Don't Call It Nothing Episode 10 now live! The thrilling conclusion of our journey into 1996 alt.country includes Wilco, The V-Roys, Iris DeMent, Bottle Rockets, The Gourds, The Original Bloodstained Five, and Slobberbone.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 today we’;e gonna finish our deep dive into 1996 alt.country. Last week we discussed Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, The Backsliders, Son Volt, The Derailers, The Old 97s, Joel R. L. Phelps, and the Scud Mountain Boys. We also discussed why the Ryan Adams legacy is a pee-pee-soaked heckhole and frankly, we don’t need to relitigate all of that. So, who do we got today? We got another full lineup of both alt AND country. Don’t get your flannel in a bunch, I got this. In fact, I got so much of this that I got extra, so stick around after the closing credits for a super secret bonus track. Easter eggs, y’all!
From the Vic Theater in Chicago the night before Thanksgiving 1996, that’s Wilco with “Forget The Flowers.” Now I gotta say, from 1995 through ‘99, maybe 2000, I loved Wilco as much as I've loved any band ever. They were SO much fun live, especially ’96-98. That was the rock ‘n’ roll peak. I know the musicianship with Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline, I know it’s better, but the Being There era is my jam. Where A.M. was straightforward country pop kinda rock 'n' roll, Being There combined that rootsy base with a more experimental sensibility as Jeff Tweedy explored the relationship between music creation and music fandom over the span of two CDs.
"Forget The Flowers" is one of the more overtly twangy numbers on Being There. I love how Jay Bennett uses the Bigsby tailpiece on his SG like a B-Bender, which allows him to pull the B and G strings for a pedal steel sound. Very Clarence White. Being There actually runs the gamut from lazy country pop like "Red-Eyed And Blue” to Stones/Faces rock 'n' roll with "Outtasite (Outta Mind") to "Sunken Treasure," a sprawling, pensive ballad that incorporates ambient noise and textures and uses Tweedy's acoustic guitar to both anchor the cacophony and at 6:19 contributing to it. My favorite moment is the album's final track, "Dreamer In My Dreams." In my opinion, it’s a superior version of the Stones’ "Country Honk." Tweedy's raspy howl has rarely sounded better, plus we get Max Johnston on fiddle, who’s essentially playing the Byron Berline part. Bob Egan plays National steel — a dobro, basically — and Bennett is comping on piano. It’s live, it’s unrehearsed, it's the perfect marriage of trad country and I guess semi-improvisation, with the song building up, falling apart, stumbling on the floor, counting back into anarchic rock 'n' roll, transitioning into swooning country, and giving it one final glorious breakdown before devolving into studio chatter and fade out.
The thing about Wilco, though, is they resisted the alt.country label. In the March 20, 1997, issue of Rolling Stone, in a feature titled, “Wilco: Not Just a Country Rock Band,” bassist John Stirratt is quoted as saying:
“We talked about it, wanting to throw off the No Depression thing – that big blast of excess combined with pop songs. I don’t think we’d be lying if we said the record has kind of a ‘fuck you’ attitude.”
— John Stirratt to David Fricke, Rolling Stone
This is why despite all of the country elements both of Being There’s discs open with experimental rock songs. Alt.country didn’t sell because country radio stations wanted “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and ballads and rock stations wanted Bizkits and Korn with a Spoon. So, this album opens with "Misunderstood," a sprawling epic that emerges from a fog of textural noise and Ken Coomer's toms, turns into a piano ballad a la Neil Young — I’ve always thought "Journey Through The Past” — and then finally explodes into a Flaming Lips-esque noise climax.
And this is the alt.country paradox. On one hand you have alt.country songs that are really country songs. On the other hand, if Being There is an alt.country record what does alt.country even mean? In Wilco’s case, the reason alt.country doesn’t really work is because that genre name implies more country than is necessarily present. And if that’s the case, what does “alt” mean? It’s not that I’m opposed to the alt.country designation, it’s that not all alt.country bands were created equal and it helps to know the difference why.
For example, one of my favorite alt.country bands of the era released their debut album in 1996, but said album could just as easily be considered traditional rock ‘n’ roll. I’m speaking about Knoxville, Tennessee’s mighty V-Roys, who combined Cheap Trick swagger with Willie Nelson heartbreak to essentially craft new Replacements songs. Scott Miller sings and writes about 3/4 of the songs and trades leads with fellow guitarist Mic (Mike) Harrison, who contributes the other 1/4. Add Paxton Sellers on squirrelly bass and Jeff Bills on drums. Their musical values – tightly coiled riffs, econo leads, pocket rhythm, concise arrangements – all refreshingly old school, almost a throwback to '70s AM radio. The only thing I might possibly add to these songs is some understated Benmont Tench style piano or organ. Anyway, I mentioned a Cheap Trick influence. Here’s a little excerpt of, let’s just say, Rockford, Illinois.
