by carl wilson

The Alt-Country, Red-State, Intellectual-Property, 9/11-Anniversary Blues

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So this weekend the blog inexplicably commits hari-kari for a couple days, and more bad news comes in hot pursuit: To access all the articles of mine linked in "In Print" above, due to decisions made by the employers-that-be, you now have to become a Globe and Mail web subscriber. There are some practical reasons why, but it's not real cheap, and many of you won't choose to do so. C'est un drag.

Till I come up with a better solution, I'll try to provide Zoilus readers with enhanced-content editions of selected columns as I go. The first in that series is this piece on the much-pissed-upon genre of "alternative country" - which was, granted, always a lousy idea for a genre, but included some of the past decade's best songwriters, most of whom still matter to me today. The question of why it rose and fell without fulfilling all the hopes placed on it, as well as the zombie afterlife it's just embarked upon, dovetails full-bang with the question of what's gone wrong with American politics, and that's the upshot of this piece.

So if you'll please click on the Read More button, I offer you, "Alt Country Sings the Red-State Blues: The Director's Cut," featuring the Drive-By Truckers, who put on an earsplitting, lipsmacking, asswhupping show at the Horseshoe in Toronto last night. (Frank has pics.)

I think it's worth a read.

[...]

Alt-Country Sings the Red-State Blues (The Director's Cut)

Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Sept 11. 2004

It’s the bitter kind of twist you’d expect at the end of a country song, where a guy finally gets sober only to watch his wife take off with his best friend: “Alt-country” music got its biggest endorsement ever this week, but the source made that 1990s musical movement look as redundant as a midwestern industrial worker whose job has taken a swift boat to China.

Republican image czar Mark McKinnon told the New York Times on Monday that George W. Bush’s official campaign soundtrack is “heavy on alternative country ... ‘a little rockier, a little jazzier, a little funkier’ than traditional country.”

The news left alt-country fans in a funk of their own. After all, while both rock and country have always come from collisions of urban and rural sounds, the particular fusion of sizzle and twang that came to be called alt-country was forged in the early-1990s recession that sank Dubya’s dad.

At the time, critic David Cantwell called bands such as the Bottle Rockets, Old 97s, Son Volt and Wilco “the children of Detroit City” - rust-belt troubadors more vexed at how Middle America was being battered by Bush Sr.’s New World Order than by the usual rock’n’roll imperative to get the hell out of the sticks.

They intuited that when the factory shuts down, the family splits up, you live in a cancer cluster and only Wal-Mart is hiring, the effects aren’t so different than when the farm goes bust in a classic country song: Hearts spring leaks and whisky stanches the wounds.

These days you could call it the Red State blues. The Republicans’ vampire kiss to alt-country is part of their dumbfounding claim to be the party of heartland values, even as they help corporations cut off the heartland’s blood supply.

Thomas Frank addresses this paradox in his controversial recent book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: Why does his working-class home state keep voting for candidates who want to cut taxes for the rich instead of fixing health care? Frank blames Democrats for failing to answer a right-wing “values” strategy that rails about gay marriage or school prayer to bind voters’ loyalties against their own class interests.

In that context, Republican alt-country is as odd as conservative punk – as The Daily Show has put it, “raging for the machine.”

In the 1990s, alt-country prompted some of the most stimulating discussions about music I’ve ever had, mostly on the Internet: Where was the line between appropriating tradition and mocking it? How far could hybrids go before a culture lost its identity? What about race, what about north-south tensions, what about populism?

It seems so Clinton-era now – all that empathy, dialogue, process and synthesis. After the 2000 election and especially the 2001 terrorist attacks, many alt-country fans I knew began retreating to their preferred sides of the hyphen, back to indie rock or deeper into country, and a lot of the artists did too. Like the U.S. electorate, they became polarized.

It was as if the tactics of alternative country – juxtapositions of old and new musical vocabularies, often to weird or ironic effect – had become all too relevant. Dubya said you had to be with America or against it, but alt-country was both. If even the Dixie Chicks’ ambivalence was intolerable, how could a whole genre of love-hate Americana last? As Nashville refugee Allison Moorer laments in her new song All Aboard, “Some restrictions do apply/ Watch your mouth and close your eyes.”

