Beyond the less-country-than-Western opening track “Gunfighter,” Midnight Larks’ self-titled debut album is way more rock than roots. But on second listen, one of the fastest driving examples of garage-punk owes a debt of gratitude to Southern folkways.
The song in question, “Summer of the Preacher,” finds guitarist and vocalist Nikki Speake sharing the surreal true story of a family friend from Dadeville, Ala.
“Several years ago, I was wondering what happened to a local lawyer and friend of the family, Tom Radney,” Speake says via email. “After some internet research, I discovered that not only was he one of the only civil rights attorneys in the area, but he had successfully defended a serial killing preacher multiple times in the 1970s. I had never heard anyone talk about this, and I’d had to spend a lot of time with Mr. Radney in my early teens. It was quite a revelation. The preacher, Reverend Willie Maxwell, was also rumored to have practiced voodoo in his Alabama home. At the funeral of the fifth victim, the uncle of the deceased, Robert Lewis Burns, a recent Vietnam vet with PTSD, shot the preacher three times while he was sitting in the church pew behind him.”
Heavy stuff, with murder and black magic happening in the least likely of places. Bobbie Gentry, wherever she may be, probably wishes she’d heard this story as it unfolded and incorporated it into her Vegas stage show.
Per Speake, an even more famous Southern storyteller than Gentry planned to incorporate these unbelievable facts into a book.
“Tom Radney refused to defend Maxwell after the death of his last victim, a 16-year-old girl,” she adds. “He was then asked to defend Burns, who was successfully acquitted due to insanity. This was such a rare occurrence, to defend a five-time killer, then turn around and defend that killer’s killer (and win all cases!) that it piqued the interest of Harper Lee. She spent some time with Radney and Burns and was supposed to have written a novel about it, but it never transpired.”
To do the intricacies of this story justice, Speake turned to the love of rock ‘n’ roll she shares with band mates Sasha Vallely (guitar, vocals) and Pietro DiGennaro (drums) to revisit this shockingly true tale from Burns’ point of view.
“I wanted a fast paced fury to the song, to signify how he must have felt, watching this man get away with murdering his friends and people in the community for years, then coming back from Vietnam to find his niece killed by the same man – and just being fed up to the point of shooting him point blank in front of 300 people,” she says.