Grafton's Lou Poster draws on mid-'90s Columbus memories and ill-fated horse jockeys for Americana act's debut full-length

Several months after Lou Poster moved to Columbus from Fairmont, West Virginia, in 1995, he rented a two-bedroom apartment at Third Avenue and High Street in the Short North. Back then, the crime-ridden neighborhood barely resembled the hip, pricey enclave of today. Poster paid $245 a month in rent.

On the street in front of the apartment, Poster often ran into a guy he and his friends called “Mr. Everything,” who would ask passersby if they needed anything — drugs, loans, girls.

One night, as Poster was coming home from working the night shift at UDF, he got off the bus and saw flashing lights all over Third Avenue. Mr. Everything had been shot on the sidewalk right outside the apartment. Poster walked by his body, briefly locking eyes with the dead man. Then, as he ascended the steps to his apartment, pigeons were roosting at the top of the staircase, and their glowing eyes seemed to mirror what he'd just seen.

Years later, Poster began to process those events in light of a friend he lost to a heroin overdose, which led to the song “This Part of Town,” the closing track on Little Patch of Sky, the new album from Poster's band, Drift Mouth. “I don't care too much, anymore, for this part of town,” Poster sings in a baritone drawl that's core to Drift Mouth's dark Americana and unrecognizable from the off-kilter scream he employed for years in previous band Grafton.

“I was working on my car one day and this Johnny Cash song came on the radio, and I started singing along with it,” said Poster, nursing a hangover at a Downtown bar on a recent afternoon alongside Drift Mouth drummer and longtime friend Brad Swiniarski. “My girlfriend at the time was like, ‘Is that you? You should do that!' I didn't know I had that kind of voice.”

Though Drift Mouth has only been around for about four years, the band's origins can be traced back to a CD of coal-mining songs Poster made as a retirement gift for his father, who worked for Consolidation Coal for 37 years in West Virginia. The exercise brought him back to the music of his youth.

“My mom's father was a big bluegrass, country and Western swing fan. So I knew all those songs. I loved that stuff as a kid, but then when I became a teenager, I got turned on to punk rock and rock 'n' roll,” he said. “But even Grafton was a punk-country band. It was in there; it was just buried. There's no getting away from it.”

“[Poster] is exploring his identity and his roots in this music,” Swiniarski said. “He's digging. He's looking for something in his songwriting. He's exploring.”

After putting out a single and an EP, Drift Mouth will celebrate the release of its debut LP on Saturday, March 31, at Rumba Cafe, alongside a trio of exceptionally strong opening acts: Sam Brown, Todd May and Feversmile (featuring Brown, Dan Cochran and Sean Beal). Dead Canary Records is releasing Little Patch of Sky, but the record recently got picked up by Wild Frontier Recording Company, an imprint of Philadelphia's Creep Records; Wild Frontier will distribute the vinyl and also press a CD version, due May 25.

Many of the tracks on Little Patch of Sky started out as short stories Poster wrote and then adapted into songs. Others seemed to get beamed directly into his brain, like mournful tune “The Ballad of Frank Hayes,” which tells the true story of the song's titular character, a horse trainer who dreamed of being a jockey. When Frank Hayes finally got his chance, on a horse with 20-1 odds, he managed to win a steeplechase, but he died mid-race. Somehow his body remained in the saddle until the finish line.

“I was listening to sports talk radio one day, and the DJ is telling this story, and they're laughing like it's a joke, and I got tears in my eyes. This poor son of a bitch who just wanted to be around the race, and always wanted to be part of the game, and he finally gets his chance and loses all this weight to ride this horse, and then he dies,” Poster said. “He gets his shot, and then dies before he can understand that he won. … That story hit me pretty hard.”

Poster saw a piece of himself in Frank Hayes. “I've been around music my whole life. I've been a bar owner. I've been in a band. I ran a record label,” said Poster, who once owned Cafe Bourbon Street and the Summit and in the early 2000s took over Derailleur Records (now Dead Canary). “With anybody who's passionate about something, whether music or something else, you're gonna be around it all the time, and if you get a crack at it, then go for it, but know that that's not the point. The brass ring will show up if you're doing it the right way, and the brass ring is not money or success or anything like that. It's the completion of your task.”