Uncle Whopelo?

I have seen the future of local music, and its name is stupid.
Slobberbone they call themselves, and it may be the worst name for the best young band to emerge from this town (Denton, actually, but I'll claim 'em) in a very long time. When they performed at Trees last week, playing to a small but rapt audience larger than most Thursday night crowds, Slobberbone carried with them the aura of a band that has been around much longer than its three years, or through several personnel changes that have left them with only one original member (Brent Best, founder-singer-guitarist-songwriter-main guy). Slobberbone traces its origins to the back of a beer store in Denton, playing free gigs at the Park-N-Go for irate patrons upset that someone had moved the pool table, and coming of age in such surroundings has helped strengthen their sound and their resolve for moments such as these.

For 40 minutes they played, and it was the first time in a long time I have seen a local band I wanted to keep playing after its allotted time. As the club filled with the sounds of a screaming fiddle, a mournful harmonica, and soaring guitars it was like these guys had been together forever, touring every single crappy bar that dots the two-lane blacktop in East Texas. They are that good--evoking heartbreak and anger with just a couple of words or a few notes plucked on a guitar; exploding out of fragile moments with unexpected, deafening roars; painting vibrant pictures with words and sounds where other bands can barely eke out a line drawing.

"Once we had meaning but now we're just hollow," Best sings over a barreling train of music, wearing a Wal-Mart T-shirt as a badge of rural American pride. "Once we felt pain but now we're just numb / once there were words but now there's just glances / once we were smart and now we're just dumb, just dumb."

On stage and its debut CD, Crow Pot Pie, Slobberbone exists near the end of a long line of bands that begins with the Byrds, Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Neil Young and ends with the likes of Soul Asylum, Del Fuegos, Uncle Tupelo, Jason and the Scorchers, Rank and File, and the Jayhawks. Slobberbone, like its predecessors and influences, distills its country through punk, its punk through folk, its folk through country until, finally, it's something critics call "roots" but musicians call rock and roll--unpretentious, uncliched, unbridled.

The 24-year-old Best can play a damn fine country-slide solo and writes like a dirt-farm poet, but he comes to country backwards, seeking out Hank Williams only after hearing a band like Missouri's Bottle Rockets make mention of the dead legend; he is a purist whose roots are buried underneath layers of rock (and roll, that is). When he was a kid living in Austin, Best recalls his father would often listen to the country music that was available on their AM radio--from Willie Nelson to Lefty Frizzell to George Jones. And yet, growing up in Dallas, he was also fond of bands like Three on a Hill and the Buck Pets and all the other pop-punks playing at Theatre Gallery and Twilite Room, and he found himself struggling to reconcile the country and rock sounds he first thought were so at odds with each other.

"When I saw Uncle Tupelo in 1990, that was insane," Best says of his moment of epiphany. "They'd switch one minute from a moving train country rhythm straight into evil thrash. It's just now starting to make sense to a lot of people that there's not a whole lot of difference between the music. I read an article on Uncle Tupelo and they said they're never trying to blend punk and country. It's a way of reconciling the stuff I heard as a kid and the stuff I am into now."

Slobberbone is a rock band propelled along by the sound of a fiddle, just as it's a country band dominated by the roar of two guitars and a frontman who recalls the likes of Paul Westerberg and Uncle Tupelo's Jay Farrar. And it's appropriate that Best often mentions Austin guitar hero Junior Brown--the man who sings like Ernest Tubb but plays like Jimi Hendrix--as a favorite of his: Brown (like Best) filters his roots fixation through rock, but "it's not like he's trying to find the perfect combination" between the two styles, Best explains.

Chicago Reader music editor Bill Wyman swears the Bottle Rockets are the best band in America right now--roots-rockers who write song-cycles capture the twisted sadness and despair that makes up the heartland. And indeed, the Rockets evoke a barroom longing, the sadness of country commingled with the fury of rock, that separates them from a million unimaginative, cliche-ridden roots bands all throughout the Midwest and the South.

But the Bottle Rockets are the sort of band they go nuts for in the North, where any hint of roots authenticity carries considerable weight; down here, though, there are quite a few bands that blend rock and country in various proportions, among them the frenzied honky-tonk of Liberty Valance, the Clash-meets-Lefty cowpie punk of the Cartwrights, and the folkified pop of the Old 97's.

Certainly, Slobberbone's roots-rock is no more or less authentic than the Bottle Rockets' or Uncle Tupelo's (or Wilco's, the band Uncle Tupelo has evolved into): they were all weaned on punk and pop, found themselves drawn to and writing country songs, and, as they performed their own material, were unable to distill the influences from the result. And so their country was loud, their rock was rustic, and never the twain shall be separated.

"It's hard to tell people you're a country-rock band because they don't even know what that is," says Best, who has spent time in punk bands and with Adam's Farm. "You don't want to say you're more one than the other. I guess a roots band is a good thing because that's what Del Fuegos is. I remember the beer commercial they once did where they used to say, 'It's folk music because it's music for folks.' That's good. I want to make music with elements of all of it. It's more sincere than most rock. It's a little more sincere than more post-punk rock, but it still has that energy.

"At the time we went into the studio [in February 1994], we wanted to make a rock record. We knew the country element would be there, but we wanted it big and noisy and dumb. And now I'm not so sure."

Best's lyrics are as evocative, as plain-spoken, as moving as anything the Rockets can come up with. In most of Best's songs, someone usually gets drunk or dead--sometimes both--and, over a haunting harmonica or a ferocious guitar, he sings his words in a plain, desperate tone; his is the sound of a flat, arid land from which there's no escape, a place teeming with the promise of unexpected violence and unending loneliness.

Crow Pot Pie, recorded a year ago with Brutal Juice's Sam McCall, begins with the blistering bluegrass-thrash "Boy Howdy," such cowpunk-rockers as "Whiskey Glass Eye" and "No Man Among Men" and "Shoot You Dead" until, almost imperceptibly, the album unfolds as a story--a tale of angry men and restless women, drinkin' and fuckin' and fightin' their way through pathetic, listless lives.

"I've been stuck in this old town for a while, and this town has seen its better days," he howls on one song, "and I'll be damned if I let you be a part of some new start and make me lose my will to leave this place." And on "16 Days," another of Crow Pot Pie's 10-minute-plus mini-epics, he sings as a man who is a self-kept prisoner in a wretched, decaying house where "the air has turned foul and the walls have turned brown." "And all I can do is lay here and sweat," he sings, his words hanging in the air like a stench.

"Sometimes I'll write songs for shock effect," Best says. "I realize I have a lot of songs in which people die. I was doing the old folk thing inside-out and trying to shock people at the end of the song. I'd write another song and it'd be like, 'Aw, hell, someone else died.' But then we'd play it live and someone would come up to us and say, 'That describes how I felt at one time.' A song you were doing tongue-in-check takes you aback when someone else takes it seriously."

Crow Pot Pie is available by calling Best at (817) 381-1085 or writing him at 712 W. Sycamore, Denton, TX, 76201.

Texas radio and the big beat
You may not hear much of the Toadies, Reverend Horton Heat or even Jackopierce on local radio, but in College Station and Corpus Christi, they're being heard at least once a week as part of a brand new regionally syndicated Texas-music radio show you'll probably never find in Dallas. Former Houston DJ Donna McKenzie's "New Texas Radio," which began airing in February, is a bizarre, wide-ranging cross-section of Texas-made music, bounding from the Toadies to Jackopierce, Reverend Horton Heat to ZZ Top, Tripping Daisy to Soul Hat, with some oddball oldies like Johnny Reno and Sir Douglas Quintet thrown into the mix.

So far, the show has been picked up by six Texas album-rock radio stations--in Houston, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Abilene, Amarillo and Bryan-College Station--and a San Antonio station likely will begin airing "New Texas Radio" this spring. McKenzie says she has sent material to program directors at two Dallas stations, but the response hasn't been promising to this point--perhaps because most local stations already air their own Texas-based music shows such as Q102's "Texas Tapes."

"It's been a huge uphill battle to get the show on the air because no one is going for regional syndication," McKenzie says, "and you might as well raise a red flag in front of a program director's face by telling him you're going to put unsigned talent on the air. But the show is designed to be a groundbreaker, to make people give a second look to what's coming up in their own backyard."

As such, McKenzie scours the state each week for new talent and is accepting CDs (and some tapes) for consideration. So if you want to get heard in, say, Amarillo 'cause they ain't playing your band on KNON, send music to: New Texas Radio, P.O. Box 4090, Houston, TX, 77210.

Scene, heard
Mike Malinin, best known 'round these parts as the former drummer for Last Rites and Caulk, has joined Warner Bros. band Goo Goo Dolls just as they're preparing for the release of their album A Boy Named Goo. (Malinin, who is living in Los Angeles and had been working at a clothing store, was also the man behind the Cheap Trick tribute Heaven on a Stick a few years back.) The band will be in town March 8 on a promotional tour that will take them to KDGE, KTXQ, and KEGL for on-air interviews, and the boys are booked to appear on "The Jon Stewart Show" March 22 (if it's good enough for the Ass Ponys, it's good enough for most any band)...

Slowpoke and the Toadies are releasing a split seven-inch single titled Belated Valentine at the end of the month on Grass Records. Slowpoke will contribute a track called "She Fainted," and the Toadies cover the Talking Heads' "Not in Love"...

The Trees, one of the bands from the earliest days of Deep Ellum, is back...sort of. Frontman Pat McKanna's stint with The Medicine Show Caravan now over, he's returned with only the old name intact until he can come up with something better. "I'm not trying to capitalize on what little success we had down here," he insists, and as such, the band will not perform any material from its sole album, 1986's Locomtion vs. Hittin' the Brake...

Hockaday grad and winner of last year's backlash award Lisa Loeb took home the Best International Newcomer Award at the Brit Awards in England last week (which are the equivalent of the Grammies); last year, the award went to Bjork. She beat out the likes of Warren G, Counting Crows, Carleen Anderson, and Marcella Detroit. Loeb's as-yet-untitled Geffen debut is due for release in late May or early June; she's finished recording, and final mixing will begin in the next couple of weeks.

Indirect hits
After months of delay, Direct Hit Records has finally released the Dooms U.K. CD Greasy Listening, one of the myriad projects spearheaded by local boy wonder John Freeman. Underneath the smirks you can hear a pretty decent record and a damn fine band: the ska version of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" (now "Pairanoidz"), "Lederhosen," and "Smoke a Dead Man's X-Ray" go for grins where the punch line is the unexpected chops; these boys got talent and humor, even if they can't be funny or even good all the time. Freeman also joins the likes of Lithium X-Mas' Mark Ridlin and Chris Merlick, Bedhead's Bubba Kadane, and assorted other unknown local avant-artists such as Nurse and Munsters on the noise-and-annoys seven-inch clear-vinyl single U.F.O. Psychic Experiment.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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