In the Heart of Country Music in the Heart of the Country

Jeff Eaton on his gas tank bass, playing with the Split Lip Rayfield band. Photo by © Marla Keown found on Split Lip

How the Midwest remade country music in its own image -- and without even trying.

The y’allternative or insurgent country movement of the '90s was not an unprecedented one. It evolved from––and, in many cases, improved upon––the country rock sound birthed and raised into childhood by bands such as the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Pure Prairie League. Curiously, a number of the insurgent bands sprang from the Midwest.

Uncle Tupelo emerged from the relatively obscure Bellevile, Illinois with a fusion of punk energy and country influenced philosophy with songs that spoke of life in the heartland with unusual metaphors and an earnestness absent from the irony-drenched mainstream. The Jayhawks had sprung from the fertile Minneapolis scene in the dimming days of the Twin/Tone years, although it would take the band more than half a decade to make a real mark on the national front. A few bands made their mark mostly in the part of the world that exists West of the Mississippi, having emerged from largely from the Great Plains or Texas––the latter being not so much a territory of the country, of course, as a territory entirely its own.

Popularity can be explained by the cliché of being in the right place at the right time, but only partly. There are the elements of time, patience, and yes, even maturity––as evidenced by examining the story of Split Lip Rayfield. That band emerged from Wichita, Kansas, the largest city in the Sunflower State. Lawrence and Topeka certainly birthed popular country and one might say that Kansas music, no matter what ilk, remains largely unaware of larger trends––something that might also be said specifically of Wichita. Although it would be foolish to suggest that the music emerging from the Air Capital (Wichita), is wholly untouched by outside forces, it’s reasonable to claim that the sounds that first found purchase there remain stubbornly embedded in the music that emerges from that stretch of Tornado Alley.

If it’s true that the people of the Midwest are somehow slower to catch on to trends, then it certainly has been an advantage. The permutations that have occurred in various art forms, but particularly in music, have offered a richness that would breeze by two quickly on the coasts or be dismissed simply as not new enough. At the same time, it’s tempting to suggest that Uncle Tupelo and others––especially those that came to populate the insurgent front––were leading a new charge or, at the very least, continuing one that paused around the time Joe Walsh joined the Eagles. In truth, there was something fresh and vibrant about the country-driven sound that Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks, and the Bottle Rockets, but it was not entirely new.

Born in the brewery capital of America, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Violent Femmes had been mixing up country with loads of punk energy since the early '80s. The group’s 1983 self-titled debut relies heavily on the country propulsion of Brian Ritchie’s bass and the driving force of Gordon Gano’s acoustic guitar. The voice didn’t belong to country––Gano owed a certain debt to Jonathan Richman and Lou Reed––and neither did the lyrics; Gano often sounded like a more frank and frustrated version of the teenager in love Dion had complained about being two decades earlier. And Gano should have sounded authentic in his complaints as he wrote a number of the lyrics while still trapped in Milwaukee’s public school system.

But many of the pieces found on 1984’s Hallowed Ground told a deeper, richer story. Not only did the Connecticut-born son of a preacher man’s Christian beliefs come to the fore via “Jesus Walking on the Water”, but the album’s opening track, “Country Death Song”, was a murder ballad through and through and Ritchie banged out alternating bass notes like a Music Row man who’d just heard Jaco Pastorius for the first time. The group was also signed to the Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash, home to X, featuring John Doe, who would find a new life as a country-tinged artist later in his career, and The Blasters, the leading purveyors of American music––whatever the genre. Waukesha, Wisconsin’s BoDeans, would also sign with Slash but that outfit always owed more to the Everly Brothers than the Louvin Brothers––and while there was country around the edges, that band always had more pop-oriented ambitions.

True, Violent Femmes would have never flown as a country band and most were happy to refer to the band as acoustic punk. The country colors would become less pronounced by the time 1986’s The Blind Leading the Naked rolled out, but the final great Violent Femmes album, 3 (1989), held strong to the gospel plow with “Outside the Palace” and a few songs––“Telephone Book”, “Lies”––that someone raised on Ralph Stanley’s music could have loved.

Minneapolis’ The Replacements might be forever remembered as an American punk rock band had the group not been capable of quickly introducing a wide variety of influences that ranged from British rock (Terry Reid, the Stones, Slade) to confessional singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, to country music. When not delivering punishing blows of amphetamine-drenched rock such as “Fuck School” and “I Hate Music”, main songwriter Paul Westerberg found time to write tender pieces such as “If Only You Were Lonely”, which had clever turns of phrase and a weariness that imagined George Jones emerging in the era of Ms. Pac-Man and Brooke Shields.

The Replacements even found time to work “Your Cheatin’ Heart” into live shows and Bob Stinson’s lead guitar playing on Hootenanny often reeked of country, especially during “Take Me Down to the Hospital” and “Love Lines”. (Stinson’s guitar hero was––believe it or not––Yes’s Steve Howe, a man who learned a thing or 50 from country guitar master Chet Atkins.)

