Hank Williams III (2012) Photo Bill Ebbesen (own work) (Wikipedia /CC BY-SA 3.0 / cropped)

Cowpunk: A Brief Y’alternative History

Cowpunk is a reaction against conventional country music, yet embodies some of its distant and deepest traits. Likewise, it’s also a reaction against punk, yet manifests as one of its purest expressions.

Since punk first flirted with country music—and vice versa—in the late 1970s, a tsunami of terminology has descended to capture this most curious of hybrids. Cowpunk, country punk, alternative (or alt.) country, Americana, no depression, insurgent country, twangcore, honky skronk, punkgrass, and thrashgrass are just some of the cross-genre markers adopted or applied by fans, bands, critics, and the music industry over the last 40 years. More than mere marketing categories, these descriptors variously capture the ironic humor, paradoxical interconnections, and rebellious attitudes punk has brought to a genre more known for its earnest candor, self-segregation from rock, and traditional conservative values. As such, cowpunk (or its various a.k.a.’s) is a reaction against conventional country, yet embodies some of its distant and deepest traits; likewise, it is also a reaction against punk, yet manifests as one of its purest expressions.

In contributing the “billy” in rockabilly, we should perhaps not be so shocked by this hybrid, considering that country planted many of the rebel roots of rock ‘n’ roll. However, by the ’70s, despite the presence of “outlaws” like
Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, country had become regulated by Nashville’s rules as the industry sought to expand its base with a “countrypolitan” sound that featured more orchestration than fiddles and steel guitars. Instead of Nelson and Jennings, Nashville celebrated John Denver and Olivia Newton-John as the new faces of country music.

A comparable transformation took place within punk culture at the close of the ’70s, too, as the industry carved out a more commercial wing in “new wave” for a broader demographic. By 1980, both punks and roots country lovers were wondering where the spirit and sound of their music had gone.

Image by jimo663 from Pixabay

Nashville soon struck a compromise, fostering a cast of so-called “new traditionalists” (George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, Reba McEntire), while still giving them a slick makeover in the studio. Meanwhile, the Stalinist purge of raw roots country continued unabated as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard disappeared from country radio as though they had never existed. Those seeking the rough-hewed sounds and razor-edged poetry of these “old” traditionalists were forced to retreat into their personal record collections as country went pop-country.

Similar sentiments could be heard at the same time coming from punks, many of whom bemoaned a loss of authenticity in new wave. Some withdrew into esoteric post-punk or doubled-down on punk with hardcore and oi. Others, both fans and musicians, found solace in the sincere sounds of American roots styles like rockabilly, blues, and old country. (Ex-) punk players may not have been able to replicate the sounds of vintage Hank or Cash—nor did they seek to—but they identified with the honesty and unvarnished production of their output. Looking, listening, and researching further, punks uncovered more common ground, such as the DIY practices of early country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, whose self-taught training privileged “three chords and the truth” over-complicated structures and complex musicianship.

Even if arriving at the music as middle-class cultural slummers, punks admired, if romanticized, the working-class roots of old country, determining them synonymous with rebellion, primitivism, and tell-it-like-it-is honesty about struggle and survival. Were these not the same traits and concerns at the heart of so many punk songs? Critic Don McLeese illustrates the analogy, stating, “Hank Williams was no cowpunk. But in his reckless abandon—the way he lived, the way he died, the music he made, the compromises he refused to make—he became the exemplar for every former punk rocker who began traveling that lost highway” (p.65).

Among the earliest of these travelers were a posse of British rebels disillusioned with the state and stasis of punk just a few years after its initial insurgence. The Clash were the reigning kings of punk hybrids in 1979, their London Calling album introducing listeners to the possibilities of ska-punk, punk reggae, punkabilly, and other cross-pollinations. While never venturing fully down cowpunk paths, their invitation to Texas country rocker Joe Ely to join them on their 1980 British tour was a bold one considering the negative regard most punks had for country at that time.