COUNTRY REGULATES. Whenever R-O-C-K in the U.S.A. is threatened by shoddy trendiness, whether in the form of pasty-faced synth-twaddlers or the newest model in the very popular Hootie line, fans of American realness dive headlong into that tried and true sacred space where guys with guitars sing about, well, you know...stuff...American stuff! "The guy in Details gave the new Son Volt record a three," I overheard one such lover of American guy-guitars say the other day. "He musta been listening to too much Bush!" A couple of years ago that guy's story was the story of alternative country: Roots Rock vs. Ersatz Pop; genuine article vs. genuine fake; guitars vs. samplers; Uncle Tupelo vs. Whatever Comes Next. Today things aren't that easy, and the authenticity battlefield is coated with some slippery shit.
Looking for solid ground? On my radio right now is a song called "The Death of Country Music" off a record called Cowboy In Flames by the Waco Brothers--an arch-inauthentic shotgun marriage of Joe Strummer and George Jones. The song begins as junk honky-tonk. You have an acoustic guitar, more serrated than strummed, and an English singer, with all the typical limey dipthongs. "The death of country music/echoes round the planet/so we light the flame and fan it deep into the night." Steel guitars and back-up yawlers come in from nowhere and the burial rites get specific: "We'll spill some blood on the ashes of the bones of the Jones and Cashes," surrounded by a pageantry of "skulls and false eyelashes, ghost riders in the sky." By this point, junk honky-tonk has gone punk rock, and the Waco Brothers have just written "Sympathy for the Devil" as Nashville's last lousy anthem. I imagine some cynic-gone-wrong Music Row bigwig giving "The Death of Country Music" to one of country's air-brushed velveetalikes. Shania Twain could do it, or Garth Brooks. Or, they could do it as a duet. It'd sell.
The song's real singer is Jon "Jonboy" Langford, ex- of the Mekons, a Leeds, England punk band who in the mid-'80s married country and punk by filtering the deadened emotional landscape of a Graham Greene novel through the lens of Hank Williams's "Lost Highway." The best albums they made were the essential Fear and Whiskey, which takes seven beers to understand and 12 listens to love, and the highly recommended Honky Tonkin'--both impossible blueprints for a decade-long development of alt-country music.
This spring two more such records came out, both involving ex-Mekons and both on a tiny Chicago label called Bloodshot--the self-billed "home of insurgent country." Former Mekon Sally Timms has released a new EP, Cowboy Sally, with the Wacos as primary backing band. It's a collection of country covers anchored by a loving version of "Tennessee Waltz," and a neat record too, if also sort of a throwaway. To hear her "Tennessee Waltz" in a better context check out a more cost-effective Bloodshot release, Straight Outta Boone County, on which the entire spectrum of insurgent country bands, from Hank Williams wannabes to Meat Puppets soundalikes, play safely obscure '40s and '50s radio hits.
Then there's the Wacos' Cowboy In Flames. It's hellish--a great country record, alt or otherwise, and the best punk-country album since Fear and Whiskey. Cowboy opens with Biblical weirdness "in a suburb of Babylon," and systematically runs amok as former Mekons drummer Steve Goulding and firebrand steel player Marcus Durante lead a dysfunctional shuffle through a lit-up shithouse of country clichés. The band's sweetheart of the rodeo in the lilting "Dollar Dress" is the queen of the ball--"warts and all." Around these parts, the fast train is always going down and you're always three months out to sea. And if you wanna find a hero, the toughest rave-up here, "Cowboy In Flames," turns out to be a tribute to General Custer, who "died for your sins." We've got Johnny Cash's ashes and General Custer as Christ figure, perverted Americana and an amoral high ground. It's been a while since country had an alt this weird.
Even in "The Death of Country Music" we never really can tell if their love affair with country's corpse ends in a drunken grave dance or a sober tear jerk. But that's why the Wacos' take works--their brain trust Langford isn't from here. And the group's native sons play the stuff like they don't know what here means. Set against an alt-country ethos so obsessed with roots that its practitioners assume affected drawls and muttonchops for scene-credibility, the Wacos' lost highway is worth the bumps.
Check out this week's featured ad for Entertainment