Stinson was dismissed from the ranks and the group moved toward a hard-edged sound for 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me but 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul saw a return to earlier influences via tracks such as “Achin’ to Be”, “They’re Blind”, and the outtakes “We Know the Night” and “Portland”. All Shook Down, the final Replacements outing All Shook Down (1990) was a beautifully disheveled death rattle that had its share of songs that bore more of a passing resemblance to Cash than it did to the Clash.

By then No Depression, Uncle Tupelo’s debut album, was quietly emerging and, by the mid-decade, the number of similar-sounding bands would grow exponentially. Whiskeytown staggered out of North Carolina to glowing reviews and enthusiastic audiences; albums such as Faithless Street and Stranger’s Almanac were evidence of a band poised for great things. Stylistically, Whiskeytown sounded a bit like the rough-hewn rock that former Uncle Tupelo man Jay Farrar developed with the band Son Volt and which Jeff Tweedy’s band Wilco also played on its first album, A.M. and parts of its second release, Being There.

Sadly, Whiskeytown’s career would be cut short. The group’s final full-length Pneumonia (featuring former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson), languished in record company litigation for more than two years, spelling the end of the band and the launch of frontman Ryan Adams’s successful but tumultuous career.

Jeff Tweedy may have been wise to move increasingly away from the roots sound he and Farrar had hone in Uncle Tupelo––the room was, by the end of 1996, already getting crowded. He wasn’t the only new kid in Chicago by that time––a young upstart label called Bloodshot had emerged and was releasing songs by guys with acoustic guitars and western shirts, many of whom had lived in the Midwest, had been raised on country, weaned by punk and heavy metal, and had decided to split the difference.

One of Bloodshot’s key––and better signings––was Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys, a group formed in Kansas City, Missouri in 1997 by Scott “Rex” Hobart, who’d been in the highly influential band Giants Chair. The group was one of several loud rock bands that emerged from KC in the mid-'90s, alongside Shiner, Molly McGuire, and Boy’s Life, that would release a few important but poorly selling albums before disbanding.

Hobart’s mother had been a George Jones fan and perhaps through an act of sentimentality or an act of punk rock rebellion, or perhaps because there were simply only so many hours in a day one could tolerate loud rock guitars, Hobart bought a cassette compilation of The Possum’s best at a truck stop somewhere on the winding highways of America.

As good as Giants Chair was, it was Hobart’s latter endeavor, influenced by this seemingly innocent purchase, which delivered his more tuneful work. His Buck Owens-flavored country went down a storm with younger audiences as well as fans of classic country. Albums such as 2002’s Your Favorite Fool (produced by Pete Anderson from Dwight Yoakam’s band) and The Spectacular Sadness of Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys (2000) demonstrated this via songs such as “Bridge Burners Union (Local 36)” and “Gotta Get Back to Forgetting You”.

Another act in the Bloodshot stable could be polarizing––Austin’s The Meat Purveyors was a band with its tongue about to burst through its cheek and albums such as Sweet In the Pants (1998) and More Songs About Buildings and Cows (1999) were mixed bags that never quite smacked listeners into submission. Cute but ultimately forgettable covers of Human League and Ratt songs became a bit much after a time and frequent and inexplicable band hiatuses didn’t help much, either.

Austin had launched Bad Livers in 1990, a trio whose acoustic-based sounds would be highly influential on the “thrash grass” bands that emerged by decade’s end. Among those acts was Split Lip Rayfield. Split Lip’s was first formed in the mid-'90s by Kirk Rundstrom, co-guitarist and vocalist for the band Scroat Belly. He and friend Wayne Gottstine had worked in a succession of bands together, including Technicolor Headrush, the noise project Winking Spaniard (in which they both played percussion), and finally Scroat Belly.

Scroat Belly was perhaps the most commercially successful of the bands Rundstrom and Gottstine had been part of to that point––albeit in the way that Troll 2 may have been more commercially successful than its predecessor. Despite a fine debut record, The Great Alaskan Holiday, and a sophomore outing that Bloodshot released (Daddy’s Farm, 1997), Scroat Belly died a quiet death––the quartet had played to too many empty rooms and met too many broken promises. Perhaps the music was too extreme––songs could shift from “One More Joe”, which sounded like a great but obscure Bakersfield single, to “Pistol”, a track that might have given thrash metal’s Big Four––Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica––a few sleepless nights for its heaviness and sheer brutality.

The songs––coming from Gottstine and Rundstrom––were populated by characters who didn’t get drunk or high because it brought relief; they got drunk and high because it was the only thing they knew how to do. These were characters who were often beyond redemption and simply didn’t care––the other world, where people lost jobs and houses and marriages didn’t matter. How could it to people who’d never owned so much as a speck of dirt?

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