The Long Ryders and BR5-49

The Long Ryders
Anthology: Looking for Lewis and Clark

Big Backyard Beat Show

CONVENTIONAL ALT-COUNTRY history walks a crooked line, starting with the spawn of Tupelo and working back to the original country-rocker, Gram Parsons. But the first roots revival came in the early '80s with a bunch of (mostly forgotten) post-punk bands. The Long Ryders, their confederates, the rockabilly-reviving Blasters, and the Nashville-grown Jason and the Scorchers are mere footnotes in rock 'n' roll history. Yet they provide a crucial link between the Burritos' Guilded Palace of Sin and today's guild of insurgent country bands.

Musically, The Long Ryders were the least country of the bunch. Though founder Sid Griffin obsessed over Parsons to the point that he wrote his hero's first biography, the band he put together filtered classic roots music (CCR) and '60s garage rock (Seeds, Standells, Sonics) through New York punk anthems like Television's "See No Evil" and Jim Carroll's "People Who Died."

If The Long Ryders were only moderately "country" in sound, they serve as a prototype for many of today's post-Tupelo bands: Their combination of patriotism and class-consciousness, and their desire to evoke and romanticize rural culture, is a hallmark of country, alt or other. But as lefties in the age of Reagan, their patriotism was informed by betrayal and laced with outrage. On the band's great, self-mythologizing anthem of conservative radicalism, 1985's "Looking for Lewis and Clark," Griffin yelped: "I thought I saw my government running away with my heart." And their slavery narrative, "Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home," established that their particular brand of Americana didn't uniformly glorify the American past by a long shot.

At 40 songs spread over two discs, Looking for Lewis and Clark provides a fuller portrait of the band than one would get from State of Our Union, their most well-remembered album. That generally fine record was a little stiff and more ideological than the band's output overall. Here we also get a dopey little novelty number called "Christmas in New Zealand" that Jonathan Richman would be glad to call his own. And we hear them rip through straight country tunes like Mel Tillis's "(Sweet) Mental Revenge," and some Skynyrd-style good-time Southern rock in "Basic Black." Looking for Lewis and Clark documents a band with more humor and energy than their reputation might suggest.

By contrast, BR5-49's Americana isn't nearly as heady. While they could use a bit of the Long Ryders' soul and songwriting chops, they make up for it with humor and energy. Where the Long Ryders' connection to country was a bit of a conceit, the boho refugees in BR5-49 embrace the music for its functional pleasures, bypassing Gram on the way to Hank and Lefty. Their music is all surfaces: They still haven't written a memorable song, and their covers are merely sufficient. But their celebratory spirit is infectious. At their worst they're like an amusement park act--one step up from the animatronic bears at Disney World. At their best they're the country cover band any hipster bar would covet.

Which is to say that BR5-49 is the twang-and-drawl equivalent of the current batch of retro swing bands. Yet they surpass all of the Big Bad Cherry Poppin' Voodoo Daddies--partly because they're not as smug, and partly because of an essential difference between jazz and country. Jazz has always been an evolving form, and the swing music those bands ape is inextricably tied to a specific historical era. But country music, like the blues, is more about continuity than change, about enduring musical and conceptual elements that formed a foundation for the music in 1948, just as they do in 1998.

So when they open Big Backyard Beat Show with Buck Owens's undeniable "There Goes My Love," it's not an artifact, just a great song. And when steel guitar and fiddle punctuate their own honky-tonkin' "Out of Habit," it's the sound of present-day barhopping, not a soundtrack to looking for George Jones.

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