Published Feb 01, 2000While its so-called progenitors like Wilco and Old 97s move on to other American music, No Depression is reaching a crossroads. As Chris Wodskou discovers, it's the best thing that could happen for the music.
You may have heard the legend of Uncle Tupelo. When the scrappy Chicago band brought country and bluegrass influences to bear on their indie power pop, the latest consummation in the relationship between country and punk-influenced music was apparently put into motion. They were authentic enough to have roots credibility and had sufficient alternative cachet to intrigue trend-wise urbanites who would otherwise recoil at the very suggestion of country-rock: "They're kinda like the Eagles - only good."
Uncle Tupelo would be rent asunder, but their spawn, Wilco and Son Volt, propelled the patched-together genre known variously as alternative country, insurgent country, No Depression, Americana and y'alternative, to a critical mass without really trying.
In fact, few of the de facto standard bearers of the No Depression generation made any claims to be spearheading a new movement. More truthfully, insurgent country was stitched together by underemployed music writers and industry insiders out of the confluence of gritty, grainy singer-songwriters from Lucinda Williams to Richard Buckner, and precociously talented young guns like Whiskeytown and Old 97s who seemed not to know the difference between country and punk. Wilco's Being There may have been insurgent country'sExile on Main Street , but wasn't it - like Whiskeytown's Stranger's Almanac - really a twangier version of the Replacements?
The shelf life of scenes, let alone trumped-up scenes, being what it is, insurgent country now finds itself at a crossroads, despite the ministrations of the No Depression industry. Its surviving spiritual forebears, like George Jones and country punk emeritus Johnny Cash, now make the news primarily for their failing health, while the reluctant torchbearers of insurgent country try to wriggle out of their duties to alternative country-rock. The power pop of new albums by Wilco and Old 97s has even been regarded as treasonous in some insurgent country circles.
"The Wilco and Old 97s albums are only controversial because they aren't what they were supposed to be," opines Jon Langford, whose Waco Brothers provide a country alternative to his punker Mekons. "There's a really stiff, conservative element in insurgent country that wants the scene to stay the same, and I suppose they might think that Wilco and Old 97s let them down."
Wilco and Old 97s are probably not abandoning country music so much as drifting to different points in the continuum of American popular music. Besides, insurgent country is only the latest revisiting of the country-punk encounter in American music; Bloodshot Records might bill the Waco Brothers as "Clash Meets Cash," but punk, of a fashion, was an organic element of Cash's music long before Joe Strummer fantasised about anarchy - or heard of rockabilly. Country pioneers like Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Sr., Roy Acuff (who died losing a drunken game of Russian roulette), George Jones, and Jerry Lee Lewis sowed a whole prairie's worth of wild oats, and became a template for marginal, rebellious, outlaw lifestyles.
Punk has since been countrified, notably by X, the Blasters and Rank and File, among others in the late '70s and early '80s, and country-rock has been punked up by the likes of Long Ryders and Green On Red in the '80s, but they were channelling the restless spirit of Gram Parsons as much as anything else. And while Parsons may have been a Johnny Thunders in grievous angelic garb, no one was calling him alternative country during his groundbreaking career that ended with his all-too-fitting death in 1973.
Many of the best exponents of American roots music have been punks at heart without attaching themselves to anything self-consciously hyphenated. And when hybrids did accentuate the punk imagery, whether it was rockabilly and swamp rock reconfiguring the punk sneer as greaseball country-rockism or the cartoonishness of "cowpunk," the results have often veered toward the embarrassing, but it was the obviousness of the punk and country visual and musical signifiers that penetrated journalists' short attention span.
"During the '80s, you'd have these bad new wave bands wearing country hats and bolo ties," recalls Bad Livers bass and tuba-player Mark Rubin with distaste. "I'd hate to think we had anything to do with that." Rubin still rankles at how Bad Livers were saddled with the country-punk tag, despite the diversity of their influences, ranging from Western swing and bluegrass to punk and klezmer.
