Don't Call It Nothing Episode 9 now live! Today's pod is the first of two parts about alt.country in 1996. Artists covered include Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Blue Mountain, Backsliders, Son Volt, Derailers, Old 97s, Joel R. L. Phelps, and the Scud Mountain Boys. We also put Ryan Adams in a headlock, so that's fun.Support the show
Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]
Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll. I’m your host Lance Davis and I’m happy to report that today’s podcast is the first of two parts about alt.country in 1996. This was not my plan. I wanted to knock out, I don’t know, a 40-45-minute episode? But, I was going through songs and you know how it is. “Well, I gotta write about these guys and I can’t forget these guys oh she’s a must and I can’t leave them out” and next thing you know I got like an hour/hour and a half worth of material. That’s too much talking for one episode. It’s the perfect amount of talking for two episodes. So, I’ll cover half the bands today, the other half next week, and so if I haven’t covered someone obvious in part one, they’re probably gonna be in part two.
Why 1996? I really could’ve picked any year between 1995-2003 and come up with a solid list of alt.country bands, albums, and songs for that year. But, ‘96 is a good starting point. There were a lot of people at the time getting into Wilco and Son Volt and then going backwards to check out Uncle Tupelo, essentially learning about all three bands at the same time. Unless you were already plugged into an underground live music scene, I kinda feel like a decent chunk of the newbies coming to Farrar, Tweedy, and alt.country in general, were doing so because of No Depression magazine, which started publishing in mid-’95.
Let me also acknowledge the influence of internet message boards. I’ve had my problems with alt.country as a genre name from the very beginning and I’ll get to that. But, I’ve actually come to appreciate how alt dot country, not alt dash country, timestamps the genre to a specific moment in time (i.e. the mid-‘90s). You see, back in the olden days before regular ass people had internet in their homes, let alone on their phones, boomers had cush teaching positions at universities. And those universities were about the only places with fast internet – T1 lines typically. If you had internet at home in 1996, it was such a luxury that it was confined to a space called “the computer room” and it was like AOL at 28.8k modem speed.
To give you an idea of the difference between T1 and 28.8k internet speed just imagine a light switch. With a T1, you flip the switch, lights turn on. With a 28.8k modem, when you flip the switch the light does not turn on. Instead, your grandma walks slowly toward a candle with a book of matches, burping and farting constantly. Her delicate hands are slightly shaking as she tries to light the first match, but it snaps in two. She drops the second match. She finally lights the third match, then lights the candle, thank God we finally have internet access, aaaaand that’s when your brother picks up the phone and kicks you off the internet because yeah I forgot to mention that back then we used phone lines for internet access because cable bandwidth wasn’t a thing yet. Which reminds me of one of my dad’s favorite jokes. He was born in 1932, so he was already an adult when TV went mainstream. He’d say, “When my students find out how old I am they can’t believe I was around before television. They ask me what we did as kids to entertain ourselves and I tell them, ‘Nothing. We just sat around waiting for TV to be invented.’”
What does this have to do with alt.country? Because back in those days it wasn’t like people could learn about bands on Facebook. There was no Facebook. The internet was so new in ’96 that very few bands even had websites. I believe the Old 97s site was up, but they were like Lewis and Clark on the world wide web [laughs]. What there was, was Usenet — not SkyNet, like The Terminator — but Usenet, a network of moderated newsgroups or discussion groups where users could post questions and answers would turn into threads. There were no pictures, it was just plain text. No graphics. And these groups had names like “alt.binaries.bluegrass,” “alt.binaries.country,” “alt.binaries.sexwizards,” and it’s from that nomenclature that we get the term alt dot country. So like I said, whatever reservations I have of alt.country as a descriptor, I appreciate that the term itself is a time capsule.
