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Pine Box Boys at Johnny B's

When Lester Raww was a baby, his momma rocked him to sleep with songs filled with killin' and dyin.' Is it any wonder Raww went on to form the Pine Box Boys, a San Francisco-based foursome that trades in murder ballads, a music genre nearly as old and gnarly as the pine trees of Raww's native Arkansas?

"I can still remember her singing me those creepy old songs in her quiet, thin voice," Raww said. "She sometimes asks me why I write these crazy songs and I point back and say, 'Ma, you started this.' "

Raww and his wife picked up and headed for sunny California nearly 15 years ago. He moved to San Francisco without a job or plan to get one. He did, however, bring his love for bluegrass and old-timey music.

He jumped into the San Francisco music scene and eventually made friends with three fellas in other bands who would one day join forces to form the Pine Box Boys.

"We were in other bands but would just play together for fun on the side," Raww said. "Pretty soon we realized we were having more fun with the side stuff and the rest, as they say, is history."

Several tours and three albums later, the Pine Box Boys continue to chug along, playing gigs to slightly bent audiences across the West Coast.

"We definitely have a humorous side," Raww said. "But if you are laughing too much at our songs and not squirming just a bit, then there's probably something wrong with you. I'm just sayin'."

The song titles say it all: "99 Graves," "Mr. Skeleton" and a tender love song about the end of a marriage called "I Kept Her Heart."

The tunes come fast and loud, shot through with gallows humor and at times deeply unsettling insights into the psycho-pathology of murderers.

"Our fans usually share a lot in common," Raww said. "They loved 'The Addams Family' as kids and went to all the slasher films. I feel like I'm among kin with those folks."

The new album, which will be titled either "The Revenge of the Emancipated Head" or, simply, "The Emancipated Head," is due soon and there will be a tour to support it.

"The new album is shaping up to be the bloodiest of them all," Raww said. "The body count went up considerably on this one for some reason."

Friday's gig at Johnny B's is the Boys' first stop in Southern Oregon. The band has played up and down Interstate 5 and spread its morbid wings in Europe.

Raww said he never gets tired of writing songs about nefarious deeds. Unprepared audiences, on the other hand, often are taken aback by an onslaught of murder ballads, one after another, after another.

"You'd be surprised what people take offense to," Raww said. "We'll be playing a song with all sorts of terrible things in it and someone will be offended that we have an electric banjo player. It's funny."

Whatever you do, don't call the Pine Box Boys a novelty act, or you could end up starring in a real-life version of one their songs, Raww said.

"We bring something more than just a novelty," Raww said. "And we bring joy wherever we go. There are those who can't wait for us to play, and there are those who can't wait for us to leave. Whether we're coming or going, everybody's happy."

Reach reporter Chris Conradat 776-4471

The Pine Box Boys - Photo by Tabitha Lahr