Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Antitechno for Bars

Like it says in the subtitle of the new No Depression, the 96-page Seattle-based ex-fanzine with 33 pages of ads: "We could always just call it The Alternative Country Bimonthly." But then, as the previous subtitle wondered: "How would you define alt-country?" Simple. Coming down the middle of the mindset we have "alternative" as reified by Nirvanamania: nowhere near as monolithically gloomy or violent as was believed, yet still not futuristic enough for one segment of its potential audience nor--pay attention now--comfortable enough for another. In short, "alt-country" is the obverse of the equally undefinable "techno."

Since No Depression was named for the first Uncle Tupelo album, it's reasonable to locate the middle of its mind-set in Uncle Tupelo offshoots Son Volt, Wilco, and the Bottle Rockets. But in fact those bands are on its left wing--somewhat popper and/or tradder than such shoegazers with hollow-bodies as the Scud Mountain Boys and Songs: Ohia, but well edgier than an enormous alternative-music subculture that's been there all along. Alt-country is strong from Minneapolis to Austin because Midwestern life isn't all that multicultural or concrete-and-steel--and because most white people there feel organically connected to country tradition. As when Gram Parsons led his flock out of the psychedelic wilderness or punk counted roots-rock among its spawn, it helps increasingly unalienated young adults make sense of their normality and cultural inheritance.

Alt-country fetishizes not only the lo-tech cliche of human scale, but history--or perhaps just the past, or nostalgia, or sentimentality. Presaged by such prepunk indies as Rounder and Alligator, heralded by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Lucinda Williams and the Mekons, it has always been bar music and always will be. That doesn't mean its stars forswear the auditorium, festival, or arena, but that journeymen, up-and-comers, and local heroes will surely take their places. It has special meaning for thirtysomethings who've long found their music in bars and don't want to stop now and twentysomethings who've recently started and are determined to keep it up.

The better to empathize with this ethos, I've been listening to a lot of alt-country in bars. On July 16, the Knitting Factory, which normally cultivates a more cosmopolitan species of bar music, hosted an Intel bill of Ghost Rockets, Songs: Ohia, slack grunge-pop ringers Ditch Croaker, and the Volebeats. Three days later I caught No Depression cover boys Whiskeytown at Tramps. But the big event was July 17 at Wetlands, long the rootsiest of NYC's alt venues: the so-called Ameripalooza Festival, two floors of music from 7:30 till whenever. Arriving an hour late, I checked out eight acts. Maybe I would also have liked Dakotan-turned-Austinite Anna Egge at 7:30 ("a combination of bluegrass, folk and Texas-style country that defies easy categorization"--No Depression). Still, much of my pleasure was anthropological. Lifestyles of the alt and country.

The oddest thing about this bar music is that--unlike the houserockin' blues with which it would seem to share so much--it's also song music, and the oddest thing about this song music is that the words are often drowned out by a bar band, and the oddest thing about the bar band is that it rarely rocks the house. For an outsider, it's hard to connect without knowing the songs, but for insiders the sound itself makes an excellent icebreaker. Rock though it usually is, that sound is long on acoustics and hollow-bodies, amped or merely miked; country-signifying fiddle and pedal steel make their mournful noises, and I also encountered mandolin, autoharp, accordion, stand-up bass. Where an ordinary Gibson is untechnocratic enough to satisfy grunge-alt's craving for the authentic, in country-alt more reassurance is required. And while any music that provides this reassurance can feel like home, that doesn't mean partisans think it's all equally good. I was interested to note that some stuff I wished would fucking end had character, even if it was character I didn't like.

You can completely ignore Five Chinese Brothers--and Bruce Henderson, bouncing around the stage in a fit of Nashville-ready Hi-NRG, and Mr. Henry, a standard alt band that marks or markets its soulful intensity with pedal steel, and Tom Thiboux, whose "Total Stranger" was supposed to be about "obsession" and barely got to mild concern. But I reserved some admiration for Songs: Ohia, a folkish trio in which serious, soccer-shirted young Jason Molina evinced a weedy passion for archaic abstractions: "I have been too constant/And you were this thing also," or "You should know passion comes from a passing word" (what, like "Cute soccer shirt"?). And for the Scud Mountain Boys, an all too hollow-bodied quartet in which Joe Pernice stood there hunched, his head tilted and his eyes closed as he purveyed an exceedingly thoughtful variation on the soulful intensity that's been a pop staple since long before soul knew its name--except that when I strained to make out the lyrics, I was piqued by that ghost who got beat up under the bridge, if not Pernice's theories of television. And for multi-instrumentalist Stephan Smith, whose pretensions irked me at a Michael Hurley show once, but whose white-cover EP and sparsely attended performance--which was so brutally outdecibeled by the Five Chinese Brothers upstairs that he gave up and took to hawking and hand-decorating EPs--is animated by the pitch of belief that makes folkies signify and has some good songs on it besides.

If alt-country's downside is no worse than any other, though, its upside--with all respect to Williams and Gilmore and the Mekons and the Bottle Rockets, the only band in the movement whose vision of normality gathers notable social detail--usually has too low a ceiling. It would be narrow to deny yourself its pleasures, even narrower to limit yourself to them. Like any song music--only worse, because the music's comfort swallows its excitement--it demands not just a level of craft most reformed slackers can't approach, but a singer to put the craft across. Geffen's Whiskeytown are cover boys because Ryan Adams is the kind of fungibly catchy sumbitch cottoned to by talent scouts weary of next-big-thingism. But the "swagger and charisma" and "acid-tipped pen" hypesters discern are pro forma insofar as they're there at all, and while Adams's voice reminds me vaguely of Gram Parsons too, that's because no one can recall what the pop-friendly Parsons epigone he really resembles sounded like. I got a much sharper buzz off Safe House's Volebeats, whose songs are no keener or crookeder but whose three lead singers stropped up a collective edge--with plump young Jeff Oakes inhabiting a gorgeous high baritone that seemed classic yet resembled no one.

Yet in the end I had more fun with Philadelphia's sillier Lazy Stars, led by a barefoot goof named Johnny Kaplan who painted his left big toenail red and said "cigarayut" and covered "Wasn't Born To Follow" and soon followed with "a new one we like a lot" called "I Will Not Follow"--almost a Byrds/Burritos/New Riders homage, only never hamstrung by reverence. His barefoot African American keyb player was a relief as well, the only black musician I saw all week; Whiskeytown's fiddler was the only woman. And then there was the big thrill.

It took forever for Y'All's mandolin-steel-snare-bass to get ready downstairs at Wetlands. Yet once they did they had a surprise for us--out of the shadows bounded a skinny little guy who looked like a smalltown newspaper editor and big guy sporting a shaved skull and a spangled gingham dress. On their rip-snorting opener, the June Carter-Johnny Cash chestnut "Jackson," the guy in the dress took Johnny's part in a mellifluous bass-baritone. After identifying their hometowns as Okeydokey, Texas, and Cornflake, Illinois, these two sang the straightest love songs this side of Garth Brooks, one about the editor's sister and family, the other about and to each other and climaxing when they blew each other's kazoos. Although the CD I bought doesn't put it across, they were campy and musical and great. Their slogan is "Country music for the twenty-first century."

It isn't, of course. But if a fella can dream, two can dream twice as much.

Village Voice, Aug. 5, 1997