I was wrong
OK, for those of us OGs who were seeing alt.country bands and collecting alt.country records in ‘96, here’s a thought exercise. Think of an act that you didn’t like then, for whatever reason, but you eventually came around. You saw the light. I’ll go first. I have to admit I didn’t really like Gillian Welch. Her debut album, Revival, came out in ’96 and I thought it was, I don’t know, too curated, too safe, as if Welch, her musical partner, Dave Rawlings, and producer T-Bone Burnett were trying way too hard to create faux Appalachia. Obviously, I was wrong and unfair. It's no more or less faux than Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992 or Palace Brothers’ There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You or even Iris DeMent’s Infamous Angel. Welch and Rawlings wrote haunting folk songs about lonely people living desperate lives and they absolutely nail the close harmony vocals, intentionally evoking the brothers Louvin and Stanley. The production is immaculate, but not in an overpolished, adult contemporary way. The bass and drums sound warm, the instruments give each other space to stretch out, and they get heavy when they need to. Live, Welch and Rawlings were just as powerful as they were on record, even if they were without bass and drums. For example …
Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings – Acony Bell
That’s Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings on June 21, 1996, at The Palms in Davis, California, with “Acony Bell,” a very small song about a very small flower. Love the subtly funky interplay of the acoustic guitars, Welch is strumming hard on the downbeat as Rawlings expertly picks single note, mandolin-esque leads around her. My guess is Rawlings capo’ed his guitar way up the neck to give it that sound. Regardless, this is a badass folk blues and I have no idea why I was complaining about Welch and Rawlings [laughs]. They’re awesome.
I was right
Now let’s take that thought experiment in the other direction. Instead of naming an alt.country artist I was wrong about in 1996, I’m gonna name an alt.country artist that I was right about and time has totally vindicated my decision. I’m referring of course to Ryan Adams, the so-called boy wonder with the irrepressible shine in his eyes. You cannot discuss alt.country without eventually reckoning with Adams and Whiskeytown. And look, I love Faithless Street, especially the 1998 Outpost reissue. I like Stranger’s Almanac, especially the first half, but I think that album is crazy overrated. It’s closer to the Eagles than Uncle Tupelo and from there, it’s a fairly quick descent into mediocrity.
The worst thing about Whiskeytown, though, had nothing to do with music. It was that the Ryan Adams Experience overshadowed everything. It just sucked the air out of the room. He was like a male Courtney Love, constantly courting drama, fights, and petty, childish nonsense. But, instead of forcing him to grow up, gatekeepers and hangers-on constantly enabled him because they benefited professionally and loved the excitement of being bad boy adjacent. “He’s such a bad boy, he doesn’t play by rules.” Go back and read all the old white guys fawning over this jackass. Are they fawning over Caitlin Cary? Whiskeytown was her fucking band, too. Great voice, lovely fiddler, I say all of us listening to this podcast refer to Whiskeytown from here on out as Caitlin Cary’s band and Ryan Adams as her singer. Cool? Cool. Besides, in 1996, I’m not sure Whiskeytown was even the best alt.country band in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Backsliders – Lexington Avenue
Recorded July 20, 1996, at The Brewery in Raleigh, North Carolina, that’s The Backsliders with “Lexington Avenue,” “a song about the perils and pitfalls of living in Burbank, California.” You can find that on the EP, From Raleigh, North Carolina, where Chip Robinson's hangdog baritone and old school country songwriting meshes wonderfully with Brad Rice and Stephen Howell on dual lead guitar.
Getting back to Adams, even in ’96, as a 26-27-year-old, I was long past celebrating that stupid rock ‘n’ roll bad boy archetype. Gen Xers already know this, millennials probably know this, but anyone Gen Z and younger may not know that the rock ‘n’ roll bad boy was a specific invention of the 1960s. Now, rock ‘n’ roll bad boys predated the ‘60s. Jerry Lee Lewis, for example. But, it was beginning in the 1960s, you see the active celebration and valoration of “the bad boy.” The Stones, Gram Parsons, Morrison, Hendrix, Lou, Iggy, Bowie, Zeppelin, Ozzy, Aerosmith, Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone, The Decline of Western Civilization 1 & 2, Keith Moon driving his car into a pool, Keith Richards and Bobby Keys dropping TVs out of hotel windows, Led Zeppelin banging groupies with mudsharks. [mocking] “It’s funny ‘cause I don’t see them as people! Sexual assault and pedophilia? Sociopathic behavior? Lighten up, Francis. These are just colorful stories.”
Here’s a colorful story for ya. I wanna say this is around 2004-2005 and a few of us are going to see Ian McLagan and the Bump Band back when he was doing his happy hour residency at the Lucky Lounge in downtown Austin. And when I say that maybe you imagine in your head like 150 people packed into a club to see a former member of The Faces, but nah. I went a few times and there were typically like 20-30 people. Very chill environment, always a good time, and it wasn’t like Ian retreated to the dressing room after the set or between the first and second sets. He came out from behind his piano and hung out, took pictures, signed the Faces box set which had just come out, signed his book which had just come out – neither of which I did because I’m an idiot – and he’d basically just be an awesome dude answering fanboy questions. Zero fucking rock star bullshit.
