By Jim Schutze
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Slobberbone's were-you-there? set during last month's South by Southwest music conference in Austin wasn't a life-changing show--it was a life-affirming one. During an early evening party thrown by its record label, Austin-based indie Doolittle Records, four boys from Denton made a courtyard full of industry folk forget that they had somewhere else to be. As the free margaritas and beer flowed, the band--fortified by a couple of cold Shiner Bocks themselves--kicked out the jams, whispered through the murder ballads, and played the hell out of everything else in between.
The show at the Club De Ville confirmed what has been obvious for a long time now: Slobberbone isn't an Uncle Tupelo imitation anymore; it's its own band, and a damned good one at that, one that has morphed from a fiddle-accented quintet into a lean, mean quartet whose only accent is singer-guitarist Brent Best's small-town Texas twang. Slobberbone--which released its second album, Barrel Chested, late last year--exists if only to prove that Uncle Tupelo's melding of thrash and Cash didn't come about solely to spawn bands such as Whiskeytown or Jolene. Looking and sounding like the bastard nephew of Jay Farrar and a young Steve Earle (circa Guitar Town and Exit 0), Best stomped around the small stage and showed that, although the No Depression universe now encompasses places as far-flung as Oppdal, Norway, its heart and soul arguably resides in North Texas.
A week later, sitting with bassist Brian Lane at a table inside Denton's Cool Beans, Best looks more like a college kid between classes than the successor to any alt-country throne. Given his propensity for writing songs about drinking and fucking up (not necessarily in that order), one would expect him to be piss-drunk and ornery by the late afternoon. But here he sits, clear-eyed and polite, drinking a soda. Answering questions between distracted glances over his shoulder for his delayed taco order, Best wants to talk about, uh, Radiohead and its 1997 album OK Computer.
"I'm so sick of hearing about Radiohead in a bad way, because, you know, that album is so great and everybody's like, 'Oh, what a great album.' And then the backlash sets in," Best says. "The greatest thing about it--and you don't hear about this that much--is that Radiohead is a band that could have very well killed itself, having a big hit [early on in its career]. Not that they came back selling a lot of albums. It's that, even with The Bends, they came back and did a kick-ass album that, as far as I can tell, was never affected by any notion of how it was going to be received."
In a way, it's fitting that Best should bring up Radiohead, because much like that band, Slobberbone also could have crumbled under the expectations of others--Radiohead for its alternahit "Creep," and Slobberbone for its place in an embryonic alt-country scene (including Tupelo and the Bottle Rockets) that was just being shoe-horned into a movement when the band formed five years ago. For his part, the 27-year-old Best isn't sure what to make of the media's fascination with a scruffy bunch of cowpunks.
"It's weird for me, because early on, I was way into a lot of those bands, but it wasn't from the perspective of a movement," he reflects. "When they started getting talked about and stuff, I was like, 'Hey, this is kind of cool,' to begin with. But anytime you make a big deal out of something like that, I think you're ruining it. It gets tedious at times, the rhetoric."
It's a wonder that anybody would want to be associated with the No Depression movement now. Three or four years ago, the genre was riding high on the successes of Uncle Tupelo offshoots (Jay Farrar's Son Volt and Jeff Tweedy's Wilco), young upstarts (The Old 97's), and rediscovered favorites (Steve Earle, Johnny Cash). Now, alt-country is more watered down than a keg of Natural Light. As the category's notoriety has increased (even MTV has an alt-country program in the works), the level of quality has nose-dived. The alt-country ranks are now rife with Dust Bowl pretenders from New York City (New York City!) and bands that sound like the unwanted second coming of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.
Perhaps the biggest transgressor is Whiskeytown, whose Strangers Almanac appeared on Outpost Recordings last year. Known more for frontman Ryan Adams' spoiled-brat behavior than anything else, Whiskeytown is alternately hailed as alt-country's leading light and blamed for its downfall. Whiskeytown is one of those bands that always seems to infiltrate a movement, a band with visions of big record contracts and Spin covers in its head instead of a heart full of songs. A letter written to No Depression two years ago pegged it best, tagging Whiskeytown as "the Stone Temple Pilots of alternative country." When mention of Whiskeytown and Adams is made, Best and Lane snicker and roll their eyes.
"He's his own No. 1 fan," Lane says, before the question is quite finished.
"I think he's a good songwriter," Best allows. "But if you think about the watering-down of the whole thing, they're probably just as responsible. Not them solely, but a band like that gets signed, they put out a major-label album, and it sounds like a major-label album. I like the songs; I think it's good stuff, but I think that's the sort of thing that waters it down.
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