Exile on Fry Street
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.
"That leads to people validating in their mind the attitude that something is no longer good if it's raucous or irreverent," Best continues. "That's the original attraction to that kind of music for me, the same kind of attraction you had to punk when you were a kid. It's irreverent. It's just that it's irreverent in a more underhanded way."
Slobberbone is as genuine as Whiskeytown is fake--partly, but not solely, as a result of geography. Best grew up in the sticks (Allen) with his daddy's country albums, went to the city to see punk bands play, and ended up somewhere in between (Denton). The music that resulted is a blend of guitar-heavy rock and roll and country themes (drinkin', cheatin', small-town desperation). It's not the music Best tries to write; it's just what comes out when he sits down with his guitar.
Lately, the band has been leaning more heavily on the rock side of country rock, spurred on by changes in its lineup. In an effort to streamline the band's live sound, fiddle player Scott Danbom was jettisoned, and guitarist Michael Hill later left the band as well.
"It kinda sucks," Best admits. "I still regret it, losing Scott. I don't now, because he's in Centro-matic, the best band in the world. Mike, our other guitar player, he just kind of...The band knew, and he knew. He wasn't much for touring."
These changes allowed the band to enter the studio as a tight trio (second guitarist Jess Barr joined after the album was completed) to record Barrel Chested, its follow-up to Crow Pot Pie (self-released in 1995, rereleased and rerecorded by Doolittle the following year). "Which is just what we needed," Best says. The sound of Barrel Chested adds several other instruments to the mix--dobro, pedal steel, violin--but it still manages to capture the band's sound better than the second version of Crow Pot Pie did.
Doolittle's Crow Pot Pie was a vastly different album from the one the band cut in 1994 with Brutal Juice bassist Sam McCall. The title and some songs remained the same, but the rerecorded version lacked the same back-of-the-bar rowdiness that made the first one so special. If the original Crow Pot Pie was like taking a ride through the backroads of East Texas in a beat-up pickup truck with only a handful of Merle Haggard and AC/DC cassettes, then the re-recorded version was like taking the same trip in a Volvo station wagon.
The reason for the second Crow Pot Pie, Best explains, was that the band had gone through several personnel changes since the original was recorded, leaving only himself and drummer Tony Harper as the remaining members from the McCall sessions. The label and the band wanted to make an album with the then-current lineup, but, Best admits, they went about it the wrong way.
"What I wish we would have done, in hindsight, is take those tracks from the original one and dump them onto a new tape, and recut individual tracks to build a new album," Best muses. "Anytime you rerecord anything, even if it's a song, it's a big second-guess fest. And you couple that with somebody [producer Jeff Cole] who really hasn't known you that long, who has their impression of the first disc and really loves it. They want to capture that same sort of thing, but they want to do it in a real studio with real gear and all that shit."
Barrel Chested is the album the second version of Crow Pot Pie should have been: a tight, ferocious album with punchy production; it's the real follow-up. Best's songs still come from that place somewhere between drinking your problems away and realizing your problem is drinking. Some are quiet and beautiful ("Drunk Little Fists"); others, loud and mean ("Haze of Drink").
Surprisingly, one of the best songs on the album has nothing to do with liquor, women, or blood-covered hands: "Engine Joe" is a bluegrass children's song Best wrote during an aborted attempt to write an entire album of kids' songs, and its inclusion here shows a newfound maturity in his songwriting. The album also includes a couple of the most radio-friendly songs the band has ever recorded, leading to airplay in some strange places.
"In Jackson, Mississippi, they [Doolittle] just noticed for some reason that we started selling all these records out there, and the next week it was more, and then it was like 200 albums a week," Best says. "We were like, 'What the fuck?' The station there put us in heavy rotation. We went out and did the show, and it was just huge. I was trying to figure out what it was. I hadn't realized until we got out there that the station that was playing us was a classic-rock station."
Increased airplay has also meant increased sales. To date, Barrel Chested has sold more than 10,000 copies, a respectable number for a band on an indie label. Added exposure has led to problems, including weirdly scheduled tours to accommodate radio stations and a whole slew of Johnboy-come-latelys who have been flocking to Slobberbone shows based on the band's affiliation with the No Depression set. All the attention has made Best and the band want to retreat into their shells a bit, weed out a few of the spurious fans, and get back on their original track.
"I know it's something [radio airplay] that the label really craves, and it's something that seems cool sometimes to us, but it creates this kind of thing where you gain a lot more people coming to shows in a shorter period of time," Best says. "It's distracting, especially for a band like us that's spent the past four or five years slowly building an audience.
"It's kind of the same thing with the whole alternative country thing taking off, because it brings in...Suddenly, you have people coming to see you who wouldn't normally have naturally found you," he continues. "I think at some point you risk alienating the people who have been coming to see you for a long time. It can undermine you. That's why I can see the next album maybe being influenced by a notion to steer away from being easily accepted on that level."
"Nothing but Brutal Juice covers," Lane adds.
Best laughs, but also appears to be considering Lane's suggestion.
"I don't know," he says. "We'll see.
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