Far be it from me to grow jaded about internet traffic, but my editor likes to see hits and clicks. As I wallow in the turning of the year and a severe case of writer's block, my curiosity has gotten the better of me.
Far be it from me to grow jaded about internet traffic, but my editor likes to see hits and clicks. As I wallow in the turning of the year and a severe case of writer's block, my curiosity has gotten the better of me.
2005 was the Year of the Cock, and we will slide into the Year of the Dog sideways, aiming for the guard rail.
I thought about doing a full year end review in four part harmony on 27, 8 x 10 colored glossies with arrows and descriptions on the back of each, but these types of lists pile up like cars on 694 after a little sleet. No, we must dissect this chicken and get at what "really happened."
In 2005, Robbie Fulks, Ryan Adams, and Jay Farrar tried to reclaim their stakes as the Roger Miller, Gram Parsons, and Woodie Guthrie of their era. Fulks went back to the instrumental and lyrical fireworks of South Mouth, Adams rediscovered his fractured hillbilly angel on Jacksonville City Nights, and Jay Farrar tried to plug back into that American Gothic guitar explosion he used to call Son Volt.
Comparing three guys from today's alt scene, who've never really cracked commercial radio in any serious fashion, to those legends, is a pretty heavy, and some might say, hamfisted, thought. But, it's out there now, and you can't really compare them to the artistry and magic of Brooks, McGraw and Chesney with a straight face.
To be sure, the width and breadth of this music we call Alt Country was bolstered by many fine efforts in 2005, including some great work from the likes of Billy Joe Shaver, Joe West, The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, Scott H. Biram, and many others. But, having schirpa guide status on some of this stuff for a rough and tumble and definitely misguided flock of listeners and readers, I had my ear to the ground for the return--of the idea at least--that Robbie Fulks, Ryan Adams, and Jay Farrar were the embodiment of this genre at its best. In outline and execution, I wasn't disappointed, either. All 3 really delivered on their trademarks.
Willie Nelson once called Roger Miller the most spontaneously creative person he ever met; if you've never seen Robbie Fulks, it's hard to explain the difference between the man standing around in the back of the club, and the man up on stage with a guitar in his hand. He and his band, like many bands, use the first two or three songs to get really warmed up, and somewhere in there, he literally chokes the shit out of his acoustic, serving notice to the Guitar Center rejects nursing their Pabsts that there's a flat-picking hillbilly God in attendance. But, set that aside for a moment. What Fulks really delivers is that twitchy anticipation that you might see something you've never seen before at his gig that night. My mom was always good about finding Roger Miller stuff on the boob tube and making me watch it as I grew up; even on an episode of Hee Haw, say, you got the feeling that the script was about to taking a beating, Miller unbowed to the uncomprehending masses around him.
Everything started to go South on Parsons when he thought he was one of the Rolling Stones. On the bad side, it broke his heart that he couldn't achieve that level of fame and/or notoriety. On the good side, he was a musical sponge and absorbed as much of the mojo of Her Majesty's Secret Honkies as he could. The first time I heard some of the recent alt-pop-rock stylings of Ryan Adams, I said to myself, "he really wishes he had been one of the Replacements." But, if he would just come back to country, that's a GOOD thing. That bouncing, punk-leftover, acoustic pop, six-string heartache music makes us all feel better on a cold night. Mix it like buttercream cookie dough and semi-sweet chocolate chips with that knife-to-the-heart moan that roughly 90% of professional singers wish they could do and you have one King Hell Country confection. "The End," "Hard Way to Fall," "The Hardest Part," and "Trains," are all nearly perfect country songs. If anyone knows a good doctor who can cure inner ear cysts, have him or her give Adams a call immediately so we can get him back out on the road.
Finally, Jay Farrar might be the most literate American poet in the last 25 years. Having grown up working his folks' bookstore, the kid read a lot of books, and it spills out of his songs like oil from a punctured tanker. He desperately loves his language, and his country, and its people, and he constructs great towers of guitar and vocabulary in a slightly electronic Missouruh nasal growl. Highways and ghosts and jabs at the President, oh my. "Ipecac" is all that spooky, dialed-in, "Leaves of Grass" stuff that Jay seemingly left behind when he put down the bottle and told Tweedy to kiss his ass.
