Thank kids in the South reared on punk rock and outsider music for what is now known as alternative country. They were also eyeballing country radio and their parents record collection, the result a wealth of great records merging punk and country. Here are three of the best:
Drive by Truckers, “Decoration Day” “Well my Daddy didn’t pull out, but he never apologized.” Yes, you were an accident, and no, I’m not sorry you were born. It’s a mood of harsh truth and proud acceptance found throughout the Drive by Truckers 2003 release, their fourth, but the first with one-time member Jason Isbell. The aforementioned line from “Marry Me” is that of songwriter Mike Cooley; he and long-time partner Patterson Hood remain exceptional story-tellers, as each song is its own short narrative within a big rock ’n’ roll record full of riffs with deep lyrical exploration of incest, unfaithfulness, pride, and family.
There’s a gritty tenderness to the record via a couple ballads, all within a big package of southern chug and rock aggression that comes off like a musical companion to a Faulkner narrative. The album breathes life into characters of a broken down South, optimistic even though they can’t get one step ahead.
Old 97s, “Wreck Your Life” It’s hard to dig a grave in a downpour. Much less two of them, especially when the dirt in the meadow has turned to mud and those holes keep collapsing on themselves. So goes it in “Old Brown Shoe,” a tune that found its protagonist waiting under the bed, ready to leap out and kill his cheating wife and her lover once their shoes come off, then to drive their corpses out to the country for proper disposal.
Songwriter and vocalist Rhett Miller must’ve had his heart ripped out over and over, but not enough that he wasn’t able to pen numerous hook-laden songs of emotion and heartache via tales of doomed relationships, marriages full of regret, and self-medication. The Old 97’s 1996 sophomore release makes personal strife a lot of fun. Casual fans may know the stuck in your head track “Doreen” but this album always begs deeper exploration.
Bad Livers, “Industry and Thrift”It’s good to keep company with the likes of John Hartford and The Butthole Surfers. The Bad Livers’ 1998 release set the ground for members Danny Barnes and Mark Rubin later explorations of roots, rock, old-time, klezmer and bluegrass. While categorized as a “punk-grass” band, it’s safer to call them “avant-guard” as “Industry and Thrift” embodies a beautiful unpredictable-ness; there’s one song Bill Monroe may call bluegrass, but the rest of the album is weird folk, jazz shuffles, and rock, all highlighting the talent of Barnes’ banjo and guitar playing along with Rubin’s solid rhythm section. The opener of “Lumpy, Beanpole and Dirt” sets a mood of not knowing what’s coming next, and “eclectic” is too conservative of a word for this record. It’s a flowing package of originality that screams Jimmy Martin and Captain Beefheart, forged with a DIY ethic.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected]