Digging the Roots
April 26, 2000
Tonight the West is sleeping and the desert will be creeping inch by inch across the continent.And the bones of country music lie there in their casket, Beneath the towers of Nashville in a black pool of neglect. So we cast our nets in the water, dragged the pool and caught 'em, grind 'em up and snort 'em, deep into the night. And we spill some blood on the ashesof the bones of the Jones and the Cashes. "The Death of Country Music"by The Waco BrothersA new awakening of its roots may be bringing rock 'n' roll back from the dead. From the redneck twang of the Bottle Rockets and the whiskey-soaked grit of Uncle Tupelo to the sweet tremble of Son Volt and the sensitive songs of Gillian Welch, this new musical movement digs into the history of modern music to produce a sound that captures the honesty and candor that made rock 'n' roll the most popular music in history. And while the style has always been around, it was a reward only for those who dared peek beneath the sheen of commercial music. Ironically, it may be this commercialism itself, risen to unbearable heights in both rock and country radio, that is finally bringing roots music into the light. Those involved in making and promoting the music hesitate to even give the genre a name. Some call it alternative county; others dub it insurgent country. It's been referred to as y'allternative and twangcore. It's spawned a magazine, a radio promotion company and a record label that cater exclusively to bringing it to the public. Major labels are beginning to sign roots acts in the hopes that it will become the next wave, much as grunge was in the late '80s and early '90s. Its fans are varied. Some are drawn to it because its something new in the blasted landscape of music in the late 90s. Others listen because they find the rawness and honesty that reminds them of the punk music of their youth.The Roots of Roots (subhed)But what is it?To understand the new movement, one must go back to the time before rock 'n' roll was born. Before the days of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, even before Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry.You must go back to the glory days of the Grand Ol' Opry, before it moved into its new-fangled concert hall in the 1950's; back to the days when Hank Williams, Sr., Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe and others traveled the land, playing in high school auditoriums and gymnasiums, or from the back of trucks beside freshly-plowed fields; back to the days when radio was new.Hank Williams, Sr., who died at 29, is the figure that underpins and oversees the genre. Williams, a prolific songwriter during his short life, set the tone for roots bands that would keep his memory alive during the 50 years since his death. Without his and others influences, Elvis Presley would never have been able to meld country with blues to create and popularize rock n' roll.But as mainstream rock moved away from its roots, some artists found themselves inexorably drawn back to Hank's style and grace. "It's always been there," said Grant Alden, co-editor of No Depression magazine, which caters to the genre. "It ebbs and flows, but it's always there for anyone who took the time to look and listen for it." Alden and others point out that every decade has had its share of countrified rock artists. Mentioned most often for the 1960s are Gram Parsons, as well as The Byrd's Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Bands like Jason and the Scorchers and The Blasters, featuring Dave Alvin, spring to mind for the '70s, while Lone Justice, Lyle Lovett and others speak for the '80s."Really, all music is cyclical," said Jerry Gerard, program director at Gainesville's WRRX-FM, which is recognized as one of the best radio stations in the nation for its inclusion of roots music in it's daily programming. "Every 10 years or so, we find a upswing on the number of bands that have this type of sound."Modern torch carriers include a multitude of bands, such as Whiskeytown, Golden Smog, The Waco Brothers, Robby Fulks, The Ol' 97s, Gillian Welch and others.The difference is now, the number of bands playing roots is larger than ever. "In the past, we had just a few out there," Gerard said. "This time around, there are literally dozens who've got the goods." The New AudienceThe popularity of rock 'n' roll roots is no surprise to some. As odd as it seems, the new countrified genre is closer to the punk rock of the late 1970s and early 1980s than anything else. "The disgust with modern radio music today reminds me of the feeling people had about disco in the '70s." said Rob Miller, co-founder and co-owner of Bloodshot Records, the Chicago label that is to roots what Sub-Pop was to grunge. "There's a lot of disenchantment with the state of commodification of the 'alternative revolution.' Hell, the stuff you hear on the radio today might as well be Boston. It's third-generation washed-over crap, and people are starting to get tired of it." Chris Roldan, co-owner of JackKnife, an Austin, Texas-based radio promotion outfit that pushes roots throughout the country, agreed that radio today leaves a wide gap that roots may be able to fill. "We're looking at the death of alternative music," he said. "We've heard 500 bands that sound like Nirvana, and we're sick of it. What's happening today is that the heart of rock has been cut into pieces and fed to the mall."The new roots, Roldan said, mixes the old-time sound with emotion. "This music is about songs," Roldan said. "It's the content of the songs that appeals to people. There's finally something with emotion out there and people are starting to listen."Some fans of roots find the emotions it expresses and the values it typifies similar to music of their youth. "As we get older, the ability of punk rock to speak to our world has declined," No Depression's Alden said. "I think the honesty in the lyrics of these songs is one of the best things it's got going for it." Another similarity is the Do-It-Yourself quality of both punk and roots. "These bands live and breathe in bars and on the road," said Glen Dicker, co-founder of Upstart Records, a division of Rounder Records that specializes in modern roots. "These bands are out there touring their asses off. They've got the punk rock ethic: they're doing it for the love of the music, not just for the money. If they can be comfortable and make a living, they're happy just getting heard." Down by the Old Mainstream(subhed)Bill Curry, guitarist and singer for Red Star Belgrade, a roots band from Chapel Hill, NC, said making money is not that much of a priority for many roots bands."We've found a devoted following across the country," he said. "One of the most important things about this music is that it is built from the ground up. It's not like, all of a sudden, there is a band with a big hit, and then it's gone. This music has built a following. People care about the bands."Down by the Old MainstreamAs the acceptance of roots grows, so does the concern that it will be swept up by major labels, wrung dry of all its potential and discarded much the way grunge was in the late 1980s."It's been a private party for a long time," said Bloodshot's Miller. "Now it's getting bigger, and you want more people to come to your party. But the more that come, the less manageable it becomes. Eventually, it can get out of control."Major labels are showing an interest in roots music. Son Volt's debut album, Trace, was released by Warner Brothers and has sold more than 100,000. Whiskeytown is scheduled to release its major-label debut in June on Geffen Records, and the Ol' 97s have moved from Bloodshot to Electra, with a major debut set for release soon. "The labels want to have a roots band in the stable in case this is the music that breaks big next," said JackKnife's Roldan. "They don't want to be left out if this really is the next big thing." But No Depression's Alden, who worked as rock critic in Seattle and had a front row seat for the exploitation of Nirvana and grunge, said success carries with it an inherent danger."It's possible to get too big," he said. "Hopefully these bands will realize that it's really not that much fun to play stadiums. There's no design here to become the next Nirvana. And that's good, because it wasn't fun to watch what happened to Nirvana."