But what is it? What's that itch on the back of my neck? As I've thought about it this year, I kept remember 4th of July weekend in the Summer of 2004. Bobby Bare, Jr. was playing the 400 Bar and I went down to watch the gig. I was standing out beyond the post line in the second room where there are fewer tables and often fewer people. I was kind of gazing around, inevitably getting transfixed on the Elvis lamp behind the bar (I can't take my eyes off of that damned thing when I'm in there for some reason, the metaphorical flame for all of us inbred moths); when I looked back to my immediate surroundings Gary Louris of the Jayhawks was standing next to me, alone, enjoying a cigarette. I'm not in that late 80's early 90's Jayhawks mafia in this town that gets exclusive invitations to closed door Golden Smog gigs, so I'd never really met the guy. I introduced myself and told him what I do in this grandly obscene hobby of mine. His response to me was something along the lines of, "Alt Country? I practically fucking invented it."
And that's the rub, really. Alt Country really isn't anything, is it? Georgia Hard, Jacksonville City Nights, and Okemah and the Melody of Riot are all really country records, but they'll never be viewed or played as such by any sort of mainstream outlet or audience. The loyalty of their devotees is more real, in the long run, as we and others like us will own these CD's when we're older, unlike the Chesney crowd, who will slowly allow theirs to warp in the sun in their magenta Pontiacs, only to reclaim them all on Christmas 2025 in the "Deluxe Box Set," telling their grandchildren it's CLASSIC country. The best Country song of 2004 was "Tampa To Tulsa" by the Jayhawks, but Swedberg and Moon didn't have the brains or guts to add it to their playlist due to all the reasons we've plastered into this column, ad nauseam for almost three years now. Similarly, none of the works found here will be given that chance either. So, in my best Chinese Dog voice, fuck K102, fuck Mainstream Country, and fuck Nashville all over again, here's to 2006, may we all forget 2005 ever happened.
Best Local Alt Country 2005
White Iron Band, Take It Off the Top
Big Ditch Road, Suicide Note Reader's Companion
Becky Schlegel, Drifter Like Me
Charlie Parr, Rooster
Ashtray Hearts, Perfect Halves
Best Local Alt Country Live Act of 2005
(tie)Trampled By Turtles and The Get Up Johns
Careening through the Twin Cities in my beatup 1996 S-10 at 10:30 pm on a Wednesday night after spending the evening at Tasty Pizza in Heights eating crispy wings (Anoka-You-Can-Smoka County), something snapped, and the Cybil-like alternate personality I call a writing muse kicked in.
There's a scene in "The Paper Chase" where the clown with the photographic memory goes to the commune house and the guy making the stew spits out an impossible Tort case scenario to him, tells him to write it down, come up with an answer and come back with that disaster a week before finals when he'll reveal the super ultimate magical secret about being a successful "1L" to him.
I was a pretty mediocre 1L in the Winter of 1992, but bear with me. To understand why alternative country doesn't get much traction in the vomiting standpipe of industrial runoff that is Mainstream Country, you need to ponder NASCAR after your town has received roughly 7 inches of heavy wet snow in less than 24 hours. 60 Minutes did a story on the Boss Hogg family that runs NASCAR, basically a Brother-Sister team of evil that sweeps everything scandalous and crippling under the closest rug, and accepts everything profitable like the crotch of a hooker near a "port of call." Here's a question though: why isn't there a Wal-Mart Minnesota Christmas 400? I mean, assuming there were a track up here somewhere, why isn't there a dead of Winter, 400 mile ball buster in freezing temperatures with tailgating, deerhunting, ice shacks, augers, the whole god-damned nine yards? Hell, they could build an inner track on the thing and have 100 mile, kidney-busting sled rallies. A REALLY inventive guy would put a ski jump in the middle of that and invite Austrians and Italians and Canadians and turn the whole thing into the biggest fucking Winter circus this side of the Eelpout festival.
