In the karmic world of Jon Langford, a series of curiosities must occur every time he takes the stage: Hank Williams spins in his grave, Garth Brooks scratches his head, and some industry guy in Nashville feels a cold-steel-toed boot kicking his rhinestone behind.
Alternative country is here. And it sounds a lot like old-time country -- punkified.
"I thought country music was boring," says Langford, a legendary British underground rock figure whose Mekons set the standard for intelligent, pre-Nirvanapost-punk. "I thought it was sentimental right-wing music. But it struck a chord with me. I saw in it parallels to certain things in punk."
Langford, now the leader of the country-punk Waco Brothers, is not alone. Fed up with commercial country music and alienated by the radio-ready, formulaic direction of alternative rock, a broad range of artists is turning to roots stylings known variously as Americana, No Depression, anti-country and y'alternative.
Shuffling beats and slide guitars, fiddles and honey-sweet harmonies, cigarette-cracked voices and beer-soaked sentiments are replacing fuzzy distortion and walls of sound. Flannel shirts have given way to pearl-buttoned cowboy designs. It's a twang thing.
The movement, which harks back to the canon of Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash and Ernest Tubb, is linking punk rockers with country traditionalists. Both are searching for a measure of immediacy andhonesty they feel is lacking in commercial radio formats.
"The sophisticated music listener is fed up with that garbage," says Rob Miller, co-founder of Bloodshot Records in Chicago, an influential arbiter of what it calls "insurgent" country.
At its margins, alternative country includes former punks like Langford, whose Waco Brothers play high-octane roadhouse country, and new traditionalists like Robbie Fulks, who sings melodic songs like "She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died)" and "Rock Bottom, Population One."
The middle ground is held by rock-oriented bands like Son Volt and Wilco (each of whom has managed to land singles on the radio) and the confessional folk-rock aesthetic of singer-songwriters like Steve Earle and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
"They can all be lumped together, given their willingness to break out of the mold," says Miller.
In fact, Bloodshot Records identifies itself on its Web site as "a profane burr in the saddle of all the complacent, morally bankrupt forces responsible for the free-fall decline of contemporary music fighting the grim battle against line-dancing, smoke machines and 7th generation Nirvana rip-offs singing earnest professions of emptiness."
Bloodshot helped kick-start this "honky-skronk" revolution three years ago with "For a Life of Sin," a compilation featuring Chicago artists including Fulks and Langford and the tight harmonies of the group Freakwater. The recording was done as a lark, but it galvanized like-minded scenes nationwide.
"Punk was a lot of chest-beating and destroying-everything bravado," says Langford. "After you've done enough of that, you find you still have to work to make a living, face relationship problems, stuff like that."
Old-time country also provides a political context amenable to punk rock's lost direction. "Where punk rock led us is more concerned with internal struggle and arena rock posturing," says Bloodshot's Miller. "And political orientation is the death knell of Nashville. They've lost their way as much as alternative rock has."
While Bloodshot was gearing up, something curious was happening on American Online. A bulletin board dedicated to Uncle Tupelo, an alternative country band from downstate Illinois, became so popular that it was converted to a magazine covering the movement.
Published in the grunge homeland of Seattle, No Depression is now in its second year as "The Alternative Country (Whatever That Is) Quarterly."
(The No Depression moniker was swiped from the title of Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut album, which in turn is named for an old Carter Family song. Tupelo has since dissolved, but its songwriting team of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar are the personalities behind Wilco and Son Volt, respectively.)
The movement also energized the West Coast. Gavin, an important San Francisco-based radio industry journal, created an Americana chart two years ago that grouped alternative country artists, singer-songwriters and classic country figures like Johnny Cash under one umbrella. And last year, San Francisco's Bay Area Music Awards added an Americana category.
"We're definitely making that headway toward what we're trying to achieve -- getting radio to embrace this," says Rob Bleetstein, Gavin's Americana editor.
The best stations thus far, according to Bleetstein, include KPIG in Santa Cruz, Calif., WFUV in New York City, KFAL in Fulton, Mo., and KHYI in Dallas.
But most noteworthy is WMLB-AM, a 5,000-watt station on the fringes of north Atlanta.
When Chris Marino came to WMLB three years ago, it was broadcasting country gospel from its cinder-block hide-out in the Forsyth County hills. Marino installed a format blending Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings with new bands like the Wacos and cuts from Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad."
Last year, Gavin named the station "Americana Station of the Year," and Marino "Americana Programmer of the Year." And WMBL made a profit for the first time since 1989.
"There's definitely a groundswell of support for something different," says Phil Harrell, program director at WRNR-FM (103.1) in Annapolis, which plays a broad swath of Americana in its mix.
