The first in an ongoing series looking back at some of my favorite pieces written during my 21 years living in and around Boston (although a bit wistful at the prospect, I’m also thrilled to report that RPM: Life In Analog and its tractor-trailer full of LPs and CDs is moving its headquarters to Philadelphia this summer). Most of the pieces to follow will focus on the fantastic plethora of Boston-based bands and artists of almost every sonic and stylistic stripe I had the great pleasure and privilege to hear, review, interview, and write about between 1997 and 2011. Others, like this week’s installment on the “No Depression,” or so-called “alt-country” movement, has its roots (and origin of thought) in Boston, but revisits a larger subject unbound by local geography. I’ve always thought that great music can either locate and ground you in a specific time and place, era or moment. Or it can cast you outward and upward into a cosmos of your own imagination, untethered. Occasionally, when it’s genuinely meaningful to one’s life, it can do both. Much of the music I talk about here had that transcendent effect on me — and, I would hope, some of you.
This was my first feature piece for the Boston Phoenix, as published in the fall of 1997 (so disregard any references you may see to, say, Whiskeytown playing a club that holds 100 people — I’ve opted to leave the piece intact as it originally appeared).
I had been thinking about the arrival of country-fried, twang-tinged rock and pop that had been bubbling up and percolating around the fringes of college radio since the days of Lucinda Williams, Uncle Tupelo, the BoDeans, Steve Earle, and John Hiatt, among others, in the late ’80s. By the time I moved to Boston in the summer of 1997, groups like the Jayhawks, Wilco, and Son Volt (the latter two formed out of the ashes of Uncle Tupelo’s untimely demise) had firmly taken hold (to my ears, at least) as leading lights of a traditionalist yet fresh antidote to the music industry’s post-grunge hangover and its unfortunate, indirect offspring: generically turgid, limp biscuit-baked rape-rock and skate-punk/metal peddled by cargo-short and baseball cap wearing lunkheads.
But to the left of the dial there were other sounds raucous, ragged, and true, harkening back to an earlier time but filtering that perspective through a new loud lens — actually, many lenses and sensibilities, as prismatic and variegated as country and punk and folk.
When I received an advance CD of Whiskeytown’s sublime “Strangers Almanac” and saw they were headed to town, I thought the time was right for some sort of overview, pegged to the promising outfit and their precocious twenty-something singer-songwriter, Ryan Adams.
All these years later, I still love much of this music and, upon revisiting the piece an improbable 20+ years on, I believe it captured a good chunk of what was happening, where it drew from, and why it was resonating with listeners.
Of course, Whisketown imploded not terribly long after “Strangers Almanac” and their live shows made them semi-stars. Adams embarked on a prolific solo career, publicly disavowing his work with Whiskeyown, and made at least one minor masterpiece, 1999’s alternately self-effacing and self-lacerating solo debut,”Heartbreaker.”
I’ve interviewed Adams at length three times over the years. Despite his repuation as an enfant terrible, I can say that for and with me, Ryan was always an engaging, lively interview: mercurial and sarcastic, yes. But thoughful, opinionated, and to my (and other writers’ delight, no doubt) endlessly quotable.
Our second conversation came at the time of “Heartbreaker”‘s release in the fall of 1999, whereby Adams derisively dismissed his earlier remarks to me and others, insisting he had been an earnestly besotted, naively clueless kid; a bullshit artist who had no idea what he was talking about or doing with his old band. Taken aback — which is what I think he wanted (Ryan always liked a little shock value) — I respectfully disagreed and reminded him our first conversation had taken place a mere two years before.
Here Adams is during the band’s breakout tour in 1997, in all his earnestly besotted glory, a young man still discovering his emerging voice and the music inside him. It remains one of my favorite pieces, in no small part due to my fond memory of having Ryan crack me a steady succession of Budweiser Tall Boys inside the Whiskeytown tour bus over the course of a freewheeling hour-plus interview, while he and guitarist Phil Wandscher drank and traded opinions like guitar licks, tape rolling, the band extolling the virtues of this burgeoning new movement in sound. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
A LITTLE BIT COUNTRY, A LITTLE BIT ROCK & ROLL
“So I started this damn country band / ‘Cause punk rock is too hard to sing” — Lyrics from “Angels Are Messengers From God,” Whiskeytown
At the moment, country seems to be the furthest thing from Ryan Adams’ mind. He and his band Whiskeytown are deep in the throes of “Not Home Anymore” and Adams is hunkered down on battered black cowboy-booted haunches, guitar slung across his shoulders, coaxing a sheet of feedback from his amp that blankets every square inch of Bill’s Bar. Besides the decidedly un-country wall-to-wall noise, Adams’ just-woke-up tousle of shoulder-length hair and faint hint of eyeliner ringed around his lashes recalls not George Jones but Paul Westerberg.
