On just about every level imaginable, Porter Hall, Tennessee should not work. Molly Conley and Gary Roadarmel do indeed hail from the Volunteer State, but they're from Murfreesboro, just outside Nashville. The town of Porter Hall doesn't exist. The duo exploits the gothic end of the alt-country spectrum, following all manner of degenerate and despairing storylines, as if it were still 1993, as if it were still novel to hear ex-punk-rockers play traditional country. "Crosses to Hang," "Screwed Blue," "Drunkard and an Angel," "Golden Chain of Hate" -- these are the kind of titles that would have sounded avant-garde a decade ago. Neither Roadarmel nor Conley sings precisely enough to make it in non-alt-country circles, though the juxtaposition of their voices often teases a kind of skewed tenderness from the darkness, especially when banjo, fiddle, mandolin and steel guitar drift oh-so-simply around them. And then they cover Uncle Tupelo's "Whiskey Bottle." Talk about predictable.
But put context and expectations aside: Porter Hall Tennessee may not be breaking new ground, but they're making inspired, emotionally convincing music all the same. Roadarmel is a deceptively gifted guitar player, and on originals such as "Don't Bury Me," Conley effortlessly evokes the humility and wisdom of a singer with more at stake than another gig at Frederick's Music Lounge. Their last St. Louis show began with quiet country/folk overtones and ended with Alice Cooper covers and a thrilling sense of how much musical and emotional possibility remains in three chords, vintage melodies and the truth of good songs. Don't miss them.