When Indie Musicians “Go Country”
A lot of these indie musicians who wouldn’t call themselves "country" sound more country to me than Rascal Flatts or, for that matter, than Fleet Foxes, who are described as “alt-country”.
Released on a label whose tagline is “underground Seattle rock 1980 to 2021”, Green Pajamas Country! is the first album marked as “country” from the Seattle psychedelic-ish, power-pop-ish cult group the Green Pajamas who, led by singer/songwriter Jeff Kelly, have been releasing albums since 1984. At first the album seems like a cartoon version of country, from the cowgirl with a gun on the cover to the opening number “Green Pajama Country (Opening Theme)”, a cheeky, retro ode to Western theme music.
However, that’s less a joke and more about tapping into the way “country” exists in our brains and in our memories, how we tie it in with the album covers and TV shows of our childhood. Even as the songs go deeper and get better, it’s as if Kelly and his band took their usual style of music and combined it with their own memories and associations of country music. They approach “country music” as a state of mind, in that way presenting both an outsider’s view of the genre and a very personal take on what country music means.
The idea of “country music”, not surprisingly, translates mainly into dark stories of murder, obsession, suicide, betrayal, blizzards, whiskey, cigarettes, highways, trailer homes, funerals, weddings, guns, horses, revenge and, because this is a Green Pajamas album, a dose of Catholic guilt. The first lyric on the album: “Listen to me, Beth / of a tale I’ll tell / of drinking and sinking into debt”, at once tying together Kelly’s habit of addressing songs to women; the sort of tragic historical English folk balladry that both Kelly and American country music draw from; and the epic country tradition of hard-luck songs. The song is called “Pass Me Another Whiskey”, and takes place in a bar (a “tavern”, actually), where the narrator tells of losing his job, losing his woman and feeling like he’s at the end of everything. “My heart is black and dead”, he sings, summarizing the basic perspective of the album. That’s a classic setup, and one that still lives even on mainstream country radio today, though these days there will most likely be an old guy at the bar telling our singer that things will work out OK.
On Green Pajamas Country!, women leave men for other men, or men leave women and regret it. Then you’ve got beat-down men drinking whiskey to forget, writing suicide letters, driving down the highway seeing their woman’s image in the road, or contemplating brutal revenge. “Last Night Was Like the End of the World” puts heartbreak in apocalyptic terms, and the whole album puts personal pain in epic, serious, historical, final terms. In the blizzard / funeral / lust story that is “Winter of ‘23”, an old oak tree stands as a symbol of dark thoughts and regrets.
Other songs such as the 9-minute “She’s Gone, She’s Gone, She’s Gone, Daddy She’s Gone”, spot where the album falls completely into a psychedelic breakdown, is a jumble-up up story of guns, horses, tombs and, I’m pretty sure, a vampire. There’s a song called “Why Good Men Go Bad”, a title that could stand in for so, so many hard-times country ballads and western films – both of which the song resembles. It tells a revenge tale, a cowboy tale, and a brutal one at that. Not only the violence but the emotions are brutal, exploding within the hearts of the characters. As the song crawls and the narrative unfolds, intensity builds, up to the moment where our good man who went bad is trying to drink away his memories and his guilt. But of course, he can’t. “Can’t drink away that summer / can’t drink away my life / or those big brown eyes”, he sings, getting stuck for a moment on that last image, the one that haunts him most. The song contains no pat answers: “why good men go bad / I really can’t say”.
That ambiguity about good and evil is one way you’ll distinguish this kind of song from what you'll hear in the current mainstream country music. (As the “trailer” made by the record label puts it, with a playful dig at Brad Paisley, “Nobody gets checked for ticks in Green Pajamas Country. They just drink, fuck and regret”. ) Musically, the pop and rock it’s looking towards is different than the pop and rock your current hitmakers look towards, too. And it's different from what the pop and rock your “alt-country” heroes take after, too.
Musically Green Pajamas Country! fits more in line with a handful of other indie-pop or folk-ish groups that have been looking back to the country records of their childhood, without feeling in any way comfortable calling themselves country artists, or even “Americana”, the genre-tag that “alt-country” seems to have mutated into, by pulling bluegrass and other folky singer-songwritery music in with the Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo-leaning country-rock groups of the day.