I dare you to tell me you don’t hear "He's A Whore." Bitchin riffs, great bassline, excellent use of floor tom, great vocal, and now for that Mats feel.
V-Roys at the Cat's Cradle, Carrboro, NC, July 1999
And that’s the V-Roys with “Wind Down,” little taste there. You know, for all of the talk about Gram Parsons as an alt.country touchstone, I feel like Neil Young and The Replacements were way more important on a song in/song out basis. The Mats are key here because The V-Roys were alt.country by way of Pleased To Meet Me. So you get again those crunchy riffs, you get Miller overdrive vocal, another dope bassline, and it’s just rock and goddamn roll. But I know, you’re here for the alt.country and the alt.country I shall deliver.
Scott Miller and Mic Harrison at the Music Fog sessions, Nashville, October 2011
That’s the V-Roys with “Goodnight Loser,” one of the Willie-esque weepers in the band’s catalog. That’s probably Miller’s best vocal I’d say. In fact, great use of vocal parts throughout. I like the bell chime guitar solo panned right, Harrison swoops in for close harmony at 2:07, and then Bills goes double time at the "Ain't she the sweetest thing" crescendo. I just love all of that.
That’s Iris DeMent with “Letter To Mom” from 1996’s The Way I Should, in my opinion the greatest country AND alt.country album ever released by a woman. Not just a great country album, the GREATEST country album ever released by a woman. It’s also a damn good folk, blues, pop, and rock 'n' roll record. Now, I know it’s just a country record. But, it’s alt.country because Nashville wanted NOTHING to do with it. It's intensely personal, as her earlier albums were, but also profoundly political. Iris tackles social justice issues with empathy, grace, and brutal honesty from a defiantly leftist position. This was striking at the time because she'd never written a single song with a political consciousness. OK, I suppose you could make an argument that the subtext of "Our Town" is the decline of the post-WWII manufacturing economy, which resulted in increased suburbanization (i.e. white flight) and thus, urban neighborhoods fell into disrepair (i.e. white fright).
But, The Way I Should doesn't mess around with subtext. It fearlessly reckons with the familial consequences of the Vietnam War ("There's A Wall In Washington"), there’s the toxic combination of materialism, white privilege, capitalism, economic inequality, and moral hypocrisy ("Quality Time"), and the mommy of them all, "Wasteland Of The Free," which features Iris going full-on Beatrix Kiddo on a who's who of American villainy.
I could do that song. But, I wanted to discuss “Letter To Mom.” In the liner notes, Iris admitted:
"The most difficult song for me to put on this record was 'Letter To Mom.' It is not a letter to my mother and it is not my story. It's pretty straightforward. The meaning is not covered up. Some people will be offended by it. Others will be helped. I left the song on here for those people – and because it was the right thing to do."
If "Wasteland" represents the view of America from 30,000 feet, "Letter To Mom" is a miracle of a song about one woman reckoning with childhood sexual abuse. The woman who wrote that letter grew up internalizing her shame and blaming herself for getting molested. I love that DeMent gives her character the emotional strength to confront her mom, who criticizes her daughter for "digging up the past." The mother's denial is a classic symptom of a sexually repressed society, which certainly describes white America, both rural and suburban. But, Iris' allegiance is correctly with the daughter and much respect to her for including this track. There are so many female revenge songs in country music and I’m all about that. But, there’s something uniquely powerful about a songwriter willing to crawl into the ugly muck of human shame and coming out with a diamond of a performance.
In those same liner notes, Iris had another quote that I hold near and dear to my heart. She writes:
"I know a lot of people will listen to these songs and hear them as anything but glorious. Some of what I've said will make some people mad. It might even make some people hate me. I don't like the idea of being hated and I've lost a little sleep lately thinking about it. But, if I hid the truth about how I think and feel in order to be liked I would hate myself, and I like that idea even less."
Speaking of writing country songs that exhibit empathy for down and out American citizens, ladies and gentlemen, Brian Henneman and the Bottle Rockets with “Welfare Music.” This was actually recorded on April 20, 1996, for an "Earth Day Celebration" in Manhattan Beach, California. The juxtaposition of a pro-welfare queen anthem with booji-ass Manhattan Beach and its angry fat man listenership amuses me to no end.
To be honest, I can’t help but think of the Texas Taliban when listening to the song’s key verse:
Takes two to make three
But one ain't here
Still chasing women and drinking beer
Says nobody understands how he feels
But that don't pay them monthly bills
If this were Texas, the woman in “Welfare Music” would have to have this baby or go to prison. The man who impregnated her? No prison. No consequences. Just continues to live out his wonderful, carefree existence as the governor of Texghanistan. “Get in your burka and be happy you’re not Islam!” Ugh, we need a palate cleanser. Smith, Russell, Bernard, and Llewellin. We need you to the front of the stage, please.
