No direction home:
The state of alt.country
Forgive me, Peter Blackstock, if I say your last “Hello Stranger” column [ND #21, May-June '99] — in which you seem to claim fans who feel betrayed by their favorite artists’ new styles are stifling artistic freedom — was just a little overblown.
We all go through life making friends, losing friends and making new friends. Many people see their musical tastes change over time, just as musicians explore new styles or “expand” their horizons.
In college, I was a big fan of bands like the Replacements, Pixies, R.E.M., Hüsker Dü and others of the alternative rock ilk. My record collection took an abrupt turn when I found new “friends” in a ragged, twangy outfit from Illinois calling themselves Uncle Tupelo.
Meanwhile, No Depression became my personal ads, matching me up with new friends in the alt.country world I would never have come to know otherwise — Whiskeytown, Robbie Fulks, the Old 97′s, Slobberbone, the Gourds, et al.
I didn’t feel I “betrayed” my old friends. My tastes just changed.
Much to my disappointment, many of my new friends seem to be changing, too. My copies of the latest Wilco and Joe Henry releases are now available in the local record store’s used-disc section.
I don’t begrudge those artists for chasing more money and popularity in pop’s mainstream, or even — as Blackstock contends — following their own artistic muses. But they’ve changed and shouldn’t expect me to follow them down that path if I don’t like the destination. Hell, I didn’t expect Paul Westerberg to do Tom T. Hall covers just because my tastes changed.
What disturbs me is this magazine’s continuing urge to cover those artists who have strayed so far from alt.country (by almost any definition of that hard-to-pinpoint genre).
But I’m not entirely knocking your magazine. Despite your growing infatuation with bands formerly known as alt.country, there’s still enough coverage of artists playing true to your original mission.
In fact, I think it’s about time to renew my subscription. My core group of “friends” is starting to dwindle.
– Tim Jamison
Cedar Falls, Iowa
I’ve been pondering your Hello Stranger editorial in ND #21 [May-June '99], along with coverage of the Old 97′s, Wilco, Joe Henry, Jolene and others who have lately strayed from the alt-country straight and narrow.
I’ve observed that most of these artists’ old fans have been more than open-minded about their genre shifts; most alt-country fans are big fans of one kind of pop or rock or another, many fanatically knowledgeable and zealous about many kinds of music. For myself, I think the new Joe Henry is some kind of masterpiece, and Summerteeth, while not all it’s cracked up to be in the press, has many moments that are among Jeff Tweedy’s best ever. I can’t believe any but a small minority wish to deny these artists the freedom to follow their muses.
However, I’m troubled by the notion that all of us enlightened, liberal-minded music lovers should just forget all about the greatness once shared by this crew when they were playing true alt-country. If none of these people play country anymore, and especially if they act publicly embarrassed to be associated with country, something significant will be lost.
Country music speaks directly and deeply in a way that pop and rock don’t, addressing dark truths about love, loneliness, violence, death, and people chasing after money (and the money gettin’ away). The traditional sounds of pedal steel and mandolin, the honky-tonk hooks, the raw emotion freely expressed within conventional country structures, have a power that’s lasted through quite a few years of social upheaval, from the Depression through the economically and emotionally stagnant ’90s.
Always, a lot of people have had an “aversion” to country music, as Jay Farrar has put it over the years. I think Uncle Tupelo fans, or in an earlier time, fans of Willie Nelson or Emmylou Harris, felt just plain blessed for having gotten past that aversion. Pop we will always have with us, but if Jeff and Jay and Joe do not apply their talents to country music, where will we find music to touch our souls in the same way?
A personal case in point: Jay Farrar makes a great garage-rocker; he was taking no prisoners on “I Gotta Right” and “Straightface” last fall. But if he never writes weepers like “High Water” and “Tear Stained Eye” again, you cannot tell me we won’t be the poorer for it.