That would make some money, I'm telling you. Right now, Mick Anselmo and Gregg Swedberg are having a casual conversation over on Utica Avenue about it. They're discussing what the fat guy in Rascall Flatts would like in a fur coat and whether Darrin Rosha is big enough locally to open for them and play backup while they sing the National Anthem.
But, in the end, it would fail. Not because the NASCAR guys like their Christmass'ess'es off; not because K102 can't cook up some Nashville reject to phoney his or her way through "America the Beautiful;" not because we couldn't get some Austrians to light the fuse and rocket their way dangerously close to 200 geeks masturbating their esophagi with Captain Morgans standing around roughly 50,000 cc's of Arctic Cat craziness while a bunch of displaced hillbillies hurtle their Chevys, Dodges and Fords pert near 200 mph around a salted track while 75,000 drunks vomit up deer jerky and block cheese all over their Carhartt's, praying for a wreck.
No friends, the issue here is that that event is for a niche market. It doesn't fit the demo. No matter how many power drinkers express their sleeveless sunburnt individuality at places like Daytona, the powers that be, the providers of the "product" view them as one big uniform block of unmaleable humanity. It's a big wide open space, but they've taken great pains to herd this group into one corner, so to fray the edges would upset the apple cart.
I've spent more than one Winter night in my life at The Turf Club in St. Paul, Minnesota, watching Big Ditch Road perform anywhere from 15 to 20 songs. I know those songs pretty well, could probably sing lead on 5 or 6 of them. But, I want to make it clear that I probably knew 8 or 9 of those songs before I ever heard of them. They derive from a unique sound, rooted in where we are up here and what we're doing. Principle songwriter Darin Wald has his own demons, to be sure; but, of all the things present in his scratchy, out-state voice, the one thing that is omnipresent is PLACE. His anger, happiness, paranoia, embrace, hate and love are FROM HERE and they're pointed at that THERE in a flailing scream for exposure that won't ever be granted that catharsis it probably deserves.
Unless Mick Anselmo and Gregg Swedberg grow souls overnight, Big Ditch Road is never going to be on K102, even though there probably isn't anything more uniquely Minnesota Country than Wald's bucket-seated, 69 SS, fistful-of-suicide in a snow bank, fucked up view of life. The cooing loons of local music have fallen over themselves about the darkness of this record ("Suicide Note Reader's Companion" is the name of the album for you folks playing at home), but, having some first person singular experience with the band, Snow Emergency Parking Restrictions, and dirty Hamm's taps after a day's nutritional intake lacking anti-oxidants and/or fiber, I can tell you that the true theme of this record is HOPE. There wasn't a single, dark, 15-in-the-clip and one-in-the-chamber tune written on this CD without one eye open and cocked to the far outer reaches of the socket, praying for the dawn to slice through a slat in the blinds.
Which gets us back to the Wal-Mart Minnesota Christmas 400.
Why would we go to something like that? We like fast cars like anybody, but that's not it. No, we would go because we like commiserating. It gets cold and it gets dark up here, and it gets that way for several months. You can lock your doors, put "Leaving Las Vegas" in a loop on your DVD, and cover your iceberg lettuce salads in gun oil; or you can buy an auger and some snow pants and tell King Saturnalia to kiss your ass. I'm not going to run into Darin Wald and the Gang on CMT anytime soon, but I wouldn't look for them there in the first place, and, I'd be disappointed if they showed up. I'm more than happy finding them slightly elevated above the din of a noisy St. Paul bar, where the depression of the songs funnels me to the morning's euphoria...to dawn's new hope.
Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school. At the state university he took his studies so seriously that he was suspected by the homosexuals of being a Communist and suspected by the Communists of being a homosexual. He majored in English history, which was a mistake.
"English history!" roared the silver-maned senior Senator from his state indignantly. "What's the matter with American history? American history is as good as any history in the world!"
