Nick Tosches, author of the definitive tome Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, asserts that rock and roll played out its entire life cycle, from birth to death, in the career of Bill Haley. Tosches writes that Haley cashed in his rockin' chips for a piece of schmaltz pie in 1954, a few years before the emergence of Elvis Presley. The author even traces the conceptualization of rock and roll's death to a song recorded in 1956 by the Maddox Brothers and Rose titled, appropriately enough, "The Death of Rock 'n' Roll." As far as Tosches is concerned there's nothing new under the sun, and the sun ain't so hot either.
These days there's an entire generation of doomsday prophets who reject the conveniences of sampling and drum machines, synthesizers, and space sounds -- tools in the constant search for newness that infects much of contemporary music -- in favor of the rustic charm of an acoustic guitar and a campfire. Theirs is a story of beatnik glory underlined by the simplest of melodies and the sparsest of arrangements. Their idea of getting loud goes no further than a pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster plugged into a 1959 Fender Tweed amp. The sound is not that of the Deep South or the frozen plains, but is a weird hybrid of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street filtered through a distant relative's collection of old George Jones recordings, a dog-eared copy of Kerouac's On the Road, and a few Black Sparrow Press editions of Charles Bukowski for lyrical inspiration. If you're Richard Buckner, throw in the complete works of Henry Miller. If you're Vic Chesnutt or Lucinda Williams, make it Flannery O'Connor.
It's a high lonesome sound full of despair and at least a few traces of tradition. For lack of a better term, its proponents call it alt.country. There's even a magazine, No Depression, to document it all, the best of which has been complied in the book No Depression: An Introduction to Alternative Country Music.
Alt.country's success has thus far been dubious (sales reach the low hundred thousands at most, and are often far less), and its aesthetic difficulties are obvious. The genre, whose moniker is the result of relentless music-critic hyphenation (you know: jazz-rock, Euro-pop, post-punk-goth-pop), is less an emergent tradition than an overnight creation that functions as a catchall for anyone with a hint of Southern musical heritage. Like most other modern genres (which often seem to have been created by a marketing department trying to target a specific focus group), alt.country struggles with the simple fact that once groups have accepted a label, they may stop trying to break down stylistic boundaries and start fulfilling a role.
Just as, say, yuppie-folk (Shawn Colvin, Martin Sexton, Dar Williams) is known for its dull melodic sense and its acres of lyrics, alt.country is in supreme danger of becoming like prerock Bob Dylan, in which certain instruments were immediately valued while others were suspect (hammer dulcimer good, Yamaha DX-7 bad). Its most notable practitioners, however -- the aforementioned Richard Buckner, Son Volt's Jay Farrar, Palace's Will Oldham, critical rave Lucinda Williams, outlaw-country veteran Steve Earle -- all rightfully deny any involvement in any movement. Most of them are able to make records that clearly stretch a conservative definition simply because they possess the raw talent to pull it off.
Release schedules of upcoming albums are rife with titles from singer-songwriters gifted with a country twang. Former CBS president Walter Yetnikoff's Velvel label recently celebrated the movement with several Kinks reissues, beginning with Muswell Hillbillies, an album often mentioned in the same breath as seminal country-rock works such as the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin or the Byrds' Sweethearts of the Rodeo. But where Gram Parsons led the Burritos and Byrds (and rock in the late Sixties, for that matter) to crossover heights with his emphatic country-folk pleading whine, Ray Davies only has the whine part down. That and inconsistent production haunted the Kinks' creative endeavors at every turn, and Hillbillies is no exception.
It's a curious reissue, but not nearly as interesting as the Long Ryders' Anthology, a compilation of previously released material, on the Chronicles label. Granted they're an era or two apart, but the Long Ryders were one of only a handful of Eighties groups who sought to bring back those classic country-rock values. It was no coincidence that a prime mover in the band was Sid Griffin, who has become one of the world's most renowned Gram Parsons scholars (the revered Parsons died in 1973). His own band is a tad stiff in places and, these songs having been recorded in the Eighties, production is often thin. But a few tracks ("Looking for Lewis and Clark," "Capturing the Flag," "Lights of Downtown") kept the dream alive on college radio for the then-fading traditional values of juke-joint rock and roll at a time when Madonna's dance pop and Whitney Houston's glossy excesses were burning up the charts.
Lucinda Williams has now turned in what may be the critics' choice for record of the year with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. A superbly produced collection of songs that capture the intense sexuality and existential grit Williams learned from Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, Car Wheels took six years to get right. It has received much critical acclaim -- everybody loves a winner -- but there are other albums just as deserving. Robbie Fulks had the good sense to include Williams in a duet on his latest album, Let's Kill Saturday Night. Fulks, who previously recorded his honky-tonk rock and roll with, of all people, noise-aficionado producer Steve Albini, plays it straight down the middle, having spent time in Chicago and New York City, two places that will focus your intensity fast. His newest is a standard blend of loud, ringing guitars, drums, and bass. "Pretty Little Poison" is the duet, and it's there that Fulks and Williams come alive, trading lines in the best George Jones-Tammy Wynette fashion.