"When we first started playing," Rubin explains, "we didn't have a lot of original material and had acoustic instruments, and the only way you could play was in clubs where you'd play from 9 to 2 a.m., so we needed a lot of covers. We played Mississippi Fred McDowell and [Thelonious] Monk, and we'd also play stuff from our collective memory, like Roky Erickson. Then people from the punk scene started seeing what was happening, and journalists, being a lazy bunch, they'd fasten on to the one Motörhead or Stooges song, not the Art Tatum or Charlie Poole or Son House. It's true that we were drawn to punk, but more because of our anarchic disposition and the punk DIY ethic, but to call us a country-punk group is just lazy."
Bad Livers are the consummate American roots band - neither a punk nor a country band, but an illustration of just how ingrained the punk ethos is ingrained in country-influenced music. Country is an iconically 7American music of grievance and discontent, as well as longing; it's about populist anger, class-based resentment, dead end jobs and being outcast, dispossessed and alone. For an old school punk like Jon Langford, an understanding of country music only came with an appreciation for the affinity between English punk anger and American breeds of disaffection.
"As I got older, country music started to make sense," says Langford. "It was largely the American mystique in country music. People pointed out similarities between country and what the Mekons were trying to do. We were doing angry songs, and it seemed that country and folk were angry, but they weren't as preachy - instead, they were based on people's lives. It really ended up seeming that Mekons were playing country music without knowing or liking country music."
Country music is not humourless, but it's striking how much of Langford's anarchic glee and drunken sailor antics are muted when he falls in country's embrace, possibly because country music is a more measured and mature medium for outlaw sentiments. "A lot of punk rock was a lot of chest beating and angry posturing," says Langford. "With country, it's not so much wanting to smash the system, but telling stories. As you get older, you know more." The distance from the Dead Kennedys to Johnny Cash's "The Man In Black" may be shorter than you'd think. Indeed, somewhere in that continuum now are Rank and File's Alejandro Escovedo and the Blasters' Dave Alvin, who have recast themselves as superior singer-songwriters, rich with gritty detail, narrative depth and timeless melodicism.
"Country is such a heartbreaking, soulful kind of music and so personal, showing the really raw, rougher edges of life," says Kelly Willis during a tour stop for her wonderful What I Deserve album. "You're down and out, poor and travelling around, and you're lonely and you may never be loved again. That's at the heart of country music, and that's what Gram Parsons was doing - you could call him a punk, but he was doing a soulful kind of country music that was passionate and rebellious while still being very beautiful."
For Kelly Willis, punk is not even so much an influence on country as an inborn part of it that predates and will outlive the insurgent country scene - and making that a cornerstone of her lovely music has rendered her an outsider to mainstream country, although a recent appearance at the Grand Ole Opry suggests that that may be changing.
"It's funny, when I first started, I wanted to do a rootsy thing, and everyone was calling it cowpunk," a bemused Willis recalls. "That didn't make much sense to me, but I did want that punk kind of attitude. But because of that, the industry would look at us as not really serious. I thought that they might be open to the No Depression stuff, but it's an industry that changes very slowly."
There usually are reprisals for mavericks who don't play by the rules. Langford contends that "Hank Williams, Sr. was crucified by the country music establishment just like Kurt Cobain was killed by the music industry." But insurgent country, with its journalists, its label executives, its tour managers and its radio programmers, has also ossified into an industry that brooks little contrariness from its poster children. It may be the very organicism of Wilco that makes them chafe under the alt-country saddle. But insurgent country's loss is ultimately American music's gain - the decline of a scene, regardless of how heady it may have seemed in its early days, may actually bode well for the music that gave rise to it.
"It's easier to sell to a scene than to sell quality," says a caustic Mark Rubin. "If a label has a band that doesn't belong to a scene, they have a conundrum. I mean, we've been taken to task because we weren't playing to a reviewer's scene. I think this alt-country stuff runs counter to punk rock. The spirit of punk rock was do your own thing, don't suck off on mine, and now, all alt-country is concerned with is appealing to an audience, not making music. The musicians are continually told they're this that that, and now they're expected to reference this thing they have nothing to do with. The Uncle Tupelo guys were embarrassed by being tagged with bluegrass and No Depression labels. If the guys in Wilco or Son Volt died in a car wreck, they'd be eulogised as alt-country; [Bad Livers would] be eulogised as punk-bluegrass. But they had nothing to do with that crap then, and they want nothing to do with it now, and neither should anyone who's just interested in good music."