../  Slippin & Slidin’

Some Kind Of Country

By Sandy Carter


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.

Historically, renegade 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 reality.

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 stunning clarity.

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 mines.

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.                                  Z