Noted for both his country-western allegiances and his tendency to push the music the way of Dave Edmunds or Nick Lowe power-pop, North Carolina's Jim Lauderdale has worked his low profile and sizable critical respect into cult status, yet he still manages to have his songs covered by the Nashville elite of George Strait and Patty Loveless. His own albums remain underexposed contributions to the ever-expanding singer-songwriter pool. Whisper and Persimmons are estimable starting points.
Another essential is Richard Buckner's exceptional third album, Since, his most focused work to date. A habitual wanderer with a passion for cheap rooms and pin-drop-silent concerts, Buckner emerged from the San Francisco scene that brought to the world the death-wish poetics of Mark Eitzel (of American Music Club) and Mark Kozelek's Red House Painters (Kozelek produced Buckner's earliest single) with a style far more deep-Texas than either of his contemporaries. Produced by Lloyd Maines, Buckner's 1994 debut, Bloomed, featured the singer's unusual serpentine vocal delivery matched with simple, doomed melodies that showed everyone his great romantic heart. During one of the album's many climaxes he sings, "I'm wasting away wondering if I'll always love you only" with a huffy, unexpected mix of fatalism and glee. That paradoxically sad/joyous sound was missing on his followup, the monochromatic Devotion + Doubt, a near-brilliant album that emphasized whispered late-night promises but lacked strong melodies to bolster the memory. Since recharges Buckner with surges of pedal steel, halting drums, and animated guitar. The tracks were culled from throughout his career and include several concert faves ("Jewelbomb," "Raze") that have incited listeners to actually nod their heads (these shows are quiet and reserved, I tell ya).
No group represents the alt.country movement better than Son Volt, although bandleader Jay Farrar avoids the tag. Formed from part of late-Eighties roots-rock outfit Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt has taken traditionalist values a long way; the band used mostly acoustic instruments for last year's brilliant Straightaways. Now back with Wide Swing Tremolo, they show no signs of relinquishing their crown. They've backed off the pedal steel a bit but they haven't forgotten the magic of chasing that elusive, imagined American-heartland rock dream. Laced with torrid rockers, the album also settles down to singer Jay Farrar's chosen slower speed.
The most unusual collaborative effort is scheduled for release sometime in November. The work of Vic Chesnutt was the subject of last year's Sweet Relief II, an album of his songs covered by some of rock's biggest names: Hootie and the Blowfish, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins. Proceeds from the publishing rights benefited Chesnutt, a paraplegic, while album profits went to musicians without health insurance. Now he has teamed up with Lambchop, a Nashville-based ten-piece-and-counting assembly that includes a horn section, vibes, and anything else they can cram onstage. Their album, The Salesman and Bernadette, was set to come out on Capitol until personnel shakeups at the label threw the disc into jeopardy; Atlanta-based Capricorn Records has since bought it. An unusually buoyant strain comes bouncing through on several cuts ("Until the Led," "Replenished"), but as usual it's the somber cuts that exhibit real power. "Bernadette and Her Crowd," "Maiden," and "Arthur Murray" are prime Chesnutt, full of weird allusions and unexpected melodic twists that express his chagrin with the world.
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But weirdest of all these alt.country practitioners is Will Oldham. Known most for his early acting career (he played the fervent child preacher in John Sayles's Matewan), Oldham approaches his music career with a pinch of performance art. His interviews are either notoriously dull (answers of "yes" and "no" being the norm) or infuriatingly abstract (he has obviously made a close study of D.A. Pennebaker's documentary about Bob Dylan, Dont Look Back). He has regularly changed the name of his "band" (a rotating coterie of underrehearsed players) from Palace Brothers to Palace Songs to Palace Music to Palace, and is currently recording under the name Bonnie Prince Billy (go figure). The albums and countless singles appear with deliberately abstruse art, and the production varies from piss-poor to adequate. Oldham's voice is a natural disaster, cracking in odd moments; he reaches for notes he can in no way hit. Oldham attempts to re-create the mystery and hazy history of old field recordings. He records quickly, releasing his records with nary a pause.
His upcoming I See a Darkness, due in stores this coming January, is a continuation of this off-kilter vision. Though his medium of choice is the folksong, the presentation is pure pop-process jive. You're never sure where the put-on ends. Part of the appeal is his ability to let this prankish humor dissolve into heart-rending balladry. Even a song with a title as deliberately art student as "I Am a Cinematographer" has a haunting, majestic quality. But best of all, he built his fourth album, Arise Therefore, around an old, stiff drum machine, ignoring the machine's depressingly unbending rhythm for his own idiosyncratic sense of time. In no better way could anyone illustrate technology as a soulless, uncaring machine, plodding along indifferent to man's needs. Of course, Oldham probably chose to use it simply because it sounded screwed up.
Lucinda Williams and Jim Lauderdale perform Sunday, November 1, at the Carefree Theatre, 2000 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach; 561-833-7305. Tickets are $24.75. The show begins at 8:00 p.m.