Major Major switched immediately to American literature, but not before the F.B.I. had opened a file on him. There were six people and a Scotch terrier inhabiting the remote farmhouse Major Major called home, and five of them and the Scotch terrier turned out to be agents for the F.B.I. Soon they had enough derogatory information on Major Major to do whatever they wanted to with him. The only thing they could find to do with him, however, was take him into the Army as a private and make him a major four days later so that Congressmen with nothing else on their minds could go trotting back and forth through the streets of Washington, D.C., chanting, "Who promoted Major Major? Who promoted Major Major?"
From Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Today is the anniversary of Joseph Heller's death in 1999. If you have a copy, grab your Catch-22 and your favorite beverage and dawdle a little in a comfortable warm chair, somewhere in your home.
dude you know you talk alot of shit about people. what and who do you listen to? most of the musicians you bad ran-down are really talented. i bet you are like most shit talkers and cant play your own instrument or write your own songs so in the lack-there-of you have to bad mouth everyone else because they are so much better than you could ever dream of being. i listen to alot of music. i guess you could say its my life. i have my own band and play my own instrument and write my own stuff. next time try not to be such an asshole. you know real musicians dont criticize other form of music or artist, so i know you arent a musician.
Posted by: justin at December 3, 2005 06:19 PM
I'm going to make a number arguments here about this and that, but I want to make the most important one first. It's what you should always come back to when considering the state of Mainstream Country radio, its cynical, greedy approach to the music, and the recording industry's cynical, greedy response and delivery. If you download the document at the above link and turn to page 40, you'll see that in trumpeting 35% of their entry's overall score, they (K102, KEEY, Minneapolis) crow about their pull with the female demographic:
#1 W18-54 (W = Women listeners, 18-54 = age range)
This is it; this is the Rosetta Stone, the Code of Hammurabi, and the Dead Sea Scrolls all rolled into one. No matter what else I write here; no matter who Ed Benson trots out on stage in New York City in a couple of weeks to make the Bloombergs feel like the Beverly Hillbillies; no matter how many glowing reviews of Big & Rich or Toby Keith records by otherwise seemingly sane music critics you might read at this and other sites; never ever lose sight of the above information. The numbers above are all that matters to Mainstream Country Radio and the Mainstream Country recording industry. Anything and everything that delivers these numbers is in; anything and everything that doesn't, is out. This is why Johnny Cash died, Van Lear Rose won a Grammy and not a CMA, and why Willie still gets stoned.
Quoted from one of my earlier blogs
Correct, Justin, I'm not a musician. I'm a former radio host, and current blogger. I'm possibly one, or maybe even two steps above a common garden slug. This blog isn't about all kinds of music, and, when I began my radio "career" on WIXK in July of 2001, I was "fair" for about 2 or 3 shows; I quickly realized that fair was not only practically impossible, but also extremely boring.
No sir...you, like many, found this blog after my annual tirade against the Country Music Association Awards. As you can guess, I'm not really worried about the reactions to it. There are only a few thousand people who ever read this thing in any given month, and there were only a few thousand listening every Saturday when I was on the air. My niche was my niche, and like it or not, Justin, many people agree with the overall tenor of my position, if not the literal content therein.
But you raise an interesting point, one that I've addressed in different ways throughout the almost 3 year run of this blog: what do I like?
The easiest way to essay this topic is the obvious Top Ten list, a la Greil Marcus and/or Casey Kasim. Ahh, but what a yawner Justin! Although you can doll them up with stories of murder and alarming non sequiturs on personal hygeine, Top Ten lists are like assholes...yada yada yada.
Then it hit me! A radio station. Let's all play Program/Music director for a blog and create what a Country radio station should sound like. But, let's not do it in a vacuum. Why would we? We have--possibly--the Number One country station in all of North America right here in Minneapolis: K102, KEEY. It's bland, it's commercial, and there are people inside it who actually believe that Kenny Chesney is talented, but that's splitting hairs.
No, Justin, radio is a business, so if we're going to counter-program to K102, we gotta be business-like. We have to bow down before, then take archaelogical samples of the Rosetta stone. That stone says it all: number one with Chicks with household purchasing power. Working like University economists from the premise that Arbitron's numbers are true and statistically relevant, we've got to ask ourselves what kind of station that is, and what we can do to sucker it out into the open, then flank it for the kill shot.