“It’s funny how much it all goes back to the Replacements,” says Adams earlier in the band’s touring camper, the inside of which has been pinned with newly purchased postcards of the Rolling Stones and, uh, Poison. “I mean, listen to that song that was on their first single, ‘If Only You Were Lonely.’ It’s a beautiful country song.” Sheer songwriting ability, he says, is “an important thing in this day and age of bands who say the chorus pedal is their sound. But I think things are changing. People want to get moved again.”
If a handful of recent and forthcoming albums are any indication, a small but growing crop of similar-minded artists are pinning their musical dreams on the hope that audiences “want to get moved again.” To these artists, moving audiences means — to greater or lesser degrees — writing songs rooted in vintage country-and-western twang, shitkicker Southern Rock, and Stonesy clatter and crunch. Hear the sob of a weeping pedal steel or the petticoat prettiness of a country fiddle mixed in a stew of bleary guitars? Chances are it’s one of the emissaries of what, for the moment at least, is being called the “No Depression” movement, a loosely defined genre whose only real constant is that its practitioners aren’t sure what “No Depression” means or is, exactly.
In fact, just about the only thing everybody can agree upon is where the phrase comes from: it’s both the title of the first album by the influential country-punk outfit Uncle Tupelo, and the name of the bi-monthly magazine that has, since 1995, devoted itself to covering and promoting (some might say helping create) this roots-oriented approach to rock music. To complicate matters even further, this “movement” — if you want to call it that — is also known variously as “Americana”, “Alt-Country”, “twangcore,” “cowpunk” and the infinitely less imaginative “roots-rock.”
And despite the seeming catch-all inclusiveness of these terms, they don’t really capture what artists like Dwight Yoakam, Junior Brown, and BR5-49 are doing. Yoakam, for exmple, could fairly accurately be called “Alt-Country,” but how often is he mentioned in the same sentence as Uncle Tupelo or the Jayhawks? Exactly. Which brings us back to the question: what the hell is this stuff, anyway?
“To a certain extent,” says “No Depression” Co-Editor Peter Blackstock, “one of the things my co-editor Grant Alden and I have tried not to do is specifically define what we’re doing as far as coverage is concerned. It may keep things ambiguous, but I think it better reflects on the music itself. We like the fact that there are blurred lines there.”
It seems to have paid off. Alden and Blackstock printed 2,000 copies of the first issue of “No Depression” in September 1995, with the intention of publishing every three months. Within one year, circulation had risen to 10,500 and the magazine became a bi-monthly.
In keeping with Blackstock’s willfully elusive vision, several artists currently viewed as part of the alternative country genre are interpreting the music’s essence in dramatically different ways.
Raleigh, North Carolina’s Whiskeytown, for example, recently released the sublimely unsettling “Strangers Almanac” (Outpost), a disc that draws on the graceful country-rock pioneered by Gram Parsons when he was spending all his time hanging out — and nodding out — with Keith Richards. And another Raleigh-bred band, 6 String Drag, have just issued a restlessly rollicking long player, “High Hat,” on E-Squared, the Nashville-based label co-owned by renegade honky-tonk rocker Steve Earle (more about him later) and Jack Emerson.
Now on to music not made in the Carolinas. The Festus, Mo.-based Bottle Rockets cross John Mellencamp’s heartland rock (they even name-check him on “Indianapolis”) with Lynryd Skynyrd’s shot-and-beer bluster on their new album “24 Hours A Day” (Atlantic). Meanwhile, on “Too Far To Care” (Elektra), Dallas Texas’ Old 97’s favor the freight-train gallop, grit and wit of contemporaries like Cracker and 80’s shoulda-beens Guadalcanal Diary and the Sidewinders.
Then there’s the Honeydogs, who, on their third album “Seen A Ghost” (Debris/Mercury), evoke the ragged romanticism and pop heart of — yep, you guessed it — their Minnesota brethren the Replacements.
The arrival of these “No Depression” bands began around 1995 — right about the time Wilco and Son Volt rose from the smoldering ashes of Belleville, Illinois’ Uncle Tupelo, an outfit that’s increasingly been seen in the company of the word “seminal.” That group was led by songwriters Jay Farrar (Son Volt) and Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), who were, as journalist Bill Wyman so aptly puts it, “a couple of kids country enough to love the music and punk enough to feel that so many people not liking it was a pretty good reason to play it.”
Despite its recent arrival as a charted radio format, Americana is nothing new. In fact, its very existence is predicated on the past. Rock & roll has always been an untidy bastard — rooted as much in outlaw country as it is in backporch blues or jukejoint R&B. Just listen to early Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, or Chuck Berry. And the revivalist fusion of country and rock can be traced back not only to oft-cited architects like Parsons but to the Buffalo Springfield, ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith’s First National Band, early Eagles, and Stone Poneys-era Linda Ronstadt, not to mention offshoot outfits such as Poco (whose “Crazy Eyes” was a tribute to Parsons).
