Ever since the late 1960s, when the Byrds, the
Flying Burrito Brothers, and Bob Dylan started making the lonesome moan of a pedal steel
guitar hip for rock audiences, various mutant strains of country music have been sprouting
up in West Texas, Southern California, the Midwest—almost anyplace but Nashville.
Although these offbeat Country & Western sounds have derived from a variety of scenes
and styles and been tagged with a host of ambiguous labels (country rock, outlaw, cowpunk,
western beat, Americana), what they all have in common is a deep resistance to the
standard formulas of “country” marketed out of Music City.
forms of country such as the western swing music of Bob Wills or Buck Owens’s
Bakersfield sound have found ways to thrive at a distance from Nashville’s
mainstream. Such commercial success has a way of opening doors and tastes, but overall the
Nashville centered music business tends to adapt to new musical trends more slowly than
the rock and pop industry. The country music tradition is by nature conservative. Its
roots are rural, Southern, and working class.
However, through the
century, as the music has steadily gained popularity, the twang and grit of country
traditionalism has had to contend with marketing strategies aimed at achieving a balance
of roots and mass appeal. And, in the last two decades, as country music has exploded to
unprecedented commercial success, this balance has become so laced with pop and rock
influences the music has become bloodless and generic. Today’s country music
mainstream is embarrassed by its past. The dominant contemporary country sound is
comfortable, smooth, inoffensive, predictable and rootless. Its emotions reek with easy,
over-the-top sincerity. For all the promotional claims for “modern” and
“young” country, its lyrics give little hint of present day social and economic
In response, another
vaguely defined movement of non-mainstream country has slowly carved out a small but
growing national audience. Sometimes called roots music, alternative country, insurgent
country or No Depression (after the A.P. Carter tune on Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut
album and the Seattle-based magazine that covers the music), this new mongrel community of
music listeners and musicians has evolved through the 1990s, drawn to a mix of sounds
culled from Appalachian folk music, blues, depression-era country, post-World War II honky
tonk, bluegrass, country rock, and punk. In short, music that carries a sense of history,
class oppression, tragedy, and resilience.
Accordingly some of the
greatest heroes of the current “not Nashville” wave include country and folk
legends such as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Woody Guthrie, the Louvin
Brothers, Hank Williams, Kitty Wills and Tammy Wynette, George Jones, and Merle Haggard.
But since this is largely a rock informed crowd, influences also include Dylan, Gram
Parsons, Neil Young, the Clash, Charles Bukowski, and X. With such a wide range of
inspirations, the varied artists associated with this left-of-center trend are
stylistically all over the place.
From the singer-songwriter
camp come distinctive voices like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, Iris Dement, and
Lucinda Williams. Established country performers with strong tradition based styles, such
as Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss, are included. The swinging barroom
sounds of Wayne Hancock, BR5-49, and Junior Brown make a natural fit. From the younger
breed of country rockers come bands such as Son Volt, Wilco, and Whiskeytown.
Like the very best country
music of the past, these musicians tell stories of the pleasures and heartbreaks of
ordinary life with simple language and clear melodies. Songs that in two to five minutes
can nail truths of American experience as forcefully as any great novel or film. Though
the hat and hair acts are still having their glory in the marketplace, down below the Top
40 ill-labeled twangers are going about their business forging links between tradition and
today that suggest a truer kinship to Hank, Lefty, and Patsy.
From a very strong batch of
releases of the past year, here’s some examples of old and new music (call it
whatever you want) that can’t abide the cookie cutter mentality of Nashville.
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Mercury)
This album has stirred a
long string of rave reviews in the pop press and more than a few critics have termed the
album a masterpiece. Believe the hype. Six years in the making, Car Wheels is a
lean blend of country, folk, blues, and rock exquisitely crafted to accent the raw
emotions unveiled in Williams’s aching explorations of rootlessness and faithless
love. A gifted writer with a brilliant eye for the small details of place and character.
