By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
For 40 minutes they played, and it was the first time in a long time I have seen a local band I wanted to keep playing after its allotted time. As the club filled with the sounds of a screaming fiddle, a mournful harmonica, and soaring guitars it was like these guys had been together forever, touring every single crappy bar that dots the two-lane blacktop in East Texas. They are that good--evoking heartbreak and anger with just a couple of words or a few notes plucked on a guitar; exploding out of fragile moments with unexpected, deafening roars; painting vibrant pictures with words and sounds where other bands can barely eke out a line drawing.
"Once we had meaning but now we're just hollow," Best sings over a barreling train of music, wearing a Wal-Mart T-shirt as a badge of rural American pride. "Once we felt pain but now we're just numb / once there were words but now there's just glances / once we were smart and now we're just dumb, just dumb."
On stage and its debut CD, Crow Pot Pie, Slobberbone exists near the end of a long line of bands that begins with the Byrds, Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Neil Young and ends with the likes of Soul Asylum, Del Fuegos, Uncle Tupelo, Jason and the Scorchers, Rank and File, and the Jayhawks. Slobberbone, like its predecessors and influences, distills its country through punk, its punk through folk, its folk through country until, finally, it's something critics call "roots" but musicians call rock and roll--unpretentious, uncliched, unbridled.
The 24-year-old Best can play a damn fine country-slide solo and writes like a dirt-farm poet, but he comes to country backwards, seeking out Hank Williams only after hearing a band like Missouri's Bottle Rockets make mention of the dead legend; he is a purist whose roots are buried underneath layers of rock (and roll, that is). When he was a kid living in Austin, Best recalls his father would often listen to the country music that was available on their AM radio--from Willie Nelson to Lefty Frizzell to George Jones. And yet, growing up in Dallas, he was also fond of bands like Three on a Hill and the Buck Pets and all the other pop-punks playing at Theatre Gallery and Twilite Room, and he found himself struggling to reconcile the country and rock sounds he first thought were so at odds with each other.
"When I saw Uncle Tupelo in 1990, that was insane," Best says of his moment of epiphany. "They'd switch one minute from a moving train country rhythm straight into evil thrash. It's just now starting to make sense to a lot of people that there's not a whole lot of difference between the music. I read an article on Uncle Tupelo and they said they're never trying to blend punk and country. It's a way of reconciling the stuff I heard as a kid and the stuff I am into now."
Slobberbone is a rock band propelled along by the sound of a fiddle, just as it's a country band dominated by the roar of two guitars and a frontman who recalls the likes of Paul Westerberg and Uncle Tupelo's Jay Farrar. And it's appropriate that Best often mentions Austin guitar hero Junior Brown--the man who sings like Ernest Tubb but plays like Jimi Hendrix--as a favorite of his: Brown (like Best) filters his roots fixation through rock, but "it's not like he's trying to find the perfect combination" between the two styles, Best explains.
Chicago Reader music editor Bill Wyman swears the Bottle Rockets are the best band in America right now--roots-rockers who write song-cycles capture the twisted sadness and despair that makes up the heartland. And indeed, the Rockets evoke a barroom longing, the sadness of country commingled with the fury of rock, that separates them from a million unimaginative, cliche-ridden roots bands all throughout the Midwest and the South.
But the Bottle Rockets are the sort of band they go nuts for in the North, where any hint of roots authenticity carries considerable weight; down here, though, there are quite a few bands that blend rock and country in various proportions, among them the frenzied honky-tonk of Liberty Valance, the Clash-meets-Lefty cowpie punk of the Cartwrights, and the folkified pop of the Old 97's.