I can’t remember how it came up, but someone in the group hanging out at the table mentioned Keith Moon. It might’ve actually been one of his band members. I can’t remember. But, if you don’t know the story, Ian’s wife Kim was previously married to Keith Moon and in popular lore, Ian and Kim “ran off together” like in a movie with Keith shaking his fist in the background. In reality, as Ian soberly explained, Keith beat the shit out of Kim so badly that her face would swell up all black and blue. And this happened repeatedly. She wasn’t running off with Ian. She was escaping Moon. I mean yes, she was running off with Ian because he treated her well, like an adult, like he loved her. We valorize these bad boys and then we look the other way when, shocker, the bad boy acts like a bad boy. Or worse, we minimize the shitty behavior because if THEY face consequences, then WE have to face the consequences of our own complicity. It’s easy to separate the art from the artist if you separate yourself from your own conscience.
Fast forward to February 2019. So, this is about 2 1/2 years ago. Ryan Adams’ ex-wife Mandy Moore, musician Phoebe Bridgers, and five other women come out publicly, accusing Adams of consistent emotional abuse and sexual misconduct. Their stories are remarkably similar. It’s almost like they’re telling the truth. According to The New York Times, “(These) women and more than a dozen associates described a pattern of manipulative behavior in which Adams dangled career opportunities while simultaneously pursuing female artists for sex." You know what that describes? The entire history of the film and music industries! [laughs] Actually, check out Lydia Loveless’ song, “Steve Earle.” It is basically the song version of that New York Times description.
Now, fast forward to this summer. Both Variety and Los Angeles Magazine ran self-pitying features on Adams with the following headlines:
Seems to me that if multiple women accuse you of being manipulative, then leveraging the press to be publicly manipulative … probably not your smartest move. But, it illustrates the problem for women. Even when social forces work on their behalf, it won’t be long before other social forces, including entertainment industry machinery, grinds slowly into gear on behalf of men, even bad boys. Suffice to say, Don’t Call It Nothing will not be playing Ryan Adams because fuck him, but that doesn’t mean I won’t play “Matrimony” off of Faithless Street at some point. It is after all Caitlin Cary’s band [laughs].
There’s another band I’m not gonna play today, but it isn’t because of some moral stand. Quite the opposite. I’m not playing Blue Mountain because my damn CD player broke and I can’t access this 1996 show from Cicero’s in St. Louis. But, please know this is an accidental omission. Few bands are better representatives of alt.country, both musically and personally, than Cary Hudson, Laurie Stirratt, and Frank Coutch. In fact, they’re so cool that it pisses me off all over again that Ryan Adams got a bunch of free publicity for being a dick, while Blue Mountain were consummate professionals, total badasses, and the nicest damn people you’d ever wanna meet and their promotional muscle was a sturdy cup of jack squat.
So, no Whiskeytown, no Blue Mountain, and I considered, but ultimately passed on Robbie Fulks, Dale Watson, and Ween. Don’t worry, though. An overview of 1996 alt.country was promised and an overview shall be delivered. Incidentally, after the outro music I have a super secret alt.country bonus cut, so let the pod play through to the very end. All right, let’s alt the crap outta some country.
Son Volt – Tear-Stained Eye
That’s Son Volt from Farm Aid on October 12, 1996, with one of the best songs of Jay Farrar’s career, “Tear-Stained Eye.” It had to be “Windfall” or this and I think I like “Tear-Stained” just a scosh more. Obviously, the lyrics sound 100 years old and Jay’s voice is about as good as it ever sounded. Gotta love Jim Boquist on bass and high harmony and the JB/Mike Heidorn pocket. But man, how about Eric Heywood on pedal steel? That guy makes everything sound better. “Tear-Stained Eye,” kinda like “Acony Bell,” also present one of the paradoxes inherent to this genre. On one hand we’ve all agreed that artists like Gillian Welch and Son Volt and Whiskeytown are alt.country and I’m fine with that. But, listen to the song. Listen to “Tear-Stained Eye” or “Acony Bell.” Those are country songs. I mean, it sounds how country music is supposed to sound, right? So while alt.country is technically true, in some cases, there’s nothing particularly alt about it.
Incidentally, this was the infamous Farm Aid held at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, when Hootie And The Blowfish’s set was interrupted by an unruly fan wearing a throwback George Rogers jersey who grabbed Hootie’s mic and demanded they play “Slip It In” by Black Flag and if not that then “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider,” but not the Boston Garden version, that is so fucking typical of you Hootie, going for the obvious. No, not Boston Garden, the following month at Kezar Stadium. It’s pure joy you fucking Blowfish, at which point security escorted him off the stage. That unruly audience member? My good friend, Nelson Brooks. By the way, when questioned later as to why they let him go on for so long, the bouncer said, “Look, I know what he was doing was wrong, but in his defense, Hootie wasn’t playing.” HEYO!!! “Colorful stories!”
