Unless it’s a major emergency alert or urgent text flashing across our phones, one of the rules in our house during the stay-at-home order: no COVID-19 news after 6 p.m. We try to stay as positive as we can before bed—for our daughter and our sanity—by keeping the downward slope of each day filled with games, books, records, FaceTime with friends and family, home-cooked meals, baking, and somewhat uplifting stories from the world around us, which seems to be getting more dispiriting, dangerous, and isolated by the day.
So when Souther Carolina-bred, L.A.-based artist Jeremy Shockley started posting videos to his Instagram account of his lifelong friend Ronnie Gunter, aka “the Rooster,” singing COVID-19-inspired songs, I didn’t think much of it. But once I started paying attention to what Gunter was actually singing in songs like “Love in the Time of Corona”, “Sheltering with Your Future-Ex”, or “Working from Home,” my days got a little brighter. Some sample lyrics:
We met at a bar and we hit it off
Made a date, then I got a cough
Now I’m alone in my studio all by myself
And the love that we could have grown is a victim of my health
Well, COVID-19, COVID-19
Why you gotta be so mean?https://www.instagram.com/p/B-JEOu9A136/
In the recent song “Cure for the Socially Distant”, Gunter—who is also an independent filmmaker, the lead singer of the L.A.-based Americana band Mid-City Opry, and the creator of the Sundance Now original podcast Exeter—invites people to listen to the songs of Hootie and the Blowfish as a salve during their quarantines. (Hootie frontman Darius Rucker even tuned in.)
In our house, the Rooster has become the Jonathan Richman for the the Corona pandemic, so I called him up to get a sense for his Southern Gothic charm, see how he’s doing in isolation, and what we might expect on his new Instagram account, which Shockley started for him on the down low. Sorry, Rooster—the secret is out.https://www.instagram.com/p/B-Tn8WrFrmY/
Hey, man, how’s it going?
Sorry I couldn’t call earlier, yesterday got away from me with this trip to the grocery store.
No worries; it’s not like I’m going anywhere.
How are you?
Where are you?
I’m just sitting here in Koreatown. I have a little studio apartment here and I’m by myself.
So you’re not able to see many people right now?
No, not really. I’m able to meet up with Jeremy every couple days and we do a social distance walk. We keep our six feet.
What made you start writing these songs?
Honestly, I just wanted to crack Jeremy up, so I wrote one and I sent it to him. He asked if I minded if he posted it.
Did you mind?
No, he pulls this on me from time to time. If I do something weird he’ll post it on his Instagram. He’ll get a kick out of it so I don’t mind too much. He cracks some people up so I just kept sending them to him.https://www.instagram.com/p/B-JE5XTgKT0/
Are you aware of this stealth Instagram account for these videos?
Yeah, yeah…he told me [laughs]. He told me I should watch Pete Yorn doing this live thing on Instagram. I don’t have Instagram and apparently Jeremy signed me up, but I couldn’t log on to watch it so I just deleted Instagram off my phone. I don’t care a whole lot for [Instagram], but I think it’s a great thing for everyone else.
Maybe more so now.
Yeah, I can see the currency in it now.
How many of these songs are you doing? One per day?
Uh, sometimes I sit down and do three in a day. It’s a little bit of gallows humor. When you’re staring at something pretty bleak sometimes it helps to make fun of it and also when you’re alone for this long you just try to amuse yourself. I’ve always liked spur-of-the-moment songs. I used to play in a band years ago called the Piedmont Boys and we would just make up songs on the spot during a show. It’s kind of sink or swim.
Is that a reference to the South?
Yeah, it’s a region in South Carolina called the Piedmont. They’re still playing, still doing their thing.
It seems like most of what you’re working on over the years references the region. That indie film you wrote, Lighter, seems to lean into regional tropes.
That’s pretty much how I write. It’s regional stuff from drama to comedy. I’m kind of just trying to rip off Faulkner with his Yoknapatawpha County. Lighter is my attempt to deal with the Southern comedy crap with Larry the Cable Guy that do redneck as a cliche and make a living out of it. I made this character who is a big-time Southern comedian on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour and he’s just sick of it, this schtick, and he wants to go serious, which is a been-done-to-death story but really what it’s about is him trying to deal with the fact that his father committed suicide and he has these similar tendencies. That’s really what it’s about. He’s living in L.A. and he goes back to South Carolina to try to save his own life. It’s a dark comedy.
