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

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?

Just Take a Mandolin and Add a Gas Tank Bass…

Three hours up the road from Wichita, the Kansas City based group the Starkweathers leaned heavily on traditional country while sprinkling in punk as envisioned by Joe Strummer and friends. The band was wildly rebellious with a political bent that came out in the tune “Burn the Flag”, which became a crowd favorite and epitomized the group’s politics. Named after teenaged spree killer Charles Starkweather, the band had an admittedly short life, enough that its small number of releases have largely escaped the grasp of all but a few obsessive music collectors and those who saw the band perform live.

By the end of the decade Kirk Rundstrom’s new project, Split Lip Rayfield, had begun to take off. He’d recruited longtime friend Jeff Eaton to play bass––in fact, gas tank bass––in the band and David Lawrence to perform banjo duties. Buoyed by an interest in bluegrass music––Winfield, Kansas, in relative proximity to Wichita, is home of the annual Walnut Valley Music Festival where one can hear a variety of music performed, including bluegrass and permutations thereof––and working closer to country’s roots, Split Lip Rayfield found purchase on the Wichita music scene and, somewhat quickly, beyond.

The group’s 1998 debut on the Bloodshot label saw Eric Mardis replace David Lawrence on banjo. Like Lawrence, Mardis was a gifted guitarist raised on a steady diet of heavy metal, science fiction, and role-playing games; he hailed from the greater Kansas City and had formed the Creek Bank Ghetto Boys, a similarly-minded band that would serve as the perfect outlet for his smart––and occasionally lovingly smart assed––lyrics.

Rundstrom received the lion’s share of the writing credits on the first SLR album, with songs such as “Outlaw”, “San Antone”, and “Flat Black Rag” (a co-write with Eaton) becoming staples of the band’s live shows. (“Flat Black Rag” is, in the words of Eaton, the band’s “Whiskey River”.) The record suffered from unevenness––Rundstrom’s material couldn’t always compete with cover tunes such as “Long Haul Weekend”, “Pinball Machine”, or “Tiger in my Tank” and the sequencing appears to have been assigned to the Random button on someone’s CD player––but there was a spirit behind the music, a sense of hard-nosed individualism and a healthy dose of the muscular danger that had also presided over Scroat Belly’s material.

For all its positive attributes the debut album still sounds mostly like guys raised on rock trying to play something else but come 1999’s In the Mud the focus shifted and the band that emerged was markedly improved, if still not perfected. Gottstine, Rundstrom’s partner in Scroat Belly joined up, adding warp-speed mandolin lines to the mix and serving as a more thoughtful foil to Rundstrom’s from-the-gut writing style. A cover of George Jones’ “Easy Street” was the only tune written by an outside hand and Gottstine offered “3.2 Flu”, a song that, under different circumstances could have—or perhaps still can––ignite country radio. Mardis contributed “In the Ground” and “Hounds”, which had as much in common with dirt roads and rednecks as they did with Deep Purple and head banging.

The novelty of the Eaton’s gas tank bass was a drawing point but the music itself captured the curiosity seeker’s attention. If Rundstrom was not a virtuoso guitarist he remained a consummate entertainer whose charisma supplanted whatever musical shortcomings he may have had. By the turn of the century the group’s live shows had attained mythological status, a reputation further cemented by the 2001 album Never Make It Home. Released in the early hours of that year, the record featured some of Rundstrom’s most interesting material, including “PB24SS” and “Record Shop”.

Gottstine’s titular cut as well as “Movin’ To Virginia” (Rundstrom relocated there for a time) and “Used to Call Me Baby” were increased evidence of a band that was on––or onto––something. Although Mardis contributed only one song, “Kiss of Death” (about his ability to destroy any automobile he owned––a trait some say he still holds), it remains one of his best compositions from the first Split Lip era. What the band had managed to do was fully marry elements of rock ‘n’ roll with country, bluegrass, and any detritus of punk rock that may have gone floating by.

The covers were varied––“Love Please Come Home” and “The Day the Train Jumped the Tracks” (the initial definite article was squeezed off the sleeve), written by band friend and Gottstine’s sometime partner in The Sluggos, Michael Carmody.

It’s often the mark of a band’s popularity that some have to haggle over what to call the specific brand of music––certainly early audiences came to hear Split Lip because the band was either opening for somebody else or because those in the audience personally knew the band and knew that whatever came out would be of a certain quality. Later, as an audience becomes greater in number but consequently represents more diffuse tastes, the standard questions about what to call––and what not to call––a band’s particular brand of music arise.

Not even the band could agree on what kind of music it had banged out across multiple albums and countless live shows––Gottstine met the question with discomfort; Rundstrom argued for acoustic rock ‘n’ roll, and Mardis at least once sided with fans who called it bluegrass. What few seemed to hone in on or talk much about was the obvious debt the group owed to country music, especially as evidenced in songs such as “Hundred Dollar Bill”, “Honestly” (“Honestly, I lied/and honestly I didn’t try/to love you much, today), “Used to Be”, and “Don’t Believe That You’re Someone”, all of which populated the group’s 2004 album, Should Have Seen It Coming.