The groups I’m referring to put the ‘70s country albums of their youth together with a non-country singer-songwriter music of the same era -- your Randy Newmans and Harry Nilssons -- and their own more indie-rock DIY impulses. Take, for example, the California group Big Harp. The press releases for their debut album White Hat, released on Saddle Creek earlier this year, cites Captain Beefheart and Nick Cave as well as Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt, and their lead single “Everybody Pays” has drawn a lot of Nilsson comparisons. They made a mixtape for Magnet that included Lefty Frizzell and the Violent Femmes, Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen. Their album isn’t strictly country by genre, but it sort of is.
In their songs people move away from the insanity of the city; they sit in bars trying to drown out their worries; they say goodbye to friends and lives and worlds that they used to know but don’t anymore. They get into some country iconography too, their album cover looking like a farmers’ almanac and depicting a couple and their horse travelling through the desert.
Then there’s Ohioans the Black Swans, whose 2011 album Don’t Blame the Stars is inspired by Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein, Roger Miller and perhaps some of the less famous ‘70s singer/songwriters that the band has worked with or paid tribute to in recent years: Larry Jon Wilson, Bob Martin, Ed Askew. Much of the gist of the album is a tribute to music itself, to the power of music to help us overcome the tragedies of life. In doing so, they sing in tribute to singers who have sang about suffering so we can all can internalize their songs and try to get past our own pain – people like Joe Tex, Roy Orbison, and Iris Dement, all of whom aren’t country, or maybe you could argue that they are.
There are a whole host of other indie-label musicians who aren’t country, necessarily, but sort of really are. Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, was compared more at first to Will Oldham than Willie Nelson. Then in 2009 he did an album of Nelson covers, To Willie, that took the notion of Nelson as a stoned spiritual guru and amplified it. Musically some might say the album de-countrified Nelson, but really, that isn’t possible, is it? Instead it doesn’t really sound country but at the same time, it does.
A lot of these indie musicians who wouldn’t call themselves "country" sound more country to me than Rascal Flatts or, for that matter, than Fleet Foxes, who are described as “alt-country” (for that matter, the new Tom Waits album sounds more country to me than either of those, and he's not a country artist in any sense that we use those words). That isn’t to say that one band is more country than the others, or to repeat the canard that country music today isn’t really country. In fact, your alt-country underground hero and your "NashVegas" CMT mainstay might both feel like they’re walking in Hank Williams footsteps. They’re just going about it in much different ways.
“Country”, like most genres that seem to have strict boundaries but truly don’t, is a feeling as much as a sound. In other words, you can be influenced by the same stuff but use that for different purposes. Often those seemingly disparate routes will intersect, and songs that reach across the supposed divide resemble each other more than you expect. Toby Keith’s outlaw song “Bullets in the Gun”, with lovers on the run from the law is basically Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever”, though neither musician’s fans are likely to admit it. On some of their songs, Miranda Lambert’s new trio Pistol Annies do a trailer-trash vaudeville / Hee Haw thing that’s not too far away from what the sort-of-country (now sort-of garage rock) trio Those Darlins has done, though the latter’s playing indie-rock clubs and I saw the former on a network TV morning show.
Across the genre (or genres, if you must) of country, though, there’s the feeling that you’re either country or you’re not, that it’s almost something you’re born with more than something you can put on. The Green Pajamas album is an exercise in putting on country, much like Jonathan Richman’s 1990 album Jonathan Goes Country. If you consider country as an idea more than something that’s in your DNA, and as a set of ideas more than a clean-cut musical approach, these albums are not inauthentic aberrations but opportunities to hear what the idea of country music means to someone who listens to it, is inspired by it, but doesn’t wear it as a fashion, a badge of honor, or a I’m-in-the-club jacket.
Country musicians and fans generally seem eternally worried about the dilution of the genre. It’s partly why there are so many “I’m a country boy (and you’re not)” songs on the radio these days, and why country musicians who fancy themselves as the realest or most authentic are so often singing about how pop country stars are ruining the genre.
Alan Jackson, "Gone Country"
Alan Jackson’s song “Gone Country” was apparently meant as a barb at people who put on new boots and think they’re country, but to me, as a fan of the genre and of music in general, somebody “going country” doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, as long as they have some basic amount of understanding and respect for the genre and its history.
It’s awfully interesting to hear what happens when someone who doesn’t wear the country costume tries it out for a lark. Sometimes that can be more illuminating than the works of people who everyone already accepts as country, and who therefore think they know exactly what country music should be.
Can’t country music be something you sort-of do when you want to, or that you play with without taking on the full trappings of, without it damaging or lessening the importance of the genre? It’s like when a crime writer does a fantasy novel or a children’s book, just to try that style out. I tip my hat to those musicians who are inclined to "go country" once in a while, as the feeling moves them.