, enjoy!
1. Give us an overview of your art medium and style.
I guess I've mostly been involved in playing music. I've been in bands since I was a teenager and that hasn't changed. I grew up in a musical family, so it was just natural. I also do a little writing. Like a lot of people who grew up in the punk scene of the 90's, I used to do a zine and now do a couple blogs.
2. Are you an Alabamian, born and raised? If not, what brought you here? Tell us a little about the area you are from.
I was born in Mobile, but raised on the Eastern Shore, in Spanish Fort, back when there was nothing over there. I remember when we got a McDonald's. It was a big deal!
What else is there to say about Mobile? One of the oldest cities in the States, the former capital of French Louisiana, with a 300 year old Mardi Gras tradition in the winter and beaches in the summer. Mobile has its problems, but as a guy who's seen every inch of these United States, I can honestly say I wouldn't live anywhere else.
3. How does your experience with Alabama and the southern culture influence your art, in any form?
I feel like everything I've ever done has been informed by the Southern experience. It's so ingrained into who I am, that there's no way I could do anything that isn't inherently Southern. Being into punk music, and growing up in the South, is hard. There's more resistance. But it toughens you up and makes you hard. More resilient. I feel like people who were into it in the South are more reliable because it wasn't easy. My high school didn't have a surf team, it had a football team who would beat up anyone who was different, just for the fun of it. It really creates this edge to punk musicians from the South that I don't get from other regions. That said, I think the people who really dug their heels in, and stuck with it, also have a very positive energy to them. They're so excited to find their niche, where they finally fit in, that there's a joy about them.
Alabama is so diverse, though. My experience growing up here was very different from my wife's experiences, growing up and going to shows in North Alabama. As far as culture goes, down here it's beer and oysters, whereas up there it's sweet tea and cornbread. They're both great, but end up producing very different types of people. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't really consider Alabama, the whole state, to have any influence on me at all. I'm more influenced by the regional, Gulf Coast culture. Like my priest told me one time, after moving back home, "Mobilians identify more East and West, rather than North and South". Meaning, we're more like Pensacola and New Orleans than Montgomery, which is a good thing, in my opinion.
4. Do you have a project you are currently working on or promoting? Tell us about it and, if applicable, where we can share in this project with you (social media or website, perhaps)?
Well, I'm back playing with The Pine Hill Haints, which is a band I was in from about 2000-2004. It's a band that is known to have a revolving lineup, but right now has me and J.R. Collins (ex-Quadrajets, ex-Lee County Killers) in it. Jamie Barrier has always been the driving force of the band, and Katie Barrier (originally from Mobile also) joined up right after me in 2000 or so. They're both still in it, of course. And to go back to your previous question, I like that The Haints are from North and South Alabama. I feel like it gives the band both an Appalachian, and a Cajun influence. The Haints are on facebook, and I'm sure you could find some stuff on the Arkam Records site (Jamie's label), and the K Records site.
I'm also in a Cajun band with Jamie called Les Loups Garou. When I was a kid, there was a lot of Cajun music and culture around here, but it seems to have all but died out. We're trying to bring it back.
I do a blog now called Bayou Babylon, but I only post to it sporadically. I used to do one called Fit for Dragon*Con, about the struggles of an idiot (myself) trying to lose weight in time for Dragon*Con. Eventually I just got tired of trying to lose weight and Dragon*Con, so I quit. The domain is still up, though. I also briefly did "Diary of an Ex-Cobra Viper" until I found an article from years ago in McSweeney's, of all the rotten places, that was more or less the same thing.
5. Are there any community projects, festivals, or gatherings you are either a part of, enjoy attending, or think that the area is lacking and would like to see organized?
I just really love Mardi Gras. I love the mysticism of it. It's also something that is very unique to this area. Outside of New Orleans, Mobile, and maybe Biloxi, the Carnival season isn't celebrated in the same ways. Sure it has its issues, but in general, it's a big positive for the area. I feel like it is the embodiment of the spirit and culture here. The music, the food, the attitude... all of it. I'd like to see more people celebrating Mardi Gras in nontraditional ways and thinking outside of the old-fashioned way of "go to a parade, see/join a Krewe or Mystic Society".
And of course I'd like to see more diy music spaces open up. More basement shows and more bands willing to play them.
6. The Serpents of Bienville project came about because of our unending love for the stories that the South provides. Can you share with us your favorite story—whether it’s a ghost story, myth, fable, history lesson, or even some crazy tale an ancestor passed down—and how the story made it’s way to you.
Man, so many.... Let me give you two. An old one, and a new one.
When I was a kid, we would travel up to my Great-Grandparents house in Monroe County on Christmas Eve. It was on a lot of land because it used to be a farm, so it felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. Inevitably, the adults would start telling ghost stories. I always loved it. It seemed like getting scared was just a normal part of Christmas.
My dad used to tell a story that involved my Great-Grandfather riding his buggy home from church one night. At some point on his ride home, a creature "about the size of a yearling" came out of the woods and walked beside the buggy. It looked vaguely like a pale horse, but with red eyes. It walked beside my Great-Granddad's buggy until he got home, and then it just walked off into the woods.
Here's one that happened to a friend and coworker:
People here believe in Voodoo. It is very real to a lot of people here. I used to hang a pair of chicken feet from my rearview mirror so I could leave my doors unlocked.
A friend of mine at work came in one day and said that his girlfriend had cooked him some spaghetti and meatsauce, and she got mad that he wouldn't eat it. When I asked why he wouldn't eat it, he said, "She Voodoo, man! She Voodoo!"
He later told me that a popular Voodoo spell is that women will put a little menstrual blood into some kind of red food, then give it to their man and it would bind them to them forever.
I honestly didn't think much of it, until a few months later he came in saying that he was trying to leave her, but she said that she would mess him up if he did. He told me, "I knew she was Voodoo, man! I knew that bitch was Voodoo!"
It wasn't long after that, he ended up having a stroke. A young man, in the prime of his life and in decent shape, had a stroke that paralyzed him. That's a true story, and it's not my only experience with Voodoo. I don't mess with that stuff, man. I probably shouldn't even be talking about it here.
Vernon is one of our newest contributors here at The Serpents of Bienville, and we couldn't be anymore excited. He has a fun, fresh, honest take on story telling, and I think you guys are going to love his upcoming blogs. Just in time for Mardi Gras, Travis will be bringing us his Top 5 Mardi Gras movies, counting down to Fat Tuesday where he will explain the origin of King Cake, and all the delicious ways it can be brought to you. You can keep up with Vernon through his blog at Bayou Babylon. We are so excited to have him aboard, so give him a warm welcome!