Music/Popular Culture

Whatever happened to Country & Western?: imagining an alternate Nashville

It’s easy to see how the mid-1980s Roots revival could have shaped Nashville into something completely different than the wasteland it is today.

Not long ago I was lamenting the embarrassing state of Country & Western music, and if you track down through the comments of that post you’ll see a couple folks, including our boy Otherwise, recommending that I investigate The Hangdogs. So I did, and they were right – Matthew Grimm and Co. could flat out bring it.

It turns out that Otherwise actually knows Grimm and he introduced us, which led to an interesting e-mail exchange and my discovery of his latest solo disc. More on that in a bit.

This whole sequence set me to thinking. There was a moment, back in the mid-1980s, when something really interesting was happening in the music world. There was Lone Justice, based in LA, also home to Dave Alvin and The Blasters. Boston had the Del Fuegos. New York had the Del Lords. Wisconsin gave us The BoDeans. It might seem odd at first, but Los Lobos were also a part of this sound. Austin served up The Fabulous Thunderbirds and The Tail Gators. Atlanta gave us The Georgia Satellites. Nashville was home to The Royal Court of China and Jason & the Scorchers, billed as the “hardest working cowboys in rock & roll.” And by god, they were. If you ever saw them live you know what I mean.

All over the country there was an upsurge of bands that, despite their differences, had some things in common. All of them were infused by a certain grittiness. There was a strong bar-boogie thread, even a little punkishness, through a lot of their music. Each derived an authenticity from musical traditions that lived beyond the mainstream. There were clear C&W influences. Add it all up and I guess you’d arrive at “Roots.”

Some of these bands even enjoyed a measure of financial success. Lone Justice had a minor hit with “Ways to Be Wicked” and Maria McKee has had a respectable solo career. The BoDeans evolved (sadly, in my view) into an adult alternative mainstay – sort of a Michael Bolton for the Americana crowd, if you will. But if you set aside what they became and go back to that first album, it’s hard not to be impressed. Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams was truly superb.

Los Lobos, of course, became a huge success in the Latino market and had a big moment in the sun with their contributions to the La Bamba soundtrack. The T-Birds did well for themselves, too – they had a hit with “Wrap It Up” and went on to become pillars of the Austin community.

And, I’m trying to remember – did The Satellites ever get any airplay?

I’m thinking about these bands in the mid-’80s because I’m imagining an alternate future for Nashville – I’m dreaming about what Country & Western might have become. Understand, all genres grow and evolve over time, and the path to the future is by no means pre-ordained. C&W will be different in 20 years than it is today and while we’re probably safe fearing the worst, it isn’t easy to predict the particulars. All it takes is one or two important figures, be they artists or producers or label execs or even radio weasels, to alter the course of the industry, and sometimes major turning points are barely noticeable at the time.

For instance, what would Rock look like today had John and Paul never met? Take a second to get your head around this. Subtract all the influence that The Beatles exerted on the genre and describe what it’s like today. Good luck.

I think about Lone Justice and The Scorchers and the rest and I wonder what would have happened if some Nashville visionary had, at that point in time, decided that C&W should embrace these young, talented, emerging bands. What if this hypothetical tastemonger, someone with vision, influence and an enterprising nature, had worked to claim this Roots movement and to assimilate what has become Americana, alt.Country, that Austin Bluesy thing and even the massive crossover potential of Latino music (which, once you get past all the racism of the white C&W audience, has a lot in common, musically and culturally, with Country) into the Nashville mainstream?

Listen to anything by Jason & the Scorchers. Listen to that first LJ record and then give lead singer Maria McKee’s 1993 solo release You Gotta Sin to Get Saved a spin. Listen to any of those Austin bands. Tell me about the sound of “Will the Wolf Survive.”

Listen to what’s going on inside Royal Court’s “Half the Truth,” and pay close attention to what happens at the 1:43 mark.

