My Back Pages is a series that explores our relationships with the music we grew up with. Alternative country is the subject of this installment.
“Lone Star belt buckles and old faded Levi’s …” has been a line in my head for as long as I can remember. It’s said that a pint-sized version of me with long, bright blonde hair would cruise around my parents’ house sporting those Levi’s and a Willie Nelson-esque red bandanna. I’ve always worn Levi’s. I think it took me until I was like 25 to realize that song may have chosen my pants, and helped inspire my musical taste in years to come.
My parents listened to a lot of country music when I was growing up. Waylon and Willie, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones — the heavy hitters. It was the soundtrack to my childhood. Naturally, as I got older I made it a personal quest to listen to anything and maybe everything else. Country went pop and pushed me even further away. The slick production and overall cheese foundation was enough to make me think that what I listened to as a kid must have been bad, too. I was just a kid, what did I know?
Cut to the early 2000s. Johnny Cash was making his set of “American Recordings” albums with the incomparable Rick Rubin. I remember where I was when I heard Cash’s version of “Hurt.” It stopped me in my tracks. And they were playing it on a rock radio station. I don’t think I moved for the duration of the song. I knew “Hurt.” I liked the Nine Inch Nails version. I get that Trent Reznor wrote that song about heroin and depression. But the instant I heard Cash sing that song, he owned it. He took an “alternative rock” song and made it country. He also brought me back to country. I bought all the “American Recordings” albums. They were full of originals and interesting covers. He played with everyone on those albums. Tom Petty, Flea, Lindsay Buckingham, Fiona Apple. He covered Beck, Petty, Depeche Mode. He made those songs country. All while a guy that produced the Beastie Boys and Slayer was turning the knobs. It was a matter of appreciation to the artist. Rubin made me remember that appreciation I once had.
Gram ParsonsI found out there was this whole genre of music that was akin to what Cash and Rubin were doing. Alternative country. Alternative was my thing in the ’90s. Nirvana will probably be one of my top-three favorite bands until they hang a wreath upon my door. So, as cool as teenage me thought alternative music was, early 20s me was in awe of this alternative country. I realized alternative country was older than I could have imagined. I was in a band for five minutes that was considered “post punk,” whatever that means. It was in that band that I was first introduced to Gram Parsons. He was unbelievable. Every band he was in was made of great players, and he had an incredible voice. He hung out and got stoned with the Rolling Stones and basically thrust Emmylou Harris into the musical world. He was a kid who had a lot of demons, and he poured them out in his songs.
I think Ryan Adams was probably the first modern alt-country artist I got into. I bought “Cold Roses.” It was a double disc with his backing band the Cardinals. Blown away. Deep, often dark lyrics, incredible players, and very much reminiscent of what I heard in Gram Parsons. Maybe a little more contemporary, maybe a little more raw, but a great voice and full of pain. I first saw Ryan open for Willie Nelson at the Beacon Theater in New York. He and the Cardinals did a pretty no-nonsense set that deserved to be in that beautiful room and opening for a legend. I got everything Ryan had out, from his early band Whiskeytown to the solo work, and then the other two albums he released right after “Cold Roses.” I’ve seen Ryan Adams live more than any other artist, save for my friends’ bands. I was coincidentally in San Francisco when he was playing there for two nights. This was classic Ryan. He was pretty heavily into drugs and booze at the time. He played solo for about three hours. He meandered from guitar to piano to wine bottle. He told stories. He put on a great show. The second night he played another show, likely fired up on speedballs (he did write a love song to the mixture of cocaine and heroin called “Two”), at 12 Galaxies in the Mission district. He played with Phil Lesh. I watched the show next to Jesse Malin. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Ryan Adams sobered up and became a more proficient player. He had some ear issues and doesn’t release three albums in a year anymore. But he still makes incredible music. Gone are the days when he’ll leave long voicemails for journalists that give him bad reviews, or calling out dumb fans at shows. His behavior is mellowed, but his pain is still there. It’s that pain that is really the common thread in alt-country. Not saying there aren’t fun songs or love songs, but maybe I should say it’s more experience. These artists live the highs and the lows. If you listen to a song by Loretta Lynn or Ryan Adams or Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams, the lyrics come from somewhere. Those artists have lived. They don’t hire a bunch of songwriters to pen some perfect song. If Lucinda Williams writes about a bar fight, it’s because she lived it. Carrie Underwood needed a couple guys to write her a song about what she’d do to her man’s truck if he was getting down with some other lady. If Lucero goes to record an album, it’ll be in a room they like the vibe of and is conducive to their whiskey-soaked music. They’re also going to record it mostly live and analog. When Rascal Flatts record, it’ll be a huge budget (perhaps mostly for hair product and bedazzled True Religion jeans) and full of overdubs and Pro Tools and nearly robotic. Those radio-country albums don’t feel country. They may have a fiddle or a pedal steel. They may mention mama, or trains, or trucks or getting drunk, but they feel contrived. In my opinion the music on country radio is as close to true country as Bieber is to Led Zeppelin. That isn’t to say that that music doesn’t make people happy. I just wish they’d dig deeper.
My parents still listen to country. I made them both two CDs of alt-country. I’m not sure they listened. Maybe once or twice. They do still like the classics, but they aren’t as critical of the stuff on the radio as I am. I just can’t buy into Jason Aldean being forced to change a line in his song because Coors was sponsoring him. That’s not country. That’s not art. That’s NASCAR. That’s a football stadium.
Shooter JenningsLet’s get back on track. Shooter Jennings, the son of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, released an album called “Put the O Back in Country.” Brilliant name, if you think about it for a second. It was boozy and rockin’ and a pretty fun album. He was royalty in the country community, and he was pointing a finger at it. A middle finger, at that. He’s got a point, though. Take away the pop and the glitz and the buses and the 18-wheelers full of production gear. Put the band in a van and focus on what’s inside them. That’s where the art comes from. It may be pain that pours out of you. It may be a beautiful love song. It may be a political song. But, what it would be is proper country. The stuff that’s getting made off the beaten path in Nashville, or in Austin, or Portland, or New York, or right here in Northeastern Pa. The stuff you can’t hear on the radio. It’s the music that has spoken to me when I was as low as I can get or when I’m on top of the world.
So if you’re as manic-depressive as me and you want to open yourself up to some music that will touch you, music you can dance to, drink some brown liquor to or just music that will make you think, I suggest you jump into the world of alternative country. We can talk about it, and maybe I’ll let you in on some tips on where to score the best Levi’s and western shirts. And, if that ain’t country, I’ll kiss your ass.