A big time Radio big shot smart guy in this town once said to me in his office on a couple of different occasions, roughly 25 times, "I don't see how you can have a country station without playing the hits." He was saying this despite the fact that in less than 12 months, my two hour block of programming on Sunday nights had gone from a .3 share to a 3.5 share on Arbitron's general "adults" demo in the Twin Cities, with no promo spots, billboards, or external advertising of any sort...just me, my crappy web site, and my overworked hotmail account. My passion at the time blinded me to the wisdom of his words; but, conversely, his cold calculations blinded him to some high octane opportunity.
If Country does anything, it trades heavily on the "familiar." But, familiar embodies a wide spectrum of issues and sounds. Garth Brooks is familiar in that he's sold over a hundred million units of whatever familiar might be. The Radio big shot smart guy was very right about that. Through sheer quantity and packaging, you can bottle familiar like Kaopectate® or Ex-Lax® and either stem the tide or open the floodgates of whatever particular soup fits your expertise.
But familiar has its ancient roots as well. There's a strain in familiar with Country music that is the response to a hard-sawn fiddle, a viciously strangled, flat-picked guitar, or the smithy fire bending of a pedal steel. These sounds are the fabric of the art form, and as such, when properly applied and/or smartly co-opted, they fill your jug with their own kind of wine.
But, Justin, business...back to business...A careless person would program an Americana station to challenge K102. One, because "Americana" carries its own cartload of bullshit and would be too inflexible in a true radio war. Two, because it wouldn't challenge K102 at all: a handful of people would listen to it, people who were into the music and were waiting for that station for a long time, but, there wouldn't be any real cannibalization of K102's audience.
Speaking of which, that's the goal here: cannibalize their audience and force them to do crazy shit to run you out of town. I gotta be honest with you Justin, the first book that came back negative for them in the slightest would cause the big guns to come out. Recent events in this town suggest that ClearChannel has a few dings in its quarterpanels, but the engine still runs, and make no mistake, the rest of the team would cut off and draft for the best car in a heartbeat to preserve market share and demo. Realism, Justin, that's what you're looking for right? I'm a realist.
But we can set that aside for a minute. We need to PROGRAM this beast, and sign on for our first broadcast day.
WIXK in its waning months ran a satellite feed from Buck Owens' Real Country product based out of Dallas or Phoenix or someplace. Overall, it had a good sound and feel to it, but it had a real predictability leak in it that made it easy to counterprogram. It was simply a greatest hits format, very little variation between artists, and more importantly, songs. All greatest hits type formats have their kitsch value, and that familiarity angle insures at least a little bit of consistent interest. But, in the business of radio, listeners need a bit of an edge, a breath of fresh air that tells them they're getting something new at least part of the time. That could come from the song selection, the on-the-street promotions, the prize giveaways, or the on-air personalities. Hell, the creepy, all-computer all the time "JACK" formats, while born in the bowels of hell, to their credit give you some odd variety from time to time.
We have to go back to the Rosetta Stone to program the music on this station. The primary rule is to play only music that gets adult chicks with household purchasing power to listen to the commercials. That leaves us a lot of leeway and brings us to my standing second premise: the mainstream Nashville recording industry has set itself up to deliver this demographic to the radio stations. They deliver the music, which delivers the audience, which listens to the commercials, and buys the products, whose primary and secondary income streams re-prop up the entire mess. And why wouldn't everyone play this game? It's a miniature game of capture and condition; give them what they desire, then re-program their desires to make the enterprise a self-sufficient nightmare. Goebbels would have been proud.
But I digress.
The joke is, we'd all just have to do like Waylon, Willie, and TomPall...move to Austin, literally and/or figuratively. Country has its dirty little secret...it's called Billy Joe Shaver...Joe Ely...EmmyLou Harris...Loretta Lynn...and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Acts like this have one foot in the classic sounds and times of decades past, while being viable, breathing recording artists today. And they aren't "Americana," which really connotes a kind of blending of styles of music with a twang edge. Their newest recordings would be in heavy rotation, and fuck the record companies, we'll pick which songs off the album we'll play.