– Martha Coons
You should know his song
As a subscriber and son of a country music artist from the past, I enjoyed the article on Jimmy Martin [ND #21, May-June '99]. However, when writing about someone many of your readers will not know very much about, it is important to get your facts straight. Jon Weisberger says he once participated in a performance of Jimmy Martin’s “You Don’t Know My Mind”. For the record, my father, Jimmie Skinner, wrote “You Don’t Know My Mind”. When writing about country and bluegrass musicians from a time that is forgotten by most in today’s world, give credit where it belongs. After all, my father and many others like him deserve not to lose what little they still get.
– Jim Skinner
Keys to the Palace
In defense of Will Oldham [ND #20, March-April '99, and #21, May-June '99], at least he had the guts to say what he felt rather than sticking to the “don’t rock the boat” ethos of other artists. If his remarks were some way wide of the mark, they did open an interesting debate on what is perceived as white and black music.
Doug Lamkin’s letter berates Oldham’s “obscure, seemingly meaningless lyrics.” He obviously hasn’t heard I See A Darkness. Perhaps he’d feel more comfortable if Oldham sang about “drinkin’ an’ a fightin’ an’ a cussin” and gave him a “yee-haw” every so often. As for his contention about Oldham’s instrumental skills, country music is full of talented musicians who haven’t an ounce of originality. Even if he wishes to disassociate himself from it, it’s people like Will Oldham and others like Howe Gelb and Jeff Tweedy that make this kind of music so exciting. Not “wonderful” musicians.
– Philip Lawlor
Ain’t chopped liver
I have not yet read Workin’ Man Blues [reviewed in ND #21, May-June '99], but when I heard Gerald Haslam was writing such a thing about the California country music scene, I was floored. Haslam quite possibly could be America’s greatest living short story writer. His collections Hawk Flights, That Constant Coyote, Snapshots, and Okies constitute masterworks of the form. He’s the real deal, and it is an honor to have him look in our direction.
– Mark Weber
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Too cool to be forgotten
In the letters section of ND #21 [May-June '99], Karl Swartz was “still searching” for (among others) the Dusty Chaps. The Chaps are, sadly, history. The principals of the group (George Hawke, Pete Gerlach, et al.) are still alive and well and, occasionally, some combination of the original Chaps will get together for a special occasion, but their recorded history consists of two Capitol albums — Honky Tonk Music from 1977 and Domino Joe from 1978 — plus their original, locally-produced album, also called Honky Tonk Music but released in 1975. Hawke’s subsequent group, Los Lasers, released the LP Waiting For Bardot in 1984 and the CD Viva Los Lasers in 1991.
Somebody I’ve wondered about is a singer by the name of Charles Lee Guy III who released one album that I know of called The Prisoner’s Dream, on Capitol in 1963. The sparse liner notes mention that it was recorded in California’s Vacaville Prison, where Guy was incarcerated for manslaughter. A Bear Family compact disc reissue in 1991 included several outtakes that, according to the discography, were recorded in Nashville in 1964, but the only other credits are dated 1963. Anybody know anything about this one?
– Shelby Meyer
Grant Alden must die
Whose bright idea was it to give the new Mojo Nixon album (Sock Ray Blue) to one of those pretentious PC jerk-offs for a review in ND #21? Is Mr. Alden unfamiliar with Mojo’s humor or is he really that uptight? Mojo has been faithful to American roots music (in his own special way) too long to warrant such a shallow review, especially from No Depression.
– Dave Stanowski
The last word:
Country is as country does
I was talking with a 20-year-old woman who I work with today and we discovered that we both liked country.
She liked the latest that Nashville has to offer (Garth, Wynonna, etc), and I told her that I was a fan of old and underground country. Knowing that she would not know of the underground bands today, I mentioned Hank Williams Sr., Don Williams, Buck Owens, etc., and she replied, “Yeah, but they’re not country!”
It looks like a harder battle than I once thought!
– Joe Priebe
Cedar Falls, Iowa