By Wil Forbis
September 16, 2003
One night, a couple months ago, I set out from my new Los Angeles digs with a mission. I wanted to go to a bar. I wanted to go to a bar within walking distance. I wanted to go to a bar that wasn't too big. I wanted to go to a bar that played live music. I wanted to go to a bar that served hard liquor (the kind that only real men such as myself can imbibe.) I wanted to go to a bar filled with naked women eager to perform the most perverse sexual acts, including those involving shoes, at no cost.
But I’d settle for five out of six.
I found myself walking down Culver City's Sepulveda Blvd., headed towards a place called Joxer Daly's. I'd been there once before and it had filled most of the above requirements, though something about the place never felt right. It still had too much of a LA vibe, as if every person in the bar sized you up when you entered and, with a knowing smirk, found you wanting. But as I began to walk there, it occurred to me that there was another neighborhood establishment I’d noticed in previous adventures: The Cinema Bar. Having never been inside, I knew nothing of the place. The odds of it having live music seemed slim since it appeared, from the outside at least, to be the size of a matchbox. 'Should I?' I pondered the decision as I approached its beckoning neon sign. 'Aww, what the hell.”
I walked in and discovered that my dreams had been answered. A band was playing, and it was a good 'un. Though it was standing room only, the area was still comfortable and I didn't have to have parts of my body pressed up against the parts of other people I'd rather not press up against. Strong well drinks were held by every patron. Cigarette smoke lightly wafted about. (Sshhhh! It's illegal for a California bar to allow smoking.) The women in the bar were... well, the type of women you'd rather not see perform perverse sexual acts any cost. But I wanted to concentrate on the music anyway.
The band was a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. It was, what the kids now call, "Alt-Country," though I believe it's recently taken the more dignified name "Americana." This worked out well, because I’d recently become fascinated with this sub-genre of American song. I’ve got one of those cable television music services that pumps ad-free streams of music through your TV set, and lately, my listening choices vary between either the “Americana” or “Old School Rap” categories. My predilection for the rap should hardly have to be explained – any music connoisseur worth their salt should thrill to the sounds of Tone Loc or early Ice-T. (Wanna feel old? They consider the first Snoop Dog album, “old school.”) But the fact that I would be listening to country music would probably come as a shock to a number of people, including the me of fifteen years ago.
What led to my conversion? It was in many ways due to the legendary singer/songwriter/heroin addict Steve Earle. In the early nineties, a roommate of mine pulled a country compilation tape out of the garbage and passed it on to me. Most of it was that “Hot Country” drivel that was poisoning the airwaves back then, but nestled in there was Earle’s breakthrough “Guitar Town,” a song about a road weary musical vagabond with just “thirty seven bucks and a Jap* guitar.” While the song had the standard studio sheen of a Garth Brooks tune, it couldn’t hide the… dare I say it, the “soul” of the tune. It seemed as indebted to The Rolling Stones as it did Hank Williams, and there was something honest about Earle’s delivery. A lot of country singers play up their “countryness” with exaggerated yodels, but Earle seemed confident enough with his Southern drawl that he had no need to overdo.
*By capitalizing the term “Jap,” I believe it becomes less offensive.
Of course, that was all I heard of the guy for several years. (Long enough for him to get busted for drugs, go to prison, get clean and become an outspoken social progressive.) It wasn’t until the late 90’s that I found a compilation of the “Best of Steve Earle” at the public library and duped myself a copy. Here were, in addition to “Guitar Town,” a plethora of great songs. Country music with balls. Through the library I was also introduced to another spectacular band with the same unorthodox country stylings: Jason and the Scorchers. The Scorchers had come into existence around the same time as Earl, but true to their namesake, burned out earlier. (Not quite true, they’ve had several moderately successful comebacks, and lead singer Jason Ringenberg seems to have a full time recording career. But I couldn’t waste that “burned out” metaphor.) Like Earl, Jason and the Scorchers were more than just straight country, and weren’t afraid to let their rock roots miscegenate with their hillbilly sensibilities.
