The southern drawl of a Baptist preacher creeps into the speakers when the opening track, “Family Tree (Intro),” begins, setting a tone as the low register of Ethel Cain’s voice transports us to the fictional town of Shady Grove, Ala. circa 1990.
Abandoned houses with dirty mattresses on the edge of town. The ‘Go to Church or the Devil Will Get You’ sign on I-65. Dilapidated chapels with American flags and dead flies on window sills. NASCAR t-shirts and cigarettes littered on poorly lit parking lots. Faded portraits of Jesus hung next to hunting rifles on wood paneled walls.
Ethel Cain compels her listeners to conjure scenes like these as the setting for her southern gothic album, Preacher’s Daughter, released in May 2022. While this project is more than a year old, it’s message is still incredibly relevant for us today as we continue to uncover and reckon with the stain of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and spaces.
Preacher’s Daughter is considered alternative slow core with gospel, rock, folk, doom metal, and dark ambient influences.
This concept album follows our protagonist, Ethel Cain, as she escapes her conservative Southern Baptist town and the legacy of her abusive father to seek freedom out west, only to meet a gruesome end when her love interest, Isaiah, is revealed to be a murderous cannibal. Yes, you read that right.
Ethel takes us to the darkest of places to shed light on sexual abuse, violence, drug use, and generational trauma prevalent in many small communities.
Hayden Silas Anhedönia created Ethel Cain in her own image.
Anhedönia was homeschooled in the conservative Florida panhandle with her devout family, where she came out as gay in high school, and then transgender in her 20s.
“Raised on a diet of Christian music and Gregorian chants—punctuated occasionally by the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd when it was just her and her father in his car—Anhedönia’s only glimpses of the world outside came through peering between the slats of her grandparents’ staircase as they watched horror movies or true-crime documentaries in the evening,” wrote Liam Hess for Vogue.
Preacher’s Daughter still feels like a secret treasure even after attracting well-deserved public praise and attention on social media. Critics raved upon its release.
Notably, the anti-war single, “American Teenager,” was included on Barack Obama’s 2022 end-of-year favorites, which caused a stir online at the time considering the song’s content. It spurred a response on Twitter.
Within Ethel’s story, we can explore what it means to live in a community overrun with Christian nationalist ideologies and how this shapes and impacts young women living in small southern communities. Even though the events in the album occur in the 1980s and 1990s, there is still much to take away from this today.
Preacher’s Daughter is a nightmarish “what-if” scenario made up of the worst possible events that could occur in a young woman’s life. In Ethel’s case, the recurring sexual abuse begins at home and shows up time and time again in her future relationships.
Ethel’s father is a haunting presence that looms over the story even after his death, an event that took place prior to the album. We learn about her agonizing childhood in “Hard Times,” where she sings, “nine going on eighteen.”
“Sexual abuse is power-over in the most intimate part of one’s being. Because the body is demeaned within patriarchal Christianity, however, what happens to bodies, especially the bodies of women and children, is not that important,” wrote Susan M. Shaw for Baptist News Global.
Unable to tarnish her father’s reputation among the townspeople, she isolates herself and yearns to leave Shady Grove even if it means trusting strangers that cross her path.
As Ethel grows up in the aftermath of her father’s abuse and also in his shadow as the town’s pastor, she turns to alcohol and begins to seek love from questionable male figures, wanting the company of “a man who wasn’t angry.”
After mourning the loss of her first love in “A House in Nebraska,” Ethel finds herself mixed up with a violent character named Logan, who “shows his love in black and blue,” and is later killed by police in the country/rock epic, “Family Tree.”
Now alone and on the run, Ethel hitchhikes across Texas where she meets Isaiah in “Thoroughfare.” Act 1 of Preacher’s Daughter ends on a seemingly hopeful note. But we quickly discover that Isaiah is not what he seems.
Ethel’s life hangs in the balance on “Ptolemaea,” the scariest song on the album. The track is named after one of the rings of Dante’s ninth circle of Hell, a place for those that betray guests.
This is the climactic point that follows “Gibson Girl,” the explicit moment where Ethel’s life takes a turn for the worse after Isaiah betrays her by selling her into prostitution, and getting her addicted to drugs.
Under the influence of these drugs, Ethel hallucinates and hears a distorted voice taunting her in her weakened state. My theory is that this is Death coming to claim Ethel at the end of her life, but others believe this is a figment of her imagination pushing her to an emotional breaking point at the 3:50 mark.
“Ptolemaea” concludes with an eerie prayer, each stanza punctuated by the wail of a roaring guitar.
Blessed be the Daughters of Cain / bound to suffering eternal through the sins of their fathers committed long before their conception
Blessed be the children / Each and every one come to know their God through some senseless act of violence
Blessed be you, girl / promised to me by a man who can only feel hatred and contempt towards you
“That’s how it feels. When someone invites you in, brings you into their life just to hurt you. I was scared of the demo the next day when I listened to it,” Cain told Billboard, referencing “Ptolemaea.”
As she reflects on her life in “Sun Bleached Flies,” Ethel longs for the familiar comfort of church hymns sung by choirs—an aspect of life she so desperately wanted to escape in the beginning.
The final track, “Strangers,” begins the same way the album started — with a Southern preacher exclaiming, “God is telling you and I there is death for all of us. But then we find that the scriptures also tell us that we have a great promise, that there is a better place for those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Though it is suggested in an instrumental (“Televangelism”) that Ethel ascends to Heaven, the fate of her physical form is not as pleasant. Isaiah cannibalizes her as she says a final goodbye to her mother from beyond the grave.
Perhaps the way in which Ethel dies represents something more than just a dramatic ending. I wonder if this is a comment on the extreme lengths some will go to use the female body for their own twisted desires at the expense of women’s lives.
The harrowing conclusion to Ethel’s story is a jumping off point for Anhedönia. She hinted at an intergenerational trilogy focusing on women from the same family tree.
Ethel’s mother would be a natural next step as the final lyrics of Preacher’s Daughter read:
Mama, just know that I love you / And I’ll see you when you get here
More than a year after its release, I have yet to tire of this unforgettable listening experience and can still find new insights from Ethel’s story to share as we confront the demons that haunt our religious institutions.
Creative coordinator for publishing and marketing at Good Faith Media. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from Missouri Southern State University and her Associate of Arts degree from Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Missouri. Chisholm was an Ernest C. Hynds Jr. intern with GFM for the summer of 2021.