"Radio has become so narrow-minded, programmed, hyper-researched and totally unadventurous that you pretty much have the same radio station from city to city and state to state. You could drive from California to Maryland and listen to the same station just by changing the frequency. People are looking for something different, and that's what alternative country provides."
And what Nashville does not, Harrell says.
"A lot of Nashville country is Top 40 to my ears. They're not supporting important emerging artists like Son Volt. They suffer from the same syndrome as modern rock stations -- narrowcasting instead of broadcasting."
WRNR listeners are treated to such Harrell favorites as Leftover Salmon ("bluegrass gone mad"), the insurgent Old 97's ("breakneck country") or the Supersuckers, whose evolution from punk to country is explained in a band proclamation using the words "honest, pure and simple."
Another Harrell favorite is BR5-49, a rockabilly band he says evokes the days "when country was dangerous. When Johnny Cash was singing about killing a man in Reno just to watch a man die." BR5-49 has long been one of Americana's more acclaimed bands. Now it's gaining a measure of visibility: It's the band on the Southwest Airlines commercial promoting flights to -- of all places -- Nashville.
Which is somewhat startling, given Americana's anti-Nashville stance. After all, Bloodshot just put out a compilation titled "Nashville -- The Other Side of the Alley," featuring bands from Nashville who aren't very Nashville-like.
Americana record sales aren't very Nashville-like either. Most artists on Gavin's Americana chart sell fewer than 20,000 copies, compared with, say, Alan Jackson's 1.2 million records.
But while Americana artists certainly want to be heard, their ethos eschews the trappings of mass commercial popularity, be it the harsh media spotlight or meddling corporate interlopers.
The Wacos, for example, rarely tour. Freakwater walked away from a major label deal, fearing it would lose creative control. And Dale Watson certainly isn't laying the groundwork for the MTV Buzz Bin by playing for real truckers at real truckstops.
Trendiness is less welcomed than comfortably surviving with a core of appreciative fans. "When you have a nice small party, it's one thing," says Miller. "And then when a couple hundred people show up, some will have mud on their boots. People will take things."
Bleetstein says alternative country's roots are too deep to fall prey to a grunge-like crash and burn. "It's absolutely not a fad or trend. This was here 20 years ago, and it'll be here 20 years from now, whether there's an Americana chart or not."
Americana artists, in other words, are caretakers whose job is to keep the form healthy.
Langford, who's been described as "the Clash meets Cash," best describes his mission in the liner notes to Bloodshot's second compilation, "HellBent: Insurgent Country Vol. 2": "We come to exhume Hank, not to canonize him. Unbury him not from the ground in which he achieves his final elusive rest, but from beneath the mounds of gutless swill which pass for his legacy, the suffocating spew of the Nashville hit factories. Exposed to the air, ol' Hank could properly decompose and begin to act as fertilizer to his spiritual spawn, his dust scattering and regerminating in new mutations from sea to shining sea."
Ol' Hank may spin in his grave every time Langford takes the stage, but maybe it's just to turn his ear toward the sky and hear the fresh sounds born of his legacy. If so, Americana's mission will have succeeded.
Only in Americana
Here are some of the styles and practitioners lumped under the "Americana" umbrella:
* Insurgent country: Waco Brothers, the Handsome Family, Bottle Rockets
* No Depression: Wilco, Son Volt, the Jayhawks, Martin Zellar, the Billy's
* Guitar heroes: Junior Brown, Cash Money
* Traditionalists: Freakwater, BR5-49, Robby Fulks
* Truckstop: Dale Watson
* Supergroup: Golden Smog, which has put out two records and toured, is composed of members from Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, Wilco, the Honeydogs and Run Westy Run
A CD sampling:
* The Bloodshot Compilations: "For a Life of Sin," "Hellbent," "The Other Side of the Alley"
* "Rig Rock Deluxe": a compilation of truckstop music
* Uncle Tupelo: "No Depression"
* Freakwater: "Old Paint"
* Robert Earl Keen: "Picnic"
* Junior Brown: "Semi Crazy"
* Alison Krauss: "So Long, So Long"
* Gillian Welch: "Revival"
* Joe Ely: "Letter to Loredo"
* Waco Brothers: "To the Last Dead Cowboy"
Americana Web sites:
* Americana-Music: http: //www.americana-music.com This site, completing construction, intends to be the ultimate Americana authority
* Twangin' On-Line: http: //www.well.com/user/cline/twangin.html An alternative country webzine
* No Depression On-Line: http: //www.nodepression.net/frontdoor/index.html Web version of the print version
Pub Date: 7/13/97