"This has been a long time coming," Pete Bernhard says of the Devil Makes Three's "Waiting Around to Die," a haunting, harmonica-fueled take on the Townes Van Zandt original. "For years, whenever we'd break a string and didn't have anyone around to help us out, I'd play a Townes song to kill some time." (Listen to the song below.)
Released on the band's upcoming covers album, Redemption & Ruin, "Waiting Around to Die" appears alongside updated versions of Robert Johnson's "Drunk Hearted Man," Tom Waits' "Come On Up to the House," Hank Williams' "Angel of Death" and eight others. The project serves as a tip of the hat to the legends of American roots music, stocked with appearances from some of the genre's reigning kings and queens, including harmonica legend Mickey Raphael, guitar great Duane Eddy, dobro player Jerry Douglas and Old Crow Medicine Show's Chance McCoy. Perhaps the biggest cameo of the entire set, though, is saved for "Waiting Around to Die," whose sparse arrangement makes room for vocal harmonies from former Van Zandt cohort Emmylou Harris.
"We went on tour with Emmylou a couple years ago," Bernhard says. "She was playing with Rodney Crowell at the time, and we opened up for them. She ended up singing some songs with us at the end of the show. Later, when we were recording at the Butcher Shoppe in Nashville, we figured it wouldn't hurt to ask if she wanted to be involved. It just worked out."
Even with Harris's contributions, the band's recording remains stark and almost hopelessly sad-eyed. "Waiting Around to Die" was written by a man who, like the song's own narrator, never managed to fully exorcise his demons, and the Devil Makes Three shine a light on that moody melancholia. There's a living legend on background vocals, yet the most striking part about the recording is the band's use of empty space.
"Townes' music is just so sad and so brutal," Bernhard says, "and that's what draws us to it. It's the guy's ability to push right to the edge. We wanted to keep our recording really open and haunting. We went into the studio with just the shell of the song, and it was still sparse by the time we were done. We didn't really fill it in with too much instrumentation. We wanted it to be as empty as possible, because that's really the feeling of the song."
Redemption & Ruin will be released on September 16th.