Now you’ve finished this second season of Exeter, which is the first original podcast from Sundance.
I think it’s their one and only now. It started out as an idea for a TV show. My buddy who worked at AMC had the scripts. He was always wanting to do something with them then he went over to Sundance and he asked if I was interested in adapting this into a podcast, which I had never done before and it’s a really weird way of writing because you’ve sort of got one hand tied behind your back. But it turned out to be a lot of fun. I wrote it intending to be a TV show, but then I turned them into this audio format. We did 14 episodes and got to work with one of my heroes, Ray McKinnon, he played the failed detective Pruitt. That was a lot of fun. We did two seasons and I’m not sure where it’s going to go from here. Most people writing podcasts, whether they want to admit it or not, they do it hoping it will turn into a TV show. So that’s kind of been everyone’s hope with this, but you never know.
Where did the idea for this show come from?
It started with me scribbling this conversation on a scrap piece of paper. I was thinking what if you had this homicide detective and she [Jeanne Tripplehorn] never marries and her brother, who also never married, are living together. He tries to talk her into dating again. It’s just this funny back and forth between these two people and it just kind of grew from there. Exeter is one of those towns where you’ve got this adult sister and adult brother living in this house you grew up in, they both never got married, then they wonder why. That’s the basic story, then I started killing people, so…they’ve got to figure out who did it. I’d never written a mystery before and they seem really scary, like doing math, but it started from a non-murder mystery point and turned into one.
Is Exeter based on a specific town?
It’s based on this area I grew up in, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I sorta turned Greenville County into Exeter County. Some of the landmarks in the show really exist, some are made up. When I was growing up in South Carolina, you always heard one of two stories: that house is haunted, that bridge is haunted, or so-and-so got murdered there. These murder stories that people tell like they happened last week, you realize they happened like 80 years ago. Since they all love telling stories so much, they remember the first and last names, that region just always seemed like it was murders and ghosts, so to me it was the perfect setting for a homicide. I guess that’s the whole Southern Gothic motif. There’s definitely a reason for it. My grandpa was a deputy sheriff and I grew up with the stories he would tell me. One of the most prolific serial killers was from South Carolina named Pee Wee Gaskins. Somehow he and Pee Wee were writing letters while Pee Wee was in the death house waiting to get executed, and I still don’t know why, so all that stuff was just in my head growing up. It just made sense to use that location.
And now you’re referencing the toast of South Carolina pop music, Hootie and the Blowfish, in a song about social distancing.
They just want to virtually hold your hand. You need your hand held right now. You can’t touch anybody. Jeremy said Darius Rucker watched it. I don’t know what he thought of it. But when I was growing up out there I played in a band in high school and college and basically every bar we would play in people would say, “Hey, you know Hootie used to play here.” I’d say, “Yeah, of course Hootie played here, Hootie played everywhere in South Carolina.” The Hootie shadow was very large in the Nineties in South Carolina.
In my opinion, which echoes that recent New York Times story, Hootie got unfairly ridiculed. I think Darius Rucker is a pretty amazing singer.
I agree. I’m not a huge Dave Matthews fan but I feel like Dave Matthews got the same end of the stick. If the wrong crowd likes you, if a lot of frat guys like you, you start to get written off and it doesn’t matter how good you are and you start to just sound annoying. I know Hootie got the same treatment.
I think those latter-day Hootie albums are pretty solid.
Exactly. Jeremy and I have both been appreciating Hootie now that we’re grown men.
So what is next with the COVID songs. Are you referring to the group of them somehow specifically?
You know there’s that album 69 Love Songs [by The Magnetic Fields]. I said let’s do “69 COVID Songs” that are all 30 seconds or a minute long and you have an hour of them at the end of all this. But I don’t know, as long as I have something funny in my head I’ll do it. I don’t want to annoy people.
How many are there now?
I don’t know. Close to a dozen, I guess. I don’t know how many Jeremy has posted.
So you’ll just keep going till it gets old or this whole thing is over?
Well, maybe it’s 169 Love Songs by the looks of where things are heading.
[Laughs.] Maybe it should have only been six. I heard that Bon Jovi wrote one and he’s invited his fans to write him with ideas for the second verse. Apparently, I’m in good company. But I think his is sincere. At least he’ll have a great hook.