The covers were completely tossed by then and only the best material had found its way onto the record––perhaps it was maturity settling in or the gift of having more time to craft the record. Somewhere around 2002 the band began an extended hiatus that may or may not have been an actual breakup––depending on which member you were to ask––but whatever it was, it served the quartet well. There was plenty of touring to come after the record’s release and tumult that not even the most weathered and weary musicians could not have seen.

In 2005, while the band was gaining momentum and earning high profile placement at major festivals, Gottstine left the band to spend more time with his family. The other three continued the incessant touring although that was not without its costs––in early 2006, during a quick run of gigs in Colorado, Rundstrom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He spent months undergoing standard radiation and chemotherapy treatments and even underwent surgery, only to learn that his cancer, a scant four months after his diagnosis, was now inoperable.

By the end of the summer he was back on the stage. Gottstine had rejoined the band although talk of the future was a bit touchy, the group toured and played with a new ferocity. Scroat Belly even came out of mothballs for a series of shows. But at the start of 2007, it was apparent that Rundstrom was not well––the sets were getting shorter and shorter and he became increasingly more ill, finally passing in February.

Gottstine, Mardis, and Eaton regrouped by the end of that summer and emerged a year later with I’ll Be Around, featuring two of Mardis’s more mature compositions to date, the title track and “Aces High”. Gottstine weighed in with “Factory”, another in a line of songs he’s written that belong to an earlier era of country music and deserve to be heard by a wider audience, and “It’s Been So Long”, which would not be out of place on a Willie Nelson album. One could understand, given circumstances alone, if the album appeared more somber than past affairs but in truth the group’s use of humor has often struck a deeper chord. A casual listen to “A Little More Cocaine Please” from 2004’s Should Have Seen It Come and one might cackle at the title and chorus, but deeper examination reveals a harrowing tale of addiction and one man’s inability to recognize that there will never be enough. On the other hand, Mardis’s “The High Price of Necromancy” suggests that the group hadn’t entirely lost touch with its more reckless youth.

Split Lip continues to tour at the moment although all three members have outside interests––Mardis gigs with a variety of groups include his heavy metal-cum-jazz unit Snakebite and his even more jazz-oriented group Floyd The Barber; Eaton runs a screen printing business, and Gottstine has busied himself of late with Split Livers, a duo with Danny Barnes of Bad Livers, occasional Scroat Belly shows, and his first-ever solo outing, Electricity Vol.1. That recording marries the rock and country elements of Scroat Belly with the tunefulness of latter day Split Lip; critics who chided Scroat Belly for its tendency to only record songs about partying would be happy to note that the vision that was just coming into view then––the marrying of traditional country music, hard-edged rock, and a certain something that one can recognize, wholly on intuition, as being from out in the middle of the country––has come into its own and appears not to be going anywhere soon.

Several other Kansas bands flowered in Split Lip Rayfield’s wake. One of them, The Calamity Cubes, garnered its share of Split Lip comparisons. Although the guitar/banjo/bass lineup makes that an easy leap, the music doesn’t bear it out much. Guitarist and vocalist Brook Blanche doesn’t flinch from sentimentality, as evidenced through songs such as “Battle of Hair Ribbon”, a tender Civil War ballad, or “Bottom’s the Limit”, a drinking song that sees boozing as relief from pain rather than a vocation. Joey Henry’s “Skateboard Hips” is another that widens the chasm between the Cubes and its predecessors––and if there’s another song quite like it in the alt-whatever canon, this writer isn’t aware of it. The group, which is rounded out by bassist Kody Oh, is set to release its third album, Old World’s Ocean, this fall.

Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy, also based in Wichita, came bounding into the world circa 2007, armed with songs that had an uncanny consciousness to them. It seems only right somehow that a group named in part after a radical temperance movement leader would walk the fine line between good time sounds and thought-provoking lyrics. With songs that speak to child neglect (“I Saw Your Daughter”) and atheism (“Stop Believin’”) the still-young band has become a favorite on a touring circuit that stretches from the Midwest into the heights of the Pacific Northwest and the winding ribbons of the South. The group also released, somewhere between the end of 2011 and the dawn of 2012, a split release with Cletus Got Shot from Fayetteville, Arkansas. Titled Liberty. Solidarity. Responsibility, the record is remarkably of its time despite many of the songs featured having been written during the early part of the last century.

What’s perhaps most interesting is these groups can perhaps all now claim more respect from onlookers than mere curiosity.

If one were to guess at the future of this genre––which some call No Depression in part thanks to the magazine that patiently chronicled the rise and proliferation of this roots oriented music––that is not really a genre, it might be easy to speculate that in a few years time there will be bands strapping on electric guitars, cranking up the volume and tempos in the fashion of Scroat Belly and The Starkweathers and singing about the truth, justice, and the American way––at least as it’s understood on the plains. At least as it’s understood in the new century. At least for now.


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