In some respects this is a lot more than idle speculation. From a 1984 perspective, what I’m positing here makes a lot more sense than what actually happened. As noted in that post I link at the top, the reality of 2014 Nash Vega$ has more in common with Beyonce than it does with Tammy Wynette, and had you predicted Taylor Swift you’d probably have gotten laughed out of the bar.

But this? Lone Justice and McKee made perfect sense.

I don’t want to hear any crap about the importance of cheesecake, either. Swift is a pretty girl, but if you can’t market McKee’s combination of beauty and talent you need to go see HR and ask if they have a job you’re smart enough to do. (Also, McKee is a fantastic songwriter to boot. Go ask the Dixie Chicks.)

Quantum Physics, as I understand it, actually predicts that there’s a parallel universe where it all went down exactly as I imagine. In that reality, Nashville is today a very different and far more palatable place. It wholeheartedly embraced The Drive-By Truckers and The Hangdogs. It played the shizzle out of The Pinetops and Jeffrey Dean Foster’s last solo disc, Million-Star Hotel. Jason Isbell’s last two records dominated the CMAs and anything Southeastern didn’t win Matt Grimm‘s Songs in the Key of Your Face did. Radio programmers are so giddy about the rumor of a new Jeff Foster CD this year that their nipples are stiff.

I’d rather live in that universe than this one. It could have happened here, and for all we know we may have come close. Knowing the music industry, it may all have come down to one ambitious, amoral A&E rep showing up at the right place with a hooker and a bag of blow.

That would certainly be consistent with contemporary Nashville, wouldn’t it?

Oh well. Ponder this if you like and imagine a universe where, when you’re looking for great music, radio is the first place you go instead of the last. And as you’re doing so, hop over and give Matt Grimm’s latest a listen. It’s smart as hell, it’s funny, it’s packed with great tunes, and I don’t know about you, but I was loving it even before we got to the cover of “Telegraph Road.”

21 replies »

  1. I still listen to my Lone Justice CDs. I saw them live here in Syracuse, opening eyes and ears in a smoky rock club. I like your point of wondering what might have been if somebody, somewhere, had endorsed your list of bands as mass-listening-worthy.

  2. Hey, I saw Lone Justice in Syracuse too! like 86 at the LoHo.

    Just as hot goes, McKee, topped off with that 1980s retro peasant-skirt thing, is just in a completely different league from Swift because, as the vid is fond reminder, holy wow. I get the pop hook of Swift’s stuff but it would not sonically be determined to be “country” if that shit burg full of charlatan wankers did not arbitrarily deem it so, but, um, aesthetically? Take off the hair, make-up and blue-eye contacts, she is an alien gray.

  3. I’ll only comment about my time working in studios, and i’ll try not and let my hatred for the people and the State of TN cloud my judgement. I worked for a company that had several studios, the most expensive room 6k a day, and some cheaper 1k a day rooms. Some audio/video post production, and mastering services as well. A lot of their work was re-recording live shows for TV. There was a show on one of the country channels back in the day that had a live show, and the next day they would come in and fix their parts, mostly vocals. For the most part is was a production line, D112 on the Kick, MD 421’s on the toms, C414’s on the overheads, SM57 on the snare. This is also industry standard for most rock/pop set ups, so you can see from a production side of things, new country (where ever you decide “new” starts, for me it’s Billy Ray/ Garth- Today) is basically pop music. I’m not going to comment on the merits of pop music, I love a good hook but I think what we’re all talking about here is the lack of substance in the lyrics and like pop music that’s just tough to sell to the public for the most part. Country music needs to be dirtier, that’s why when Johnny Cash did “Hurt” it really struck a nerve in non country fans. I’m not sure if popular Country music can reinvent itself like rock music, and I’m actually kind of shocked a sub genre hasn’t poped up, but I’m bad at judging music trends. Will there be a punk/newwave/grunge like movement in country? I hope so, and if it does happen, like most things it will get over done and morphed into something it was never meant to be. Commercial Country is basically the Jay Leno of Country, it’s safe, it doesn’t offend, and it panders.