Her dry, twangy voice and evocative phrasing express hurt, anger, and vulnerability with
Dave Alvin, Blackjack David (Hightone)
Since his days with the
Blasters and X, Dave Alvin has placed his writing and singing in a variety of rootsy
settings while gradually mastering the art of creating short fiction in song form. His
1996 live album, Interstate City (Hightone), served as a survey of this evolution,
offering extended blistering explosions of roadhouse rock alongside mournful, reflective
ballads. Now with Blackjack David, Alvin returns to a quiet acoustic sound
reminiscent of 1994’s King Of California (Hightone). Multi-instrumental wizard
Greg Leisz is again behind the production, wrapping the songs in a delicate, dark tapestry
of electric and acoustic guitars, fiddle, dobro, pedal steel, and light percussion.
Beneath this comforting surface, however, lay the ghosts and regrets of hard-bitten
working class lives that Alvin renders with intimacy and compassion.
Nanci Griffith, Other Voices, Too
On her Grammy-winning 1993
disc Other Voices, Other Rooms (Elektra), singer-writer Nanci Griffith covered the
material of her songwriter heroes and heroines and in the process gave a mainstream
audience a taste of the poetic and socially conscious world of folk music. This follow-up
shares the same purpose and again the songs and performances are memorable. On this
outing, however, Griffith has convened a hootenanny where esteemed guests such as Richard
Thompson, Tom Russell, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Tish Hinojosa, Guy Clark, and other
folk all-stars share or take over the vocals on classic tunes such as Woody Guthrie’s
“Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos),” Harlan Howard’s “Streets Of
Baltimore,” and Richard Thompson’s “Wall Of Death.” A much looser,
less personal album than her original tribute, Other Voices, Too is ultimately a
homage to a community, its music and history, rather than individual artists.
Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid
Nora Guthrie, Woody
Guthrie’s seventh child, is the mastermind behind this effort to bring the rich
political and musical legacy of her father to a new generation of music listeners. Opening
up the Guthrie Archives to left folkie Billy Bragg and “alternative” country
rockers Wilco, Nora Guthrie invited her guests to explore thousands of never seen Woody
lyrics and turn them into songs. The result is a moving, all-sided portrait of Guthrie
colored with humor, desire, sadness, compassion, and idealism. The tunes are catchy, the
folk and rock arrangements are appropriately edgy and spare, and Bragg and Wilco’s
Jeff Tweedy sing Guthrie with conviction and sensitivity.
Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings Vol. 1; Muleskinner
Blues: The Asch Recordings Vol. 2 (Smithsonian
Those interested in a solid
first hand introduction to Guthrie should track down these recent re-mastered reissues
from the vast archives of Moses Asch’s Folkways Records. The first volume covers some
of the better known Guthrie tunes including “Grand Coulee Dam,”
“Philadelphia Lawyer” and the first recorded version (previously unreleased) of
“This Land Is Your Land.” The second collection presents traditional folk songs,
old time country music, sentimental standards and hymns, Guthrie grew up with in Oklahoma
and Texas. Playing guitar, fiddle, and harmonica, dueting with Cisco Houston, and getting
occasional backing support from harmonica virtuoso Sonny Terry, Guthrie plows the roots
absorbed and transformed into his own “songs of the people.” Both sets come with
historic photos and detailed biographical notes.
Roscoe Holcomb, The High
Lonesome Sound (Smithsonian Folkways); Dock Boggs, Country Blues: Complete Early
Recordings 1927-1929 (Revenant)
Thanks to all the acclaim
sparked by the issue of Harry Smith’s 6-CD Anthology Of American Folk Music, these
reissues of material by two of the most gut wrenching performers of primitive,
transcendent folk blues are gaining attention neither received in their lifetimes.