Barleypalooza, Barley House, Dallas, June 1, 1997
That’s The Gourds with "All The Labor," one of Jimmy Smith's greatest songwriting achievements and the final song on the band’s 1996 debut, Dem’s Good Beeble. “Labor” is about finding your calling in art. It’s not gonna pay, but it will allow you to leave that art behind for the world to discuss, debate, and enjoy. I defy you to listen to it and not get swept up in its refreshing optimism. It's the song of a person in his/her 20s, who has the whole world in front of him. It’s a song about home and community and belonging. "Of camaraderie and pleasure, won't you stand with me in your garden once more?" Love it.
Beeble is organic, raw, and the sound of anarchy, like dudes who grew up with punk rock and filtered those outsider inclinations through the likes of Tom Waits, Los Lobos, and Doug Sahm. It's folk for people who generally dislike folk, poetry for people who think they hate poetry, and country for people who love country, but hate watered down, Nashville "product." There's elements of mountain music and bluegrass, heavy emphasis on vocal harmony, and a lo-fi aesthetic that incorporates textural sound elements. What I love about The Gourds is how they combine and synthesize, twisting country and folk into odd shapes, propelled by funky, specific-to-them rhythms, and they're not worried about getting things perfect.
That they're so rhythmically inventive is a marvel given that Charlie Llewellin was serviceable as drummer. Helluva nice guy, limited offensively. How does a band get around that? You have Smith, one of the band's two songwriters and one of the most intuitive, funky, and raw bassists I've ever heard, like a DIY Rick Danko. He carries the low end on Beeble, but he's also often the lead instrumentalist. On this album, check out "Jenny Brown," "Makes Me Roll," and "Pine Tar Ramparts." Occasionally, he'll have a lead bassline simultaneous with Kevin Russell's mandolin. "Honduras" is an example of that or we just heard the end of "All The Labor." Or, he'll use his bass to elevate the chorus as he does on "Web Before You Walk Into It.” I love Jimmy's voice, but it's a very specific wounded dog howl, like if Shane MacGowan were a pirate [laughs].
Russell is the other songwriter on Beeble and I think he could've been a traditional country songwriter were he so inclined. Instead, he was interested in his own brand of literate, surrural, south Texas honkey blues. "Dying Of The Pines." "Clear Night." "Money Honey." "Makes Me Roll." None of those songs would be the same without Kev's powerhouse voice. He also rips through sweet mandolin leads on "Ringing Dark & True" and would become a formidable instrumentalist.
The Gourds are not only instrumentally unique, but the way they use their voices is distinctive. Even if Russell's holding down the lead vocal part, Smith will join him in harmony in the chorus to give the song an off-kilter balance. "Web Before You Walk Into It” is my favorite example. In addition, both men, as well as accordionist/guitarist Claude Bernard, sing harmony with themselves and others, using their vocal parts rhythmically and percussively. The voices fit in with acoustic guitars, mandolins, and accordions effectively working the rhythmic mid-range, chugging, riffing, chanking, and strumming.
Now that I got myself all worked up, how about some bonus Gourds? I’m taking the wayback machine to Monday, December 30, 1996, and we’re going to the Hole In The Wall in Austin, Texas. We’re not staying here, but this is where “Unplug This” is going to be held, which is exactly what it sounds like. A hoot night. It’s an easy way to get a bunch of local songwriters together to do acoustic songs, generally covers, and considering it’s a Monday, the night before New Year’s, and during holiday, when a lot of UT students leave Austin, “Unplug This” is a smart way to draw paying customers/drinkers.
But, like I said, we’re not staying at the Hole. We’re actually going back one day and a few miles down the road to a legendary place called The Steamy Bowl, Jimmy Smith’s home and The Gourds’ practice space. Joining the band for rehearsal this evening are three songwriters also scheduled to appear at Unplug This! They are Mike Nicolai (aka the songwriter you hear every week on my intro and outro) on acoustic guitar and bass, Amy Boone of The Damnations on piano and bass, and Deborah Kelly, also of the Damnations and sister to Amy, on guitar, fiddle, and vocals. The group’s name for this hoot night was The Original Bloodstained Five, which is funny because there were seven people involved. This tells me Jimmy named the group [laughs]. The whole rehearsal is available on archive.org and I strongly recommend a listen. It was not easy limiting myself to one song, but I love this piano-driven version of Gram Parsons with Deborah the Emmylou to Kev’s GP.