The 90's were filled with the godfathers of alt country. In fact, if we were all honest with ourselves, alt country was probably born and died during that decade, the true attempt to make punk, new wave, and grunge music that sounded country, and vice versa. Many of the artists of that time have abandoned their original pursuits and pulled back into purer forms of the various genres. But, many of them made great albums and recorded vital music. The best of this music can blend seamlessly into a playlist that called itself Country, especially if a PD/MD had an ear for certain songs at certain times of day.
2005 was a damned good year for edgy Country music. I can tell you right now that Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell, Billy Joe Shaver, Robbie Fulks, and many others would get heavy rotation. Pure country albums recorded in many instances, in places and for labels outside of Nashville.
Radio big shot smart guy time...the "hits." Al Kunz and I both know that you can't program a Country station today and not play a little Garth. Oh well, them's the breaks. So we'll pick and choose...a little Garth here, a little George Strait there, we'll take Keith Urban because he writes his own songs and he's laying the wood to Nicole Kidman, we'll take Vince Gill, etc. You can't throw a bunch of talented musicians into a city like Nashville and not come out with a few polished turds, it's just statistics. But, here's where my egomaniacal, narcissistic, God complex comes in...No Kenny, No Big & Rich, No Rascall Flatts. Call it a hunch, call it experience, call it whatever you want...you won't care about or miss any of these people in ten years.
Finally, the classics. You just can't play enough Hank, Johnny, Buck and/or Merle. It's sacrilege not to. Since we're taking on K102, and we're trying to suck in and then flank them and their audience for the kill shot, if somebody calls us and says, "stop playing that Johnny Cash shit and play some Kenny Chesney," all employees will gladly tell the caller to change the station, shut their radio off, we don't want them listening to us anymore.
Justin, we're almost there.
Sadly, radio has some rules that you just don't cross...1) goofy morning show, 2)mid morning thru lunch into late afternoon, lunch pail types who lay off the whackiness, but are funny, smart and engaging in their own ways, 3)fast-talking extrovert for afternoon drive, 4) nocturnal freaky types for the rest of the night until the morning show folks take over again.
Morning zoo crew types just need support...lots of guests, lots of distractions...people driving to work don't need dissertations on why Johnny Paycheck was unappreciated for his phrasing. The music, what little there would be of it, should be peppy, I don't want to bum people out. The mid-morning stuff would be heavy in classic stuff, slowly ebbing into chicky stuff. In a perfect world, my afternoon jock would be a hillbilly Oprah with a Reverend Horton Heat album cover tattooed on her bicep, maybe a single mother currently trying to find a second or even third husband. Afternoon drive would be an absolute idiot, and his producer, if he had one, wouldn't tell him what was being played next. Just give away prizes, bitch about traffic and the weather, and tell stupid, slightly dirty jokes. Egomania, narcissism, and God complex aside, I'm working 7 to 10pm, and my show is going to be a heavy rotation of live cuts...in fact, it's all going to be live cuts...if I ever play a studio cut, kill me. I'm going to have guests in town for gigs, live in the studio, and I'm going to give away booze and snowmobiles. Night time will be filled with a continuous stream of radio scrap heap rejects looking for a warm bowl of soup. The main goal with these people will be to allow them to cruise the internet and cook up witty drops for the rest of to use during the day. They should get fired and rehired every 4 to 5 months. One should have gout, another a tooth ache, etc.
Weekends should be filled with a mini-clone of this schedule in places, plus lots of specialty shows...a two hour all-local show, a blue grass show, a folk show, etc. Eventually, there should be a live, theatre-style show like Prairie Home Companion, but with drinking and smoking and bleeped out cursing. In fact, cross Garrison Keillor with Drinking With Ian.
There it is, KJKS, God-damned Country for Country's sake. Swedberg's quaking in his loafers (right).
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