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.

Judging strictly from the numbers, the music on Walk Alone struck a deep enough chord to suggest that contemporary audiences found their mainstream country options a bit lacking. Walk Alone sold several thousand copies, enough that R.E.D. Distribution picked up the album with an eye to re-releasing it in 2001; Ultimatum took the opportunity to repackage it.

While on their first supporting tour, the Sons had been invited to Johnny Cash's home--the Man in Black had been a supporter from the beginning--where they spent a few days bass fishing and recording two songs, "Nowhere Town" and "Spanish Eyes," under the production of Cash's son John Carter. Those new tracks got tagged onto Walk Alone's original 12-song playlist for the re-release. So, by a series of bizarre turns, the Bastard Sons have come back to the fold in a very literal sense.

"The [Cash] family's been really good to us," Stuart says. "They've come to our defense several times. When I first thought up the band name and approached his organization about using it, I hoped that Johnny Cash would be the type of man that I thought he was. I hoped he'd be the kind who'd have a sense of humor and receive it as a tip of the hat, kind of an homage to him.

"But also," he continues, "as a thumb in the eye of Nashville country. And, of course, he got it immediately. He's not about stepping on the little guy. He told me, 'Look, I didn't have a record deal for 20 years, and they still don't play my stuff on country radio.'"

In that interpretation, Stuart and fellow Sons Dean Coates, Jeff Roberts and Joey Galvan are as much the bastard offspring of all outlaw country singers, a group of singer-songwriters who never got the support they deserved from the Nashville system. Accusing the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash of merely aping an established formula obscures the fact that the formula was, in fact, never fully entrenched.

To take another example, know that Cash went entirely against the advice of his management in allowing the Sons to use the family name, a touch of support that the band appreciates.

"For any artist to go up against his own people like that really says he does care about the next generation. I think [Cash] has more empathy with us than maybe we even realize. Johnny got us our first House of Blues gig. All those guys, Johnny and Willie and Merle, have been really decent about the whole thing, helping this band when we needed a break, giving us a chance."

Talk of Cash's anti-establishmentarianism invariably leads us to a discussion of the infamous Billboard ad in which a young J.C. flipped the bird to the entire music industry. "That Billboard ad was so overdue," Stuart says, laughing. "It's overdue today as well, and it just proves to me again that we picked the right guy to follow. What if I'd picked George Jones? I might get associated with hair products. Or reinforcements for bridges. [Cash] was exactly the man I wanted him to be, and hopefully we can honor him by making great records."

The crowds seem to think so, and here's another aspect of the Sons' charm--their appeal to an audience that spans generations and musical tastes.

"Our reception on the road has been fantastic. We've had a lot of sellouts, even in towns where we'd never played before. Somehow people are finding out about the record. Some of it is the Internet, and some is the press, of course, but I think most of it is probably word of mouth. That's the way I get most of my records.

"I've seen people at our shows who are obviously up in years, being helped into the venue, and they'll end up sitting across from somebody who's 20 years old, covered in tattoos with a foot of spiky hair. Our audience is like the Land of Misfit Toys; they're bastard people. But they're all aficionados of barroom country, the music that came out of the bars, instead of the studio with million-dollar production values."

Asked why that kind of music's endured for so long, Stuart is more hesitant to judge.

"It probably touches something even more emotional in a lot of people," he says slowly, "considering the mess the country's in now... maybe it hearkens back to a time when the singer still wrote the song, and it wasn't manufactured in a little cubicle upstairs somewhere in a publishing house. Those were just guys living and dying and telling their own stories; when you see people like that up on stage, even now, when they're old, it's a real powerful thing.

"The old tricks are the best tricks," says the young dog who's learned a few old ones. "I'm still a sucker for it. I could still go see somebody like Dale Watson or Willie and watch them all night long. I never get tired of that music."

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Eric Waggoner