That is Kevin Russell of The Gourds, Deborah Kelly of The Damnations, and the collective known as the Original Bloodstained Five. It’s a perfect name because they had seven members in the band [laughs]. I think that tells me Jimmy named them [laughs]. At the end there you can hear Claude say, “That was wonderful,” and he’s correct. It’s not perfect. You can hear the band feel their way through the song, but that adds to the immediacy. It’s a rehearsal. I’m ok with the performances being loose. This is what made the whole alt.country thing worth a damn. Gimme bloodstains. If you kick over a couple clams as a consequence of baring your fucking soul, so be it. If I wanted Garth and Shania, I’d go listen to them, but I don’t. I want artists that sound like they give a shit. That would be The Gourds, Damnations, and Nicolai, right on the precipice of becoming two of Austin’s best bands and one of its best singer/songwriters.
Now, I wanna finish today with one of my favorite bands. Similar to the V-Roys, Slobberbone married earnest, but fun midwestern rock 'n' roll like the aforementioned Cheap Trick, the aforementioned Replacements, and Soul Asylum with enough rootsy elements like hammer-on folk guitar, train beat drums, root-fifth basslines, and fiddle to be labeled alt.country. However, Slobberbone’s 1996 album Crow Pot Pie definitely leans more into the rock than the country. "16 Days" and "Tilt-A-Whirl" are good examples of how singer and songwriter Brent Best's guitar sound existed in the sweet spot between Farrarmageddon and Jaydo Mascisism.
Like Westerberg, Best's songs veered between smart, smartass, heartfelt, and heartsick, sometimes in the same song. He’d later get compared to Mississippi author Larry Brown and "I Can Tell Your Love Is Waning" and "Little Sister" confirm those rural noir suspicions. “Waning,” in particular, is Brent’s first great song, an epic murder ballad with a proper beginning, middle, and end, a blazing guitar solo (3:43-4:36), pedal steel, Mike Hill high harmony, and Scotty Danbom on sweet organ fill.
That was the great Slobberbone with “I Can Tell Your Love Is Waning.” Love that song. And also, good reminder. Don’t get caught behind a cattle truck. It will NOT be your friend. Before I let y’all go, I wanna share something that I found positively delightful and I hope you do, too. Back in the early 2000s on the old Slobberbone Yahoo group a thread developed that pit Ryan Adams against Brent Best. I mean, it’s as silly as it sounds. Hot or Not, basically. But, at some point the non-existent rivalry spawned an actual T-shirt that said, “Ryan Adams is no Brent Best.” Simple. To the point. And correct. Sure, Ryan Adams was making a mint at the time being a pouty bad boy, but Brent was winning a Yahoo war. So you tell me who’s in the driver’s seat!
Anyway, as I was researching the numerous shitty Ryan Adams stories this week, that shirt popped into my head. So, I Googled the phrase “Ryan Adams is no Brent Best” and sure enough, I got a hit. But, it wasn’t to a picture of that shirt. It was a link to an Amazon review of the Ryan Adams song “Desire,” which is on 2002’s Demolition. Not the full album, just that song. Very specific. The review is from a user known as misterwile - W.I.L.E. so it could be Mister Willie or Mister Wile E, like Wile E Coyote. I’m gonna call him Mr. Wile (like while). His review is confusing because he writes, “Ryan Adams is no Brent Best,” but he gives the song four stars. So, I don’t know. Even weirder, the review was dated June 15, 2015. This had to be an old Yahoo Grouper, so for shits and giggles I wanted to see his other reviews. I mean, anyone savvy enough to drop a “Ryan Adams is no Brent Best” obviously has refined tastes and therefore has to have other very perceptive, entertaining reviews. I was not disappointed.
On February 4, 2020, Misterwile reviewed Jim Beam Bourbon Vanilla Keurig pods. He writes, “Despite it's keen packaging, this coffee is 101% lie. it tastes like nothing more than i would imagine a cup of coffee from a pre-Keurig Goodyear waiting room coffee machine might taste. it's bad. AND, there's no other flavour in it, much less Jim Beam, OR vanilla. In fact, this was so far from any kind of flavour except bitter and concrete, that the light from the nearest bourbon would take a hundred years to get to it. You are better off feeding $15 to a giraffe.”
On April 10, 2014, Misterwile reviewed calming chews for cats. He writes, “Wasn't even good as a 'treat'. My cats, who are pretty voracious and adventurous, sniffed it and left it. When i broke one up and fed it to my cat, nothing happened. So i tried two, and then up to three. Nothing.”
And then finally, on January 12, 2012, Misterwile reviewed a tiramisu cake. He writes, “I had an open mind about this, and at $3 for a box of 6 at my local Asian Market, it seemed worth a shot. However it tastes what i imagine a twinkie buggered by a tube of instant coffee would taste like. Stoners and Starbuckers may disagree.”
Friends, I can assure you. You do not have to feed a giraffe or bugger a twinkie to subscribe to this podcast. There’s a little subscribe button. It’s that easy. You can also become a member by hitting that slick Buy Me a Coffee button at the top of the page. Come on, 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 explore 1997!