And so the likes of Wilco gave up any hint of twang, Nashville pushed jingo Toby Keith and rock became a recycling depot for liberal pieties. Hip-hop alone was left to do the musical stretching, but with little whiff of politics.

Moorer, who quit her major-label contract last year, is one of several performers with alt-country connections who, as if in a gesture of conscientious objection, are marking this Sept. 11 north of the border. She opens for the Drive-By Truckers at the Horseshoe in Toronto tonight; tomorrow at Lee’s Palace, it’s the Old 97s and Chuck Prophet.

You could call them dinosaur acts, but this year a funny thing happened on the way to the tar pits: Something a lot like alt-country began showing up on the mainstream, from names as big as Brooks & Dunn and Kid Rock – who both played last week’s Republican convention. Rock, a genuine son of Detroit who headlines at the Molson Amphitheatre tonight, has adapted his rap-metal ‘tude to a country mood. He even partnered with Moorer on the country-radio version of his hit Picture.

Fresher still are new records from a clique calling itself the Muzik Mafia, Gretchen Wilson’s No. 1 single Redneck Woman and Big & Rich’s debut album Horse of a Different Colour, which has just gone gold in Canada. Like many 1990s alt-country bands, they draw on southern rock stalwarts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and are more blunt and sarcastic than Nashville usually allows.

Big & Rich offer a goofy and uneven party record, a novelty-stuffed summer jam that could flow as smoothly into Outkast, the Goodie Mob or other “dirty south” rap as into classic rock or the latest four-square Nashvegas country by Tim McGraw – who toured with them this summer, along with their six-foot-four, Spanish-speaking black rapper Cowboy Troy. B&R; videos feature a literal parade of human diversity under the slogan “country music without prejudice” or, more playfully, “expandilism.”

Country and hip-hop today are both reliant on big beats and big personalities, gruff machismo and sass-talking ladies and partying and word play, while paying respect to God and the old school, and most of all representing where they come from – which is often the same deep-southern place. What continues to separate them is the knee-jerk assumption that there are two Americas – Hip-Hop America and Country America – and that they hate each other.

Tastemakers are comfortable with such demographic divides – black and white or blue and red, giving everybody someone to resent. It lets them overlook the real colour line described by vice-presidential candidate John Edwards’ “two Americas” – access to green.

In fact, if alt-country never caught the have-nots’ ears, perhaps it wasn’t eclectic enough. Big and Rich’s success shows how many people are out there wearing Snoop Dogg shirts and Charlie Daniels caps, smoking blunts and blasting Zeppelin.

You won’t sense any of that on the first album in three years by the one-time great pop hopes of alt-country, Texas’s Old 97s. Reviewers have called Drag It Up a homecoming to twang-rock from the band’s power-pop excursions, but the album makes it sound as if home had disappeared by the time the band when they got there. The analogy is grimly literal: Lead singer Rhett Miller and his wife had to flee their downtown New York apartment on 9/11. Yet nothing but a certain weariness testifies to that experience here, as Miller makes a half-hearted return to the smart-aleck “serial lady-killer” persona of his younger days.

Miller is a better writer than that, and the alt-country example he should look to is Georgia’s the Drive-By Truckers, whose new album – cleverly titled The Dirty South – is an illustrated guidebook to John Edwards’ and Thomas Frank’s two Americas. Performed in high-octane, triple-axe Skynyrd mode, it’s a sequence of story-songs about moonshiners and moon launches, Reagan and railway men, demanding to know “why the ones who have so much make the ones who don’t go mad.”

When songwriters Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell depict characters who must choose between pious, dutiful penury and living high and hard outside the law, they evoke Tupac Shakur as much as Johnny Cash. As they titled a previous album, it’s Gangstabilly.

The DBTs see a lot more grey than Big & Rich do in the redneck rainbow, but they’re shouting out to the same America, one that after three years of narrowing is yearning for a little expandilism. Despite all his phony yee-haws, that’s bad news for G-Dub: Americans may not listen to much alternative country, but a lot of them seem eager to live in one.

* * *

If you're in a 9/11 anniversary weekend mood for more venting on the subject, see this Vic Chesnutt interview: "It's always been like this. This country has always been run by greedy fuckers." He sounds like he's considering setting the 9/11 Commission report to music.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, September 12 at 7:02 PM | Linking Posts

 

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