    Few Stories if you care.

    There was a time when labels were trying to compete with the Dixie Chicks, one of those bands was a band I did work with SheDaisy. They were typical pop country, but what was funny was that at the same time they were recording, the Dixie Chicks were recording an album at another studio. The Chicks were going through some shit with their label at the time, so they were delaying the record and their royalties. The big issue was that the album was too bluegrass. Anyways one of their engineers brought over a few tracks for us to listen to one night (Big No No), and we were all pretty amazed. We loved the direction they were going, but I think our mentality was the same as the suits, it was great but the public wont like it. It of course was the album Home, probably their most important album.

    I met George Jones and his wife, this was after his DWI where he almost died. Yes he was drunk, and he was really cool. They recorded vocals, and a lot of work went into fixing them, I think the guy working on those got an award for it actually, because his voice was shot. His wife was a riot, and actually laughed at me and gave me shit for disagreeing with the forward lateral the Titans pulled a few months earlier. She would push me like Elaine from Seinfeld when I said something she didn’t believe.

    I did shots of Crown with Travis Tritt, really cool guy.

    I set up Mark Knoppler’s rig, and had tea with him. He would only record in the one studio because we had this one mic that had the original tube in it. He offered to buy it, but that mic was the reason so many people would pay 6k a day for that studio. I also got to see him and Emmylou work on a song in the lobby, quite cool.

    Dan Huff gave me the keys to his car and his kids baseball glove and said “This is the most important thing you will ever do for me, get this to my kids little league game”. Lucky for me I knew my way around the area because I used to deliver car parts. I made it in time, and he was nice to me the rest of the time he was there.

    The guys from Rascal Flatts recorded for about a year there, they were just starting out, they were really cool dudes.

    I was working the phones on my 3rd day and this guy asked what studio he was recording at and I didn’t know who he was, and nothing was written down, so I had to ask who he was, it was Kenny Chesney. I felt like David Spade in his classic SNL sketch.

    We were recording Faith Hill, and her vocal booth had to have all white flowers and pillows in it, she was kind of a princess. So anyways I come in at 7am before most people. After a few hours the beer and pizza from the night before needed to get the F out! I was about 240lb and I ate like crap and drank every night, so it wasn’t good. So anyways someone was in the guys bathroom, and a 2nd assistant told me to use the girls bathroom, so I did. Well about 5 minutes after my destruction of the bathroom Faith Hill walks in and screams, it was awesome. Her record sold millions, and I like to think it was my shit that cleared her vocal chords.

    For the record, these are my favorite commercial country song of the last 5 years

    Not sure if this counts as commercial, it was on a Super Bowl Commercial for Chipolte, but it’s still really great.

    • The Dixie Chicks/HOME thing here is one of those moments I’m getting at. Things can go in unexpected directions, and even now you wonder what if Natalie hadn’t ripped Dubya…..

  4. I will go a shopping today. Nice piece Sambo.

    Although, as Richard Feynman allegedly said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Still, DC comics said there were parallel universes and that should be good enough for all of us.

    • I sure as hell don’t understand the details. But Q theory seems to say that there are infinite universes and there’s one for any plausible set of circumstances. This theory exists, best I can tell, to taunt me with the idea that I got stuck in the one where Dubya became president and somebody convinced Tim Tebow that God wanted him to be a QB. I’m sure it could be worse, but at least let me fantasize about the one where Nashville is great and I’m married to Olivia Munn.

  5. Dang it! I wrote this great comment and it gave me an error message! I’ll try again.

    Isn’t much of this what was called “cowpunk” back then? I bought Lone Justice and Los Lobos How Will The Wolf Survive the same day. I also had The Del Fuegos Boston, Mass and The Fab T-Birds debut. (all on vinyl) Maria McKee’s solo debut was actually a self-titled disc. I’ve still got it on CD, it’s super melancholy. Lots of great music then.

