The possible jokes all write themselves: Jamie Coots, a Pentecostal preacher known for his flamboyant snake-handling, died late Saturday from – wait for it – a rattlesnake bite for which he refused to seek treatment. Coots served as the de facto public face of the dying art of snake-handling church, a tradition begun in rural Tennessee in the early 1900s and practiced mostly in Appalachia.
As head of a church in Middlesborough, Kentucky, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, he turned to media, one might surmise, to keep alive his splinter wing of Christianity. It arose based on taking one line of one bible verse from the King James bible literally, Mark 16:18: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”
But after numerous snake-bite deaths over the past five decades or so, states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina have outright banned venomous snake-handling in church, and parishioner numbers have dwindled. And while similar churches have often shunned media, Coots leaves behind a string of interviews, even a star turn last year in the National Geographic series Snake Salvation.
Leaving aside any judgment about Coots’ gambling with deadly reptiles, a trip down a YouTube rabbit-hole of his church services reveals something else–an oddly rocking musical legacy. In fact, in his lifetime, Coots explained in this YouTube video that snakes weren’t even the centerpiece of each service, necessarily.
Instead, it appears that his services swung along like concerts, building to a kind of frenzied musical ecstasy that most indie rockers could only ever hope to achieve. The church band featured Coots’ daughter on keyboards, with her rollicking, bluesy style coming completely self-taught. His wife, Linda, meanwhile, manned both drums and vocals at the same time–take that, Rush!–while Coots and various other guests took turns on sliding, wailing electric guitar.
The result at both Coots’ church and that of his Tennessee-based protégé, 22-year-old Andrew Hamblin, are pure rock and roll moved by holy-rolling freakouts. The occasional but excellent YouTube web series, Far Off Sounds, captured the musical spirit in the mini doc below.
You listen to a good rock song, headbanging, it makes you wanna go do something stupid. You just gotta feeling,” Jamie Coots’ son, Cody, explains in the video of the power of music in his church’s service. “It’s the same thing with snake-handling. When you’re listening to a good song, you just wanna get in it.”
Skip to about 3:20 for a blues-rock ditty that would make Black Keys, or early Kings of Leon, super, super jealous:
It seems that song in that section might be an original, jammed-out riff on this Walt Mills country-gospel hymn, “I’ve Got a Feeling,” but given a bluesabilly freakout touch.
There’s more here, on what appears to have been Coots’ own YouTube channel:
And recordings of several other Pentecostal services abound. It makes sense, in many ways, why they’re so musically compelling–the songs are designed to drive you to the kind of lose-your-mind moment that humans seek in secular musical performances. It’s 2014 and we’re still looking for those primal campfire connections. Humans are amazing–and, regardless of how you feel about dancing with rattlesnakes in the name of Jesus, so is some of this little-heard Pentecostal music.
Here’s another one from a church in Jolo, West Virginia, where, actually, snake-handling in church is still legal. If you dare, click around the related videos on YouTube if you want to lose some hours of your life–enjoy!