Twangs can only get better

Country has gone way beyond Nashville, says Tom Cox. It’s the new rebel music.

YOU’VE GOT TO feel sorry for subversives in an era when fury is no longer synonymous with musical innovation, and a frenzied futuristic beat just seems like aural stone-cladding. Little signs, like 80-year-old grannies strolling past perforated teenagers in Slipknot T-shirts without batting a cataract, suggest that the definition of pop rebellion needs a seismic rethink.

But is it still possible to create a new notion of rock’n’roll radicalism, when everything’s been sold, and every lyric about disposing of your wife’s body in the trunk of your car with your baby’s help has been written? It would need careful thought, certainly. You’d require an ostensibly non-threatening musical genre, for starters, with a hidden malignant heart. It would need to be opposed to corporate culture, but in a way that didn’t shout “Wanker!” a lot.

As its hero, it would need a handsome, erudite twenty-something who acted like a proper rock star but not like a typical twentysomething. It would need to be eclectic and rich, tailored to the fragmented nature of modern music.

It sounds like a lot to ask, yet it’s possible that this ultimate modern movement – this genre that provides an opposition to everything stodgy and corporate – is already here. The fact that it’s been around for a bit, growing in ranks, right under our noses, just makes it an even more perfect response to everything transient in pop. It’s been called Americana, neo-country, and alternative country, and it was born – depending on who you ask – when the American grunge movement died, when the angelic country soul singer Gram Parsons declared his vision of “Cosmic American Music” in the late ’60s, or when Hank Williams first strapped on his two-dollar guitar.

Over the past five years, it has encompassed the hick-hop of Jim White, the cosmic bar blues of the Jayhawks, the doomy porch songs of the Handsome Family, the ragged exile-on-back-street rock of Whiskeytown, the leather-trousered gal power of Lucinda Williams and the northern gothic chill of the Willard Grant Conspiracy, to name just a fraction. To give you a measure of its diversity, it wouldn’t be too strong to say that if every musician in the world making any music other than alternative country died tomorrow, rock music would suddenly be in its healthiest state for years.

In reality, there are several genres here, not just one: enough music to feed a starving population. Songwriters such as Mark Mulcahy and Kurt Wagner don’t really have anything in common other than a shared mission to tell the truth about life beyond the materialistic.

There are no rules. Unlike the ersatz “classic” country of Nashville, you don’t even have to twang. You can write about what you had for breakfast (the Handsome Family), a gas station attendant you saw the other day (Jim White), or the destiny of your immortal soul (Johnny Dowd). You can even be a proper pin-up and date Winona Ryder then write about it, like Ryan Adams, whose excellent album Gold recently became the first alt. country album to enter the top 20 of the UK album chart and who last week performed a superb set at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. So long as you’re kind of honest and soul-searching about it, and you look at some wildlife while you’re doing it.

Here we have by far America’s strongest musical movement since grunge. It’s perhaps no coincidence that many of the songwriters who made dissonant complaint rock in the early ’90s have turned to the tools of Americana for a more eloquent way to express their angst: Mark Lanegan, once frontman with Seattle’s monolithic Screaming Trees, now writes eerie acoustic songs redolent of Northwest log cabins; Evan Dando, leader of the Lemonheads, has recorded a legendary “lost” country album, which is rumoured to finally squint into the light of day next year.

Unlike grunge, however, alternative country has yet to be processed by major label vultures. It doesn’t yet have its Stone Temple Truck Drivers. It could be that its intrinsic elements are just too complex and timeless to be diluted.

If Britain has been slow to catch on, it’s making up ground quickly. Next month heralds the start of the Barbican’s Beyond Nashville festival, which features the best mixture of alt. country’s forefathers, survivors and subversives that can be summoned without a medium and the spirit of Gram Parsons. Meanwhile, the monthly music magazine Uncut has become the genre’s unofficial sponsor and England’s Grand Drive and the Arlenes are proving that it’s possible to write authentic-sounding country without the benefit of beavers, shotguns, shacks, prairies and hash browns. The latter, a husband-and-wife duo from north London, have even crafted ‘Springboard’, the first authentic country classic based in a suburban lido. A cursory listen to that, followed by ‘Snotlung Whippet Hater’ by Limp Bizkit, and the real future sound of rebellion suddenly becomes lucid.

© Tom CoxThe Observer, 21 October 2001

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