I don’t have much of a history with country music. If you’ve read this blog on the regular (or even the semi-regular), you probably don’t, either. While the previous three entries in this series had me struggling to summarize what felt like a whole world of influences, in this case, I should be able to list all of them without cracking five digits of word count.
My parents didn’t listen to country music. My friends didn’t listen to country music. I went through an entire childhood and teenagehood hearing only incidental country – the kind you’d run into occasionally on TV in the 80s and early 90s, like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers and that kind of thing. I really had no understanding of, or taste for, country at all. My senior year of high school was the year of “Friends in Low Places,” i.e. the year that Garth Brooks resurrected country-pop radio. I couldn’t have shrugged with less enthusiasm, short of not shrugging at all. Let me tell you, my shoulders barely moved. For a kid just discovering Ministry and Nirvana, and obsessing over the Metallica video for “One,” “Friends in Low Places” seemed ultra-lame.
My opinion on that has evolved a little bit over the years, but I can at least say that the movement Garth kicked off was ultra-lame. Modern country is toothless, bland, awful music – as my cohort Shae will tell you. (Or would tell you – the site seems to be down at the moment.) Just a couple of years later in college, I began working a series of miserable temp jobs during the summer, trying to scrape together more money for CDs and Extreme Nachos.* One of the first of those jobs was cleaning up used printing presses for some tiny resale operation in Hillsboro, Indiana.** Each and every weekday I’d be out there from 6 am to 4 pm, scrubbing off ink and glue residue and listening to the owner’s cruddy little portable radio squawking out the likes of Brooks & Dunn and Alabama (who just had had a career-revitalizing hit in “Cheap Seats,” about minor league baseball). This was an almost entirely unpleasant experience – it’s hard to muster enough irony to enjoy this kind of music when you have been awake since 4:30 am.
If I was going to summarize that period of my life in a video, it would be this:
This song never failed to crack up me and my roommate/co-worker, Andrew – the best part is the bridge, with the punchline about RC Cola and a moonpie – but it’s hard to hear it without getting cynical, even a little angry, over the way it panders to phony blue collar sensibilities. Pandering of any sort is at least vaguely evil, of course – but after living through the twice-as-long-as-it-shoulda-been Bush administration, and the associated glory years of Rush Limbaugh and flag lapel pins and These Colors Don’t Run and all that horseshit, I feel like perhaps Tracy Byrd and some of those other fake white trash, Nashville gazillionaires were partly responsible for provoking a senseless culture war in this country. But I’ll say one thing for “Lifestyles of the Not So Rich & Famous”: at least it’s no “Red, White and Blue,” a song so awful that I refuse to embed it.
So with this as the background, it honestly surprised the shit out of me when I heard and loved Uncle Tupelo the following year. My friend Lucky gave me a glowing recommendation, so I picked up “Still Feel Gone.” To me that remains the best Tupelo album, although I like all of them. Here’s the band doing an energetic but controlled live runthrough of “Gun,” the first song from “Still Feel Gone”:
So yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. This is country by way of punk rock. There’s no swooping pedal steel licks or banjo here (though there were in other Uncle Tupelo songs), and certainly no behatted fuckwit trying his best to convince me that he drives a shitty pickup truck JUST LIKE ME. If any band was atomically devised to get liberal college kids into country, it was this one. I played “Gone” on a steady rotation for a few years, and added the three other Tupelo albums to my collection. Then I found out that while I was discovering them, they had already broken up and gone their separate ways.
But all was well, for Son Volt (two and a half awesome albums) and Wilco (six mostly awesome albums and counting) were right around the corner, and did their best to cement my growing affection for a certain rough-and-ready, rock-infused variant of country.
From the Tupelo tree I started following branches and roots to a lot of other interesting bands and solo artists. I found Whiskeytown, whose frontman Ryan Adams later became The Most Prolific Solo Artist Ever Who Many of Us are Totally Sick Of. I listened to and enjoyed some other alt-country bands, too, though most of them didn’t really live up to the Farrar/Tweedy standard – that somewhat dimmed my enthusiasm for the sub-genre. Going back to Tupelo’s influences yielded greater returns though – Johnny Cash of course, plus other “outlaw country” like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. It helped that at this exact time (1994) producer/therapist Rick Rubin yanked a great late-career album out of Cash – Beavis and Butthead even had a clip waxing ecstatic over this excellent, chilling song about murder:
The secret spice in the recipe was a decidedly non-country guy, Tom Petty. I had owned and enjoyed “Full Moon Fever” like basically everybody else in high school, but during my college years Petty put out the back-to-basics album “Wildflowers,” produced by (who else?) Rick Rubin. Hits from “Wildflowers” were all over MTV, and I got an undeniable jolt from straight-up American-style rock songs like “You Wreck Me” and “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” When I picked up the CD I was happy to discover threads of folk and even country weaving through some of the other songs. Later on, I grabbed the Heartbreakers’ greatest hits album (an unbelievable value for casual fans considering the streak of singles that band had over the years, and of course also a murderer’s row of fine pop songs). The girlfriend loved those songs too so we played the hell out of it. Meanwhile I was still listening to “Still Feel Gone” and the multiple volumes of “American Recordings” and Son Volt’s “Trace” and Wilco’s “A.M.” and a little bit of Dwight Yoakam (the closest thing to popular, modern country I can fully enjoy):
…and then one day I drove by the late, not-much-lamented Patio in Broadripple, where they were advertising some rock band I’d never heard of, and 1.99 Millers.
And that was pretty much it. It went from an idea fragment to a full concept in a couple of days, and within two months I had written a bunch of songs – the first of which was “All Messt Up,” which also ended up being the first song on the 1.99 Millers album, “Drink Your Way out of This One.”
This album ended up being two discs and 38 songs long, which I think was just me spraying out a ton of creative energy I’d been building up without knowing it. Having never written a country or alt-country or cowpunk or whatever song, I suddenly found I had a great desire to write a buttload of them. The Millers project was the outlet. I brought in a lot of good friends to play on the songs, and the thing rather unexpectedly became a full band affair. There were rehearsals, gigs, boob-signings, explosions, and (apparently) lying. Well, at least there were rehearsals and gigs.
But it was fitting that the Millers song I ended up liking the most was just me and Lucky – the guy who provided my first window of insight into country music in the first place. I was singing and playing guitar (also a little lap steel and percussion later on); he was playing banjo and tapping his lucky little toes. I wrote this song, with his help, in maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. And we laid the whole thing to hard drive in not much longer than that. Here it is:
And as a throwaway bonus, here’s an unreleased song I recorded some time later, which definitely has a thing or two in common with “San Jose,” chief among them pessimistic lyrics cloaked in a pretty melody:
* Anybody else remember that commercial? I checked YouTube but it doesn’t seem to be there. “Wake up, Pete!” Those nachos were great, and I think they coincided with the beginning of Taco Bell’s acceptance of their status as late night food for drunks.
** Actual town motto: “Home of 500 Happy People… and a Few Old Soreheads!” There was also a diner in the “downtown” area (i.e. the most developed strip of the highway that Hillsboro was attached to, like a tumor wrapped around a spinal cord) that sold “Sundries.”