By Wil Forbis
September 16, 2003
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
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.
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?
that I’m knocking anyone here – I check out Salon daily. But you know
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.