By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
This is country music? An institution so distanced from its past that it won't allow living legends such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings airplay and ignores the heritage of past masters like the Carter Family? An industry that paves over its roots, the better to make way for the scamperings of a bunch of sanitized gym rats with guitars and no fashion sense? Blame Tom Wopat, blame Urban Cowboy, but regardless of whom you blame, it all smells of a scene about as country as Richard Simmons and as likely to get in a barroom brawl as Celine Dion.
When it comes to carrying the torch of real country, many agree that it's the youngsters--long-haired, flannel-clad, worshiping at the altars of not only Willie and Waylon, but also the Beatles and the Beach Boys--who are the hope for the future. You can call it "insurgent honky-tonk," "Americana," "alternative country," or any of a dozen other handy media labels, but much of this new movement in truly young country is reported on by No Depression, a fan/maga/webzine that has made quite a name for itself in the last two years as acts like Slobberbone, the Bottle Rockets, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Wilco, and Son Volt pick up critical acclaim.
No Depression's manifesto, declared in its first issue, put it plainly: "We declare that there is such a thing as alternative country music. We claim the forgotten legends of the country genre as our spiritual ancestors, and Gram Parsons as our unholy ghost, minister to the shotgun wedding of country music and rock and roll."
No Depression recently made the jump from electronic (www.nodepresion.net) to print media. The record industry, noting the flagging sales of alternative bands, is willing to pick up on any grouping that looks like it might sell. Particularly interesting are bands that might sell well to two segments that buy lots of records: country and rock.
Now the fanzine's spreading the word, coming to Dallas with a package tour featuring four of the genre's brightest lights: Whiskeytown, The Picketts, Hazeldine, and Dallas' own Old 97's. All four acts enjoyed a showcase at last week's South by Southwest music festival in Austin, and from there they wheel from Texas up to Seattle, across to Minnesota, and then down to Nashville. Each band is far outside Nashville's mainstream and brings a unique brand of relief to a musical style about to choke on its own lameness.
Unlike the Grammy-winning Ms. Dion, for example, Whiskeytown guitarist Phil Wandscher has, in fact, been in a bar fight. "A guy has to be a gentleman sometimes," he explains. "I was in a hipster club in Raleigh, and some guy was talking shit to a girl, and I cracked him over the head with a cuestick and hit him in the face. He got thrown out, and I got free drinks."
Not a surprising story for Whiskeytown, the band No Depression's founding editor Peter Blackstock calls "the most volatile and unpredictable band of the bunch. On any night they're either an epiphany or a trainwreck, which is pretty much Ryan's [Adams, band leader] personality. It's a good thing that he's backed up with capable musicians," Blackstock adds. "It's weird how easy it is for them to turn out unforgettable music, and it's a pleasure to watch them develop." Several live shows have seen Adams smash his guitars to matchsticks for a wowed audience. "He probably won't do that anymore," says bandmate Wandscher. "He finally got a guitar that's worth a shit."
Whiskeytown is far closer to Jason and the Scorchers' wild Western twang, Rank and File, X, or the hard-edged biker rock of Steve Earle than any Poco-esque prettiness; they cover Richard Hell and the Voidoids. They--like Wilco, Son Volt, or Colorado's 16 Horsepower--have come to acoustic guitars and ballads after having dug their way out from under the prison of punk. Their guns are sometimes carved out of soap, but they still know how to hide a musical shiv from the guards, and none of them is above distracting with squalls of feedback.
The band--Wandscher, Adams, Jeff Rice, and Steve Terry--hails from one of the great hotbeds of indie rock, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle in North Carolina, the source of the hip, troubled sounds of Archers of Loaf, Superchunk, the Connells, the Backsliders, and the metallic Corrosion of Conformity. Whiskeytown, however, heeds a different call: the call of history and moonshine. The call of alt-country.
Wandscher, Whiskeytown's aural architect, is thin, with a close-cropped mop of dyed-blond hair; he looks more like the guy who scored drugs for Sid Vicious than someone who'd write winsome ballads of love and loss. Dressed in an outfit he got for a total of five dollars--a powder blue velveteen jacket, Wranglers, and black Ichabod Crane shoes with buckles--the Ron Wood of alt-country won't let you call his music country. He might just give you a cuestick to the head, regardless of how you think they sound.
Once in a punk band, the Patty Duke Syndrome, frontman Adams, 22, found his way to country by writing about it. "I started this damn country band 'cause punk rock was too hard to sing," he croons in "Angels Are Messengers From God," on their last LP on Geffen records, home to Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Setting it far apart from softer, gentler cousins, the rough edges and real-life action of Whiskeytown's songs and playing make them instantly memorable.