But on How to Dance, which the band put out in February, the songs take a wider aim, moving from personal narrative to larger cultural or even mystical experiences. “This most recent [release] is definitely more cosmic in scope,” says guitarist Jenks Miller, by phone. “A lot of Heather’s writing is more abstract,” he explains. The band members don’t wish to write didactic music, and they don’t. “But,” he says, “one of the things we’ve always tried to do is marry this sense of poetry and … a progressive mindset to very classical-sounding Southern-rock forms.”
Over time, Mount Moriah has embraced that Southern-rock form with increasing vigor. Where 2013’s Miracle Temple, and especially 2011’s Mount Moriah, feel more like country-flavored indie rock, How to Dance brings a new intensity: The band has never sounded bigger or more embodied, like Fleetwood Mac reborn as a gospel choir. The melodies may be too idiosyncratic to be sung in church, or at a protest, but they feel like hopeful rallying cries which beg to be shared in a collective setting.
But from a political standpoint, the Tar Heel State — which has recently drawn attention for, among other things, its anti-trans “bathroom bill” — isn’t an easy place for progressives these days. “I’ve personally been very stressed out,” says Miller, speaking a few days before the presidential election. But it isn’t just the presidential race, which will be decided before this interview goes to print. The kind of political instability that many Americans have felt for the last several months is something that, Miller says, North Carolinians feel all the time. In recent years, big donors have targeted the swing state, rapidly changing the political landscape. “The Republicans got the majority in Congress and the governor’s mansion and things just changed overnight,” Miller says.
“One of the things that’s really clear in North Carolina is how important local politics are. That stuff isn’t sexy, it’s not what people get excited about. And as a result, there’s been a huge shift to the right over the last few years.”
Mount Moriah is unlikely to start writing campaign jingles for progressive candidates. And How to Dance will only guide your vote in so far as it stirs up feelings of kinship and compassion for your fellow humans. But, Miller notes, “it’s good to talk about. … We’re trying to figure out, ‘How do we respond to [the political climate] as a band?’ And I think the answer … is that we need to be vocal about our identities as Southerners.
“We don’t want to pretend that these very challenging things aren’t happening here, so [we’re] looking at it in a very direct way and saying ‘We have just as much right to regional identity as anyone else. We don’t have to be these kind of good-ol’-boy Southerners to be Southern.’ I think carving out that space is empowering.”