“People generally, even country music magazine writers, can’t seem to separate me from Maow. I’m never a country & western singer; I’m always ‘punk rock drummer sings country,’” laments Neko Case. She might not have to worry about that much longer: The Virginian, released this summer on Vancouver label Mint Records under the name Neko Case & Her Boyfriends, is as confident and convincing a debut disc as any country crooner could hope for.
Case’s “Boyfriends” — a baker’s dozen of backing musicians that includes a couple girlfriends as well — feature members of several notable Canadian indie-rock bands (Zumpano, the Smugglers and Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet among them). But the real star here is Case’s voice. It’s gutsy but pretty, plaintive but not whiny. Also front-and-center are the songs, an approximately equal mix of originals co-written with various Boyfriends and well-chosen classics from various decades past.
Most notable of the covers is the Everly Brothers’ “Bowling Green”, a duet with Zumpano’s Carl Newman that kicks out of the speakers with an unbridled, infectious enthusiasm that makes its 2:16 running time pass all too quickly. It’s clear from the sheer exuberance with which Case sings the tune that it has held a special place in her heart for a long time. As it turns out, a friend had a videotape of the Everlys singing the song on the Ed Sullivan show, and “the first time I saw that, I just…died,” she recalls. “I’d never heard that version, and I still have it on tape and I watch it over and over and over.…I absolutely worship the Everly Brothers, and the Louvin Brothers; they made the most beautiful music ever.”
Not surprisingly, Case’s inspirations also include some of country’s finest women singers. “I like that big hair stuff,” she admits; “I wouldn’t want big hair, but I like Dolly and Loretta.” In fact, Case recently played a festival near Toronto with Lynn, whose 1981 hit “Somebody Led Me Away” is rendered admirably on The Virginian. “We went onstage after Loretta Lynn, which was really amazing because I knew we were going to be playing the same show and I just felt for days before, ‘Omigod, what if I meet her, what am I going to say, I don’t know what to do, she’s one of my hugest idols ever.’ And the first thing I did, I got out of the van and turned to my left and she was sitting in a car and she smiled at me and waved really big, just super nice, and I instantly just felt really good.”
Other covers that Case graces with her powerful pipes include Ernest Tubb’s signature song “Thanks A Lot” and the more obscure 1960s Scott Walker tune “Duchess”. The originals, meanwhile, range from swingin’ to rockin’ to honky-tonkin’ to torch and twang — all recorded with a down-home simplicity that makes The Virginian sound leagues apart from the brassy production of mainstream country.
Even so, Case readily admits she keeps up with what’s happening within that mainstream. “I watch CMT obsessively and I always listen to new country radio,” she says, though she points out that “country radio in Canada is a lot better because they’re more liberal in their programming than America is. American radio won’t let anything slip through if it doesn’t, for instance, have the correct reverb on the snare.”
Indeed, Case’s concerns about contemporary country target the industry more than the performers. “I know who everyone is among the pantheon of hitmakers in Nashville right now…I loathe a good portion of them, but I don’t hold it against them. I generally blame the programmers and the marketers for the travesty that is the new country promotional train. Have you seen those commercials where they have some young yuppie-lookin’ guy going, ‘This isn’t my grandfather’s country, it’s not like some guy’s dog’s dyin’ on my radio, this is real music’? It makes me so fuckin’ mad…Or those ads that just say ‘all country, no bumpkin’? Who the fuck do those people think they are? It makes the artists on the station look bad too; you’d never hear Garth Brooks on TV going, ‘Oh, Hank Williams was a redneck hick’; you’d never hear that. None of those artists would ever downplay old country to make themselves look good; why the hell would anyone say anything so ignorant? Obviously, those people don’t care about the music; they just think of their audience as a demographic, which is also insulting to the people that listen to country music.”
And when it comes to stereotyping country music fans — well, don’t you start her talking. “Sure, there are a lot of rednecks who like country music; there’s lots of rednecks who like Nine Inch Nails too,” Case says. “You can’t worry too much about what other people think; you just have to like it because you like it, which is actually quite liberating, it feels quite good.…Even people I go to school with who consider themselves incredibly open-minded and incredibly politically correct, you tell them you’re a country & western musician and they go, ‘Oh, yee-ha!’ They just make the most obvious ignorant statement they can about country music.…But every musician that I know, no matter what kind of music they play, from every kind of genre, has some respect for country music and has a couple of those country records hidden away somewhere.”
Punkers most certainly included — which brings us back to where we started. Maow, the punk-pop trio for which Case plays drums, certainly has played a role in her approach to country music, though the lines between the genres are inevitably blurred.
“When I was a teenager, I got in to punk rock, which was very healthy and very beneficial because it actually started me playing music. It was very friendly for someone who didn’t know anything about playing music,” Case recalls. “I was really into bands like X and the Cramps. Eventually, I wanted to hear female singers, and there just weren’t that many in punk rock. And I put a Patsy Cline record on, and I thought, ‘Ah, this is what I’m missing.’ Other than that, I got really into blues records and rockabilly records too. I just started digging. I’ve never got out of the punk rock thing either. Country music is definitely punk rock right now, for me.”