Holcomb, a Kentuckian born around 1911, emerged briefly from backwoods seclusion to record
three albums for Folkways during the 1960s and 1970s. The High Lonesome Sound draws
from the best of these sets, capturing the rugged spirit of a musician who survived and
documented the hard times and exploitation determined by labor in lumber mills and coal
The late 1920s recordings
of Appalachian singer/banjo player Dock Boggs (1898-1971) are no less chilling. Suggesting
an ever present awareness of violence, betrayal and hardship, Boggs sings his hillbilly
blues with the cold ferocity of one who knows no release from despair.
Ralph Stanley & Friends, Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel)
Its been over 50 years
since Carter and Ralph Stanley came out of Virginia singing their old-time mountain songs
with rough, mournful harmonies and an infectious string driven pulse. Today their sound
and body of songs has become one of the most revered legacies in American music. Though
their style has been conveniently categorized as bluegrass, Ralph Stanley still maintains
the Stanley Brothers sound is an older, more down-to-earth kind of music. And ever since
Carter Stanley’s death in 1966, he has made a concerted effort to deepen and uphold
this particular primitive vision of the high lonesome sound. On his new double CD, Clinch
Mountain Country, he recruits an amazing roster of duet partners to help him with his
mission. Bob Dylan, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Gillian Welch, George
Jones, and Laurie Lewis are among the stellar line-up of Stanley admirers. But the real
star here is that still original, ever-soulful highland sound.
BR5-49, Big Backyard Beat Show (Arista); Wayne Hancock, That’s What Daddy
Wants (Ark 21)
Through a steady nightly
gig at a Nashville bar and boot shop known as Robert’s Western World, BR5-49 learned
hundreds of songs stretching over the entire history of the Grand Tradition and along the
way created a buzz strong enough to land a record deal.
On their second album, this
very tradition conscious unit takes a big stride toward proving they’re much more
than a well stocked jukebox. With nine originals in a fourteen song program,
singer-writers Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett show some distinctive flair and Don
Herron’s extended pedal steel and fiddle work-outs reveal the fiery prowess displayed
in live performances. No doubt about it, this is one tight, hard swingin’ country
band with all the tools to unload the drudgery of the working week. But with Big
Backyard, BR5-49 are beginning to suggest a potential to leave a lasting mark on the
venerable heritage they know and love so well.
Texan Wayne “The
Train” Hancock is another young talent who knows how to rock a honky tonk. Schooled
in the Lone Star State’s barrooms, clubs, and dance halls, Hancock, at age 33, has
developed a fully personal hard country style built on the shoulders of Hank Williams,
Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills. Whether moaning a bluesy ballad or wailing a scorching
rockabilly rave-up, Hancock is a gifted, genuine hillbilly singer and his crackerjack band
provides fluent support for his seamless blend of original and classic tunes. That’s
What Daddy Wants is a wonderful document of his music’s cocky attitude, raw soul,
and youthful energy.
Gillian Welch, Hell Among The Yearlings (Almo Sounds)
For her 1996 debut album, Revival,
Gillian Welch received an avalanche of praise for writing and singing steeped in the
ancient voices of the Carter Family, Appalachian mountain singers, and pre-bluegrass
brother duos. Some more purist minded listeners, however, took potshots at Welch for
having an urban (Los Angeles), middle-class upbringing that subverted the
“authenticity” of her role play with old-time traditions. These skeptics will be
just as displeased with Hell Among The Yearlings, for Welch and her
guitarist/songwriting partner David Rawlings once again reach back in time for a stark,
old fashioned sound. The song titles alone (“The Devil Had A Hold Of Me,”
“Miner’s Refrain,” “I’m Not Afraid To Die,” “Rock Of
Ages”) suggest the music of another era.
With their minor key
melodies, close harmony singing, simple guitar-banjo arrangements and dark emotionalism,
Welch and Rawlings make it clear their devotion to somber, older musical forms remains
strong. Like Bob Dylan, another middle-class roots music devotee, they’ve chosen to
use materials from the past to resonate the country’s hidden underbelly.
Call it historical fiction
if you will, but Welch’s lonesome tales of poverty, sexual assault, restlessness, and
desperate yearning are also about life in the here and now.