Return of the Prodigal

Mark Stuart's laundry is done. He knows, because some guy he doesn't know just came outside and told him to get his socks the hell out of the dryer.

"It's all about the glamour," Stuart says wryly. "The rock-and-roll lifestyle."

Scratch a rock and roller with clean skivvies and find Mark Stuart, lead scoundrel in the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. The Bastard Sons, a California-bred quartet with a decided preference for outlaw country music, have spent the last handful of years on the road, earning their pedigree. But with the votes nearly counted, it looks like a clear victory for the Sons, who have built a loyal following of supporters, including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and (of course) the Big Man himself.

What we have here, you see, is the purest kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. (Or, as Stuart explains, "You know that Field of Dreams thing? 'If you build it, they will come?' It was like that, only our experience was more like, 'If you build it and then you beg, they will come.'") The Sons went from being one of Music Connection magazine's "Top 100 Unsigned Bands" in 1999 to hanging out at Cash Cabin in 2001, adding two tracks to Walk Alone, their first-ever full-length release. Two tracks that, incidentally, were produced by John Carter Cash himself.

Walk Alone was initially released by Ultimatum Records in 2000, garnering quick if sometimes tempered praise for its outlaw revivalism. This was the country of Waylon Jennings and Joe Ely, and if it didn't map out a lot of new territory (as some faultfinders suggested), there wasn't much to suggest that the Sons intended to, at least on their first release. The songs on Walk Alone were all about trucks and roadhouses and coffee-Benzedrine cocktails and (as Stuart puts it) "the endless machinations of a woman's heart." In short, Walk Alone plays familiarly even if you've never heard it before, provided you've had a little Tompall Glaser and Lee Clayton in your diet.

But to fault the Bastard Sons--or Red Meat or BR-549 or the Mavericks or any of the young neo-traditionalist country bands that emerged in the '90s--for replowing the field is to sidestep a more pressing issue. Before we go asking the younger crop to push the envelope, maybe we ought to provide them some room in which to stretch their legs a bit. And the Sons, like many another young country outfit, might be doing us all a necessary service simply by preserving a style that never received all that much support in the first place.

"Most of the clubs that we used to be able to go and play at, and a lot of bands that came out at about the same time we did, have all dried up," Stuart says. "There are very few places to play. We play in rock clubs; we don't play in country bars or even line-dance clubs, because there just aren't any in Southern California. The only time we run across those kind of places is when we're out on the road, and the last thing we can do successfully is go set up in a place that's a line-dance bar five nights out of the week. You go into those places and they don't want to hear originals. Every five minutes someone hands you a napkin that's got 'Tulsa Time' or 'Watermelon Crawl' written across it. You have to roll it up and bounce it off their foreheads. Bad scene," Stuart judges.

The Sons honed their craft on the road, recording one self-released EP and one nine-song CD, which eventually became the prototype for Walk Alone. But if we had to trace the moment they really got kicked up the ladder, it would probably be their 1998 invited performance at Willie Nelson's annual 4th of July Picnic.

The Sons were the first San Diego band to play Nelson's 30-year-plus-old event; it was also their first gig in Texas. In the following year, Merle Haggard hand-picked the Sons as his opening act, and Music Connection name-checked them as an as-yet-unsigned hot prospect. In December 1999, Ultimatum signed them, and work on Walk Alone began.

The fact that Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were early supporters of the Sons long before anyone in the industry had taken much notice says volumes about the sorry state of affairs in the country music business--as does the fact that their labelmates include J. Mascis, Sugarcult and the Incredible Moses Leroy.

"When I hear something like 'She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy' or 'I Wanna Talk About Me,' I want to put a tenpenny nail through the palm of my hand," Stuart says flatly. Neither airbrushed country stud-muffins nor neo-urban cowboys, the Sons' idiom as represented on their first full-length is less tight white T-shirts and Stetson hats than gas-station coffee and 12-packs on special.