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.
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."
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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.