Sonoma County hayride: Members of the new local band Twang--Sheila Groves, Steve Harder, and Charley Momey--mix dead-on bluegrass arrangements and deadpan lyrical humor.
Local acts hop on alt-country bandwagon
By Charles McDermid
BECAUSE Sonoma County is nearly as far from Nashville culturally as it is geographically, it may seem an unlikely place to observe an artistic shift in the world of country music. However, with such local bands as Cropduster, Clod-hopper, Twang, and the Feud, the alternative country movement, which is currently defying the creamy conventions of mainstream country, can be observed as close as one's own backyard.
Labels abound for this inevitable reaction to the sanitized world of today's pop-country: y'allternative, grange (as opposed to grunge), insurgent country, even No Depression, the name taken by a recently formed Seattle-based roots music magazine promoting "every kind of music but mainstream country."
Whatever the term, it is clear that country music is in the process of rejuvenation, turning back and renewing itself at its source.
"Alt-country is getting more established as a viable subgenre. Initially we had to take people by the hand and explain what we were about," says Rob Miller, president and co-founder of Bloodshot Records, a Chicago company specializing in such alt-country acts as the Waco Brothers and Split Lip Rayfield (a band that plays amphetamine-fast bluegrass using banjo, guitar, and a stand-up bass constructed from a Ford pickup truck gas tank and a single weedwhacker string). "Most of our bands exist as if Nashville hadn't been around for the last 25 years.
"No one's going to cite Ronnie Milsap as a stylistic influence."
A glance at the stormy history of country music clearly anticipates the sneering opposition that alt-country now offers the country establishment. It's the same diametric difference that existed between the first two recorded country artists in 1927: the Carter Family, the ultimate embodiment of rural, white, homespun values, and the "yodeling brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers, a rambling partier who lived hard and died young, lending greatly to the notion of country as "the white man's blues."
This division between the saccharine and the seedy led to the rebellion of the '70s outlaw movement against the restrictive, increasingly pop-inflected Nashville Sound and is apparent today in the vast differences between the conservative, yet enormously profitable, world of mainstream country and the stylistically adventurous alt-country bands.
"I think [alt-country] is just people who like what country music is supposed to be," says Danny Pearson of Sebastopol, the leader and founder of Clodhopper. "Real country was just singing songs for normal people--it's centered around relationships and problems therein: drinking, joking, and such."
Clodhopper, who recently opened for Emmylou Harris, titled their first album Red's Recovery Room (My Own Planet) after receiving a certain inspiration from the dubious Cotati roadhouse of the same name. With an album review set to appear in an upcoming issue of GQ magazine, it not only bodes well for the band's exposure, but marks the first time Red's and GQ have ever been mentioned in the same breath.
"We're not a cow-punk band, and we don't play rockabilly," explains Pearson. "We're pretty much going for the balladry. Telling stories of life's misadventures."
This lyrical intent, coupled with Pearson's claw-hammer banjo ("it's the old-time mountain style--hillbilly hip-hop") and a searing mandolin at times washed through a wah-wah pedal, makes Clodhopper an interesting, if elusive, addition to Sonoma County's musical landscape.
Local favorite Cropduster provide nothing less than reverential treatment to the old honky-tonk style of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and the "cosmic American music" of Gram Parsons. "It was the stories in those old songs that attracted me," explains vocalist/guitarist Andy Asp, whose own songs follow rightfully in the footsteps of the great honky-tonkers of the past, at once lamenting and celebrating the shady side of life.
Cropduster's tightly harmonized sound and raucous live shows have built a loyal following. Their much anticipated debut CD, A Strange Sort of Prayer, set for release this fall from Petaluma's Flying Harold label, should go a long way in determining the commercial viability of alt-country on the local market.
Interestingly, despite the obvious appreciation and aptitude for country music exhibited by both Cropduster and Clodhopper, neither band should expect any type of radio play from Sonoma County's country radio stations anytime soon.
A representative at KFGY 92.9-FM (also known as Froggy), who wished to remain anonymous, states simply, "We play mainstream country; we don't play alternative. We do all kinds of research, and research shows that people who enjoy country music will listen to our station. People like familiar artists. It's the mainstream stuff that's gotten us here. I really try not to argue with success."
This is, of course, the correct business perspective. Fair enough: To mainstream country goes the money; alt-country takes the integrity. It's inconceivable that these two camps ever wanted to share fans anyway.
"The country on the radio is mostly what I would call pop," says local booking agent and singer Sheila Groves, whose new bluegrass band Twang features a mandolin, guitar, stand-up bass, frying pans, and a musical avocado (an inexplicable percussive device).
Twang plays traditional bluegrass ("We rehearse our butts off," says banjo player Steve Kucera), the alternative angle being the engaging choice of unlikely cover material done bluegrass style.
"We do a whole TV-show medley--we start with 'The Ballad of Jed Clampett' and end with the theme from The Flintstones. We also cover Metallica and Motown stuff," says Kucera. "We also do a disco medley and Ronnie Montrose's 'Bad Motor Scooter.' It might not appeal to a purist. There is a certain mindset in bluegrass that the music is somewhat sacred and should not be touched. That's great for them, but we have a broader appeal.
"We actually get into a banter with the audience. We work it into the show," continues Kucera, whose own musical taste ranges from British ska to Japanese flutes. "A gimmick is fine, but what carries our group is the strong musicianship."
Fresh crop: The Sonoma County band Cropduster has a new indie CD, A Strange Sort of Prayer, with a parcel of original songs inspired by classic country artists.
INDEED, the concept of "gimmickry" elicits a barrage from Bloodshot's Miller. "I hate that mentality that you need a shtick to get noticed. That, to me, is the most offensive thing that gets thrown at us. If people cite or identify themselves with a gimmick and they're making fun of it, it's just ingenuous. There is a lot of jokey country out there that doesn't understand what a dangerous thing this is.
"We're not Goober and the Peas [an MCA recording act that performs Motown covers in a bluegrass style]--it's inexcusable."
If any band has a handle on this fine line it must certainly be the Feud. "A gimmick is something to grab the audience's attention," admits Feud member Paul Riley. "You have to have the talent to back it up."
The music of the Santa Rosa-based Feud, who call themselves "rockabilly cowpunks," provides a twist to the concept "you are everyone you ever met." Accordingly, the Feud is every song they ever heard, and, needless to say, they've heard a great many (a belligerent take on Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" is a frequent show closer).
Frankly, you've missed a definitive Santa Rosa experience if you've yet to see the Feud.
"The first goal of the band is to have fun," explains Riley, "At this point our biggest influence in music right now is still beer. You know, the songs that beer taught us."
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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.