    I’ve been listening to The Hangdogs since the last post, and they sound similar in style to Cross Canadian Ragweed. Do you have an opinion on them?

    • I guess some of these bands were probably associated with Cowpunk. I never thought of LJ or Los Lobos in those terms, but others have. I guess I always associated that movement with bands that had less in the way of commercial appeal than the ones I mention, but I’m hardly the definitive source here.

      Interesting thought, though. The Blasters are considered Cowpunk, as, I now realize, was Social Distortion. And that’s a band that probably should have been included in my original post, isn’t it?

      • Was Social D ever considered cowpunk? That’s my favorite band in ever I only ever heard them referred to as straight-up punk — though even if you go back and listen now, it’s tough to get away from how just were just pretty accessible 1-4-5 kickass rock & roll. Cowpunk for me was the Scorchers side of the equation and going more hardcore from there, just wearing hats and throwing in some twang. There was a bunch of that shit, I just don’t think it was this encompassing. Just as e-z-use appellations go, as I recall the mid-80s, I think the “roots rock” actually was a term that sort of — not DEFINED them all per se — but bubbled up organically and just worked as an umbrella for the “movement” (Del Fuegos, Del Lords, Beat Farmers, Blasters/Dave Alvin, LJ, Scorchers, BoDeans, Gear Daddies, et al) which, actually, I have always considered a node grown off the punk rock movement, e.g. this is a revolution of simplicity against the convoluted, pointless rococo pop zeitgeist. Like if we did the tree-of-life on it, punk would branch off into hardcore and roots rock. (by no means scientific)

        • Well, I’m in no position to police boundaries. I know that the Wikipedia page on the term includes Social D, which I have always thought of as a punk band with a bit of rockabilly cultural vibe about it. The first time I heard the term I think it was being used to describe the Beat Farmers and that ilk.

        • I know a lot of folks who would tie “Roots” more closely to the jam band world. I have a hard time with that. I get the argument, but at the core the punk end of the spectrum cares about song structures and jam bands simply do not.

      • I thought Lone Justice was THE definition of cowpunk! Social Distortion? Maybe The Cramps. Maybe I misunderstood the term.

        • You’re probably working with the more definitive terminology. When it was happening I never heard the term – it was maybe four or five years later that I came across it, and then it was being used by people who were talking about a different set of acts. Hell, my friends and I loved these bands but I don’t recall us ever having a word for them.

  6. Many of the bands mentioned above write good songs. Mainstream Nashville right now writes terrible songs – I suspect because the execs there are kowtowing to the Matrix.Dr Luke models dominating – and ruining – pop. So they write songs by formulas that aren’t organic reflections of the lifestyle of their listeners (beer drinking/working hard/loving/cheating/fighting) but by computer models that try to find song “algorithims,” for want of a better term, designed to appeal to red state America – i.e., they use the words “country,” “sexy,” “tractor,” “my boy/girl/dog/truck,” “freedom/heroes” v. “libruls/city folks/educated persons”

    To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s famous quote about fox hunting, the predictable played for the predictable….

  7. Some Lacunae:
    Gun Club, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Screamin’ Sirens and the Vandals were all from Southern California and were roots/country influenced. Add in John Doe and Exene from X who forged the Knitters as a country band with Bakersfield influences, with John Doe still chasing that sound as a solo artist. Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper and bands like the Gibson Brothers were mining a strange Southern Gothic universe of sounds. Heck, one time Nirvana drummer Mark Pickerel has put out two alt country albums at least, as part of a group of peers including Neko Case cross pollinated with strange Canadian bands.
    Otherwise yeah, the country music world has become the main product producer for that multimedia performer type no less than Disney has for urban multiethnic pop products. There is no money in sincerity or real feelings-only symbolic gestures meant to imply such to consumers.

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