Little did I know it at the time, but I was digesting the work of two of the seminal artists of what I would later learn was Americana, a music form that isn’t so much a style as it is a reinterpretation of the past. Like country, it traces itself back to artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and the ultimate Godfather, Hank Williams. But it also celebrates more rockin’ groups like the aforementioned Stones, The Allman Brothers, Gram Parsons and even Lynyrd Skynyrd. This in not say that it’s a dead art form whose best practitioners are doddering, toothless geriatrics recalling their past glories. (Or their groupies, but maybe they’re one and the same.) From these joint influences sprung forth a gamut of more modern groups such as Wilco, The Jayhawks, Amy Rigby, The Waifs and The Derailers. (Tongue-in-cheek speed picker Junior Brown probably doesn't officially sit within the alt-country confines, but deserves mention anyhow.) Despite its firm roots, I would argue Americana is still a young music form.
Which is a bit weird, since I think one of the secrets of Americana’s musical success is that it’s music for old people. Or maybe what I mean is that it’s a genre where older people can feel welcome. (Of course, in the world of rock and roll, "old" means over 30. Thank you, John Lennon.) Rap, Nu-Metal, and indie-rock are all styles jealously hoarded by insolent youth. But Americana welcomes the geezers - wrinkles, warts, walkers and all. When I walked into the Cinema, I was peering over bushy mullets and chrome domes alike, all belonging to persons having a grand time. (I should note the band playing: Mike Stinson. Check him out.) It seemed like what I imagine audiences audiences were like a century ago, before we willingly segregated ourselves into different commercial demographics. Old folks and young ‘uns, all getting down together. I even had to move out of the way as a couple helped a woman well into her eighties towards the door. (Right behind her was a woman who's been sitting alone for most of the time I'd been there followed by a genuine urban cowboy - someone was going to get lucky tonight.)
Of course, I’m avoided the obvious question – what does it sounds like?In a word, sloppy. Sloppiness is the main differential I can see between Americana and Country (at least the breed of “Nu-Country” that’s been popular for the last fifteen years or so.) There’s a built in stumble in the music, causing the guitar player to miss a couple strings in the chord he’s playing and the groove of the song to jerk forward like a train that’s just rolled over a hobo sleeping on the tracks. But whereas Nu-Country might go in with Pro Tools and take out the mistakes, Americana just lets them be. Even with its melody and harmony, the music embraces a degree of cacophony. Wilco, who are one of the stalwarts of the genre, never met an atonal guitar solo they didn’t like. Amy Rigby delivers her lyrics in with the exaggerated shrieking of a character from a Flannery O’Connor novel. It’s not so out of left field that you feel like you’re at a John Cage concert, but it’s dirty, not clean, music. It’s surprising I like it. Unlike the majority of faux-intelligent SPIN magazine critics who raved about the dissonance of mid-nineties grunge stars, I’ve never liked atonality for its own sake. (Kurt Cobain’s anti-guitar solos made me yawn.) I think the difference is that Americana doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s not afraid to embrace sweetness in music. Right after the harmonica melody played in the wrong key will be a set of plaintive harmony vocals so beautiful you'll find real tears dribbling into your straight shot of Johnny Walker..
This is not to say I don't have my complaints with the Americana genre. It beats a dead horse by covering the topic of broken relationships and mewing out the standard, country, "woe is me" lyricism. I also feel that it needs recognize its inherent contradictions. Traditional country music is, after all, the choice of Red State, Bush voting, chaw spittin’ traditionalists long lambasted by northern liberals. But younger Americana artists seem to often portray themselves as post-grunge, uber-hipsters. (They put the “alt” in “Alt-Country.”) And while I’ve no doubt that Americana has gazillions of genuinely blue collar fans, I suspect that a lot of the lit graduate magazine scribes who rave about the music as “critically acclaimed” and the Salon-reading* urbanites buying the albums are enjoying music that represents a class of people they’d seldom integrate with. I don’t doubt the purity of artists like Steve Earle, but I’m less sure of some of the newer bands. The factoids that appear on the television screen to accompany my cable TV “radio” often mention that the artist singing about wide open spaces lives in New York City. New Yawk City?
*Not that I’m knocking anyone here – I check out Salon daily. But you know the type.
But hey - lets not kid ourselves, there’s no music that’s totally pure anymore. And if there was it’d be pretty boring to listen to. Good music should transcend its class and appeal to folk of all faiths and creeds. Eventually Americana will be analyzed to death by the same critical propellerheads who ruined jazz and heavy metal (the two greatest music forms of the 20th Century) and the freshness will be gone. I’m just trying to hip you to a good thing while it’s on the ground floor.
Besides there’s only two things we can hope for from a form of music. It should sound good and it should give you a chance to get laid. Americana does both.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.