Though the timing wasn’t right in the 80’s, bands like the Long Ryders, Jason and the Scorchers, Lone Justice and the BoDeans also presaged Americana, as did fringe songwriters like Joe Ely, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle. Come to think of it, you could probably also add the Cowboy Junkies and Neil Young to the list. And how about Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” album?
What is new and different about Alt-Country 90’s style is how it incorporates into its mix of sources elements of punk — not so much the sound per se as its Do-It-Yourself sensibility and ideals of fiercely uncompromised music-making. And although he’s never conducted any research, Blackstock believes the “No Depression” audience is also comprised of twenty-and-thirtysomethings who grew up listening to 80’s alternative rock but have “since become dissillusioned” as alternative became just another marketing term. “We also have older country listeners in their 50’s and 60’s who find what we’re covering more in line with the music of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard than what’s considered country music right now,” he says.
Guitarist-keyboardist Mike Daly, who’s currently touring with Whiskeytown, agrees. “I think Nashville kind of created (Americana) by turning their backs on honest songwriting,” says Daly, who, before hitting the road with his new employers, was a member of the now-defunct Swales. “Because Nashville does nothing but turn out these glitzy, tongue-in-cheek country songs, people got sick of it and started looking for something else. But to me, what’s happening is as much about the Replacements as it is Johnny Cash.”
And maybe even Henry Rollins. Jeff Tweedy reportedly spent his teenage years worshiping at the altar of Black Flag before realizing that maybe those old Sun and Beach Boys records were pretty good too. In fact, wasn’t that what punk was ultimately about — slicing away the bloat and stripping rock & roll back down to its bare, most vital essentials? Essentials that had defined it in the first place?
“I grew up in the 80’s and I was into punk rock because I felt it was the one thing I could embrace that was full-on music,” says Whiskeytown’s Adams. “The 80’s were desolate, man. I’m not saying (good music) didn’t exist, but it wasn’t prevalent.” With Whiskeytown, Adams and guitarist Phil Wandscher insist that all they’re doing is trying to play meaningful rock & roll — not Alt-Country or any other term that’s been used to describe what they’re about.
“People can call us Americana and that just means American rock & roll to me,” Adams says. “If anybody could stereotype us as a ‘No Depression’ band it’s because our first record (“Faithless Street,”) was a total tip of the hat to country and rock & roll. To me, to be in a good band means to master the art of writing the perfect country song and the perfect rock & roll song. And you have to start somewhere.”
“We can’t even define ourselves,” adds Wandscher, “so I don’t know how anybody else can.”
Adam Haft, who handles A&R for Debris Records, is likewise reluctant to categorize his label’s Honeydogs as a “No Depression”-style outfit. “We want people to think of them as a rock & roll band,” says Haft, who adds that Debris plans to service AAA and AOR-format radio with the group’s first singles “Rumor Has It” and “I Miss You.” From there, he adds hopefully, the band will crack rotations on modern rock radio. “They don’t shun their country roots, and the ‘No Depression’ people have been amazing, but the band gets nervous anytime they get pigeonholed. We don’t want people to think they’re just a country band. As much as I love country — old country — we’re trying to break them as a pop-rock band.”
Although Haft says he wouldn’t put Counting Crows or the Wallflowers in the Americana camp, “I think they’ve helped open the doors for everybody and made radio a little bit more receptive to that kind of sound. And if people want to associate them with the Wallflowers, that’s fine with us.” A few days later, along with the band’s forthcoming disc and a press kit, Haft encloses a note: “All my best, and remember, we’re a rock band.”
What’s most telling about Americana is not how vociferously its artists protest the “No Depression” tag (perhaps out of fear of being ghettoized in a genre that has not yet been able to break into the commercial mainstream), but what that resistance says about the artists’ conception of rock & roll. Perhaps country is so built into their very definition of rock & roll that they feel no need — or desire — to separate that element out from what has always been an intrinsically mongrel art form. And perhaps that definition of rock & roll has less specifically to do with country than with what country might signify: tradition and authenticity. But authenticity can be measured in different ways. Does an artist who sings about hard times and unemployment, for example, have had to have grown up in a tar paper shack in Mississippi to be authentic?
” ‘Authentic’ is not a word I tend to think of when I’m listening to music,” says Blackstock. “But to me, authenticity is about whether a band is playing music and means it, and that can be any type of music.” Instead, Blackstock chooses to use another word, another gauge to measure the music’s validity: “Honesty. I think it’s all about how honestly and directly you put the music across.”
No wonder Ryan Adams doesn’t think country is such a distant cousin to punk. When he’s asked whether he meant it when he wrote about starting a country band because punk rock was “too hard to sing” Adams pauses. “It’s true, but it’s also tongue-in-cheek, you know? It’s me poking fun at myself,” he says, brushing hair away from eyes rimmed with liner. “But at the same time, I feel like that’s pretty much one of the most punk things you can say.”