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.

I recall that resistance in the form of spittle hailing down upon poor Joe during his set at Camden Town’s Electric Ballroom. Unlike some of their fans, The Clash were in full trailblazer mode at the time, intent on pushing punk forward by locating its spirit in pre-existing genres. Although the band’s showcasing of Ely did not immediately make country safe for punk, it cracked the door open for others to follow.

Among these was punk/new wave maverick Elvis Costello, who had opened his arms to country as early as 1977 when he used a US country act, Clover, as the backing band on his debut My Aim Is True album, which featured the notably country-oriented “Alison” single. Twiddling the knobs on that record’s sessions was Dave Edmunds who, along with fellow Stiff Records signatories Nick Lowe and Costello, established an early alt country beachhead amidst the indie enclaves of punk Britannia.

Costello tested the uncertain waters further in 1981, releasing Almost Blue, an album made up entirely of covers of songs from his favorite country artists, among them Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, and George Jones. Anticipating resistance from his lingering punk followers, Costello sent out the album’s first pressings with a sticker that declared, “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause a radical reaction in narrow-minded listeners” (Almost Blue).

Others soon challenged their punk bases, too, Squeeze showing Nashville that pop-country need not be devoid of emotional depth, and the Mekons deviating from their earlier post-punk adventures into endeavors like Fear and Whiskey (1985), to some ears the very first alt. country album. Billy Bragg, who once imagined himself as the Clash without the band, inherited his heroes’ spirit of stylistic adventure, too, applying his cockney-punk intonations increasingly to country-folk songs, this culminating in the recording (with Wilco) of a number of lost-and-found Woody Guthrie songs on Mermaid Avenue (1998) and its sequel two years later.

Whereas dabbling in country was an exercise for a few disparate punks in the UK, a scene coalesced around similar genre-hopping in Los Angeles around the same time. By the early ’80s the initial gasps of primary punk were fading and the music industry was turning its attention not only to new wave, but to the new romantics and electro-pop acts dominating the recently established MTV. As these artists promised a brave new world of drum machines, synthesizers, and high-tech visuals, roots rockers and (suddenly) old punks looked backward to find what they perceived as a more authentic way forward.

Besides being a center of attention for the music industry, by 1980 L.A. had also become the main locus for punk rock, the faster and more aggressive hardcore sound eliciting a second wave featuring upstart acts like the Circle Jerks, Social Distortion, and T.S.O.L. However, this scene was so violent that many of the elders that had once played (or attended) local punk shows now retreated from the ubiquitous skinheads and slam dancing. Seeking a kinder, gentler environment, they reemerged around less frenetic styles, crafting hybrids that merged punk with the blues (the Gun Club, the Flesh Eaters), rockabilly (Levi and the Rockets, X), and country (the Blasters, Rank and File).

In his essay, “No Slow Songs Tonight: 1979-1982”, Dave Alvin, guitarist for the Blasters, recalls the hostile environments his band found themselves in when playing the L.A. hardcore circuit. Sharing bills with the likes of Fear and Black Flag, the band endured both verbal and physical attacks from angry, narrow-minded young punks. As a form of self-defense, they played their roots music, Alvin recalls, “really fast and really loud…push[ing] the music, the audience, and ourselves to the limit” (Doe, p.224). The end product came to be known as “cowpunk”, a catch-all term for roots-rocking punk. The city boasted its own country circuit at the time with direct channels leading to Nashville, but there was no room there for the likes of the Blasters, who had to settle for releasing their material on local indie punk label, Slash Records