Derailers – 100% Fool
From their 1996 studio debut, Jackpot, that’s The Derailers with “100% not 99 9/10ths Fool.” Obviously, the band evokes Buck Owens & The Buckaroos, which makes them way more country than alt.country to my way of thinking, but it’s not like Nashville was rushing to play The Derailers. Maybe that makes them alt? I don’t know, but I know it’s my platonic ideal for country music. Swinging pocket around a sock rhythm acoustic guitar, Tele leads, occasional steel, and high/low harmony vocals. Lead singer, main songwriter, and rhythm guitarist Tony Villanueva is the low while Brian Hofeldt is the high, the Don to Tony’s Buck. What I like about Hofeldt as a guitarist is that he comes at the Buckaroo sound via George Harrison on Beatles For Sale. So, you get the chicken pickin with a heavy dose of chime. On a side note, this is the first time producer Dave Alvin and drummer Lisa Pankratz ever recorded together. She's one of the greatest country/blues/R&B/rock 'n' roll drummers the hill country of Texas has ever produced. In 2009, Lisa became the drummer for Dave Alvin And The Guilty Women and has been Dave's drummer ever since.
Old 97s – Eyes For You
The Old 97s with the A-side of their 1996 Bloodshot single, “Eyes For You.” OK, this is alt.country [laughs]. This was back in the day when Rhett Miller still had the short hair and glasses and he’d play so hard that his glasses fogged up. Dreamy! I love this song, which to my knowledge never made it to a studio album, but this recording at least made it to the Early Tracks comp. Drummer Phillip Peeples plays a variation on the train beat, Miller's acoustic rhythm guitar pushes the beat, Hammond's bass sits in the pocket, and Bethea plays some sweet single-string leads over the top. Not very complicated, but well executed. Sounds like the Old 97s.
*Joel R. L. Phelps – Spokane Motel Blues
With the recent passing of Tom T Hall, I had to include this cover of “Spokane Motel Blues” by Joel R. L. Phelps, former member of Silkworm and in ‘96 just starting out as leader of the Downer Trio. Though it was later added to Real: The Tom T Hall Project, a 1998 tribute comp, Phelps actually released this cover two years earlier as the B-side to a single on Moneyshot Records. Hall's original was bluegrassy and led by banjo. How Phelps heard that and pulled a 2 am, just ran out of wine, sad bastard arrangement with steel and horns is beyond me. But, I love it. This seems even more alty than the Old 97s in that Phelps zeroes in on the loneliness and despair at the heart of “Spokane,” but arranged it like a Downer Trio record, which is more like chamber folk or even chamber pop than any kind of country. This reimagining of the original is what gives the song its teeth and what made alt.country such a breath of fresh air at the time – even if the alt.country was secretly country.
Scud Mountain Boys – Cigarette Sandwich
That’s the Scud Mountain Boys with “Cigarette Sandwich” off their 1996 album, Massachusetts. Now, the band is from Northampton, Massachusetts, so the title could just be a reference to their home state. However, given Joe Pernice’s love of layered, orchestrated pop, I’ve always suspected the title was an homage to the Bee Gees song of the same name. Most of this album is languid pop with songs like "In A Ditch," "Penthouse In The Woods," and "Grudge Fuck," there’s just gorgeous little snowglobes. In fact, because of Pernice’s pop proclivities, some people might not consider this alt.country because the band isn’t really alt.country. I don’t know. I have a simple system. If it sounds country, it’s country. Whether other tracks are equally country is beside the point. Frankly, I WISH Massachusetts had a couple more like "Cigarette Sandwich" and "Lift Me Up," songs where the rhythm section got to move around a little. Props to Bruce Tull for the pedal steel, lap steel, and chicken pickin electric guitar that gives these pop songs a clever, twangy contrast. He’s kinda like the Mark Spencer of the Scuds.
Friends, I think that’s a good stopping point for today. If worn out wood and familiar songs are your jam, go ahead and hit that subscribe button. You can also become a member by hitting that slick Buy Me a Coffee button at the top of the page. You know you wanna. Please visit the Don’t Call It Nothing Facebook page and website, Dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com. Like, comment, tell yo mama, and tell a friend.
Talk to ya next time when we finish our deep dive into 1996 alt.country.