Town and country

Whiskeytown and No Depression pour into town

Dallas' Old 97's are smart retro twang and play heady, booze-driven country rock, with whopping lyrical twists ("If my heart was a car/you would have stripped it a long time ago") courtesy of Rhett Miller, Dallas' musical posterboy done good. Their 1995 "Wreck Your Life" CD on the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records is a dog-eared volume of singer-songwriter Miller's well-studied, drink-fueled longing and loneliness pulsing along a bouncing beat. Their new album is nearly ready for release and was produced for Elektra by Wally Gagel, of the Deluxx Folk Implosion. "We don't need help sounding like we're from Texas," says Miller. "We needed a guy who could make us sound like a rock band."

Christy McWilson, singer for Seattle's the Picketts, channels the spirits of Kitty Wells and early Emmylou Harris. The Picketts dance deftly, two-stepping through songs not necessarily made for a Southern accent. The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" becomes infected with a languid swampiness, while the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" hops up into a shuffling Western swing groove on their debut Euphonium.

Rounding out the tour is Albuquerque's Hazeldine, a band that breathes high desert wind underneath the lilting harmonies of Shawn Barton and Tonya Lamm. Drummer Jefferey Richards is best known for his work with Vic Chesnutt on "West of Rome." Transfixing and intense, their dark, wine-soaked ballads and lock-tight harmonies are addictive. The bandmembers all met at a hippie grocery store, but play like they were born in the clubs; they reveal more at a waltzed crawl than a hundred bands hide at breakneck speed. A recently finished self-produced first album is currently being shopped around and will be distributed in Europe through Glitterhouse; Hazeldine can also be found on Bloodshot's "Straight Outta Boone County" sampler.

Mixed together in the confusing rush are innovators and coattail riders. "In time, when all of this alt-country crap has boiled down, then you'll realize who the great bands are," says Whiskeytown's Wandscher. "We don't have to put uniforms on [like the band BR5-49]. When you see them, they're great, but when you go home and put that record on, well, you realize that that's all they got: the live show. We are not a bar band. Sometimes we are fucking horrible, and sometimes we are really great.

"It's about punk rock," he adds, twiddling the knobs in an East Nashville studio. "That's what rock and roll is about. We play country music, but we listen to the Replacements."

In the control booth--underneath the tapestry depicting the last supper (with Fred G. Sanford and Bill Cosby as disciples)--Wandscher, Adams, and producer Tim Scott (Tom Petty, Danzig, the Wallflowers) put finishing touches on 12 songs for their new record, the follow-up to Faithless Street. The new album is infused with the same longing, regret, drinking, and misery that charged their sleeper hit of '95, "Too Drunk to Dream."

"We're burnin' lots of incense and smokin' a lot of pot," says Wandscher. "All of the money on this new record is going to call girls, limos, first-class air fare, and room service. Actually, that's not what it's like. We're saving money by not getting the call girls. The rhythm section is thoroughly disappointed."

Wandscher and company embody the alt-country or Americana tags that fly around the music like buzzards circling the corpse of Uncle Tupelo, distinctly different from their hat-wearing, celebrity-marrying musical kin. "Clint Black plays in a country band, and we don't," Wandscher claims. "We're a rock and roll band that plays country. That's like comparing Neil Young and Hank Williams, Jr. The difference is that Hank and Neil both have trucks, but Neil's gunrack isn't for guns. It's for guitars."

The No Depression tour, with Whiskeytown, the Old 97's, The Picketts, and Hazeldine, will be at the Sons of Hermann Hall Tuesday, March 18.

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