Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Picking and grinning at the insurgent country hoedown

Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 106, six chapters along from my previous post, "Fruits of the tunes". In the interim, Enormous Richard changed its band name to Eleanor Roosevelt, I got lost in the quirky folklore thickets, and we had to settle for a new bassist, Jim, best known for licking the ends of his hair when he played.

Picking and grinning

By Chris King

Roy Francis Kasten began to open my eyes to a surreal afterlife of the Uncle Tupelo phenomenon. Some guys in Seattle (the source of so many things that confused me) had created something called an internet forum named after an Uncle Tupelo song, “Postcard”. The internet was a mystery to me, but in 1995, new media tried on the duds of old media and this thing stumbled out into the world as a magazine, named after an Uncle Tupelo record, No Depression, with all the departments of the magazine named after Uncle Tupelo songs.

I didn’t really know what to say. It was like someone in a foreign country naming something after your cousin – cool in its own way, but kind of puzzling and unwarranted.

Speaking of unwarranted, puzzling afterlives, our song from Meriwether Lewis’ lyrics was snapped up by a label in Chicago called Bloodshot Records. They wanted “Espoontoon” for a compilation of something they were calling “insurgent country” music. I sort of liked that phrase – more than “alternative country,” which the No Depression crowd was using – and we never said no to exposure. So in the fall of 1995, Eleanor Roosevelt packed up from our various locations and headed to Chicago to play an insurgent country showcase.

The one memory of the country music revival I still can’t shed is of a tall, husky man wearing a cowboy hat inside a Chicago nightclub, swaggering over to our band, where we sat at a side table going over songs (we needed the rehearsal), and saying, in a Chicago stockyards accent, “I see some of the pickers are here.”

It was one of the Bloodshot Records guys. We looked at him like we were mutes. That’s the way I would like to remember it, anyway. Jim Who Licked the Ends of His Hair must have said something off-point, and I probably schmoozed this urban cowboy, since I knew he was with the record label. It’s a fact, though, that we all looked at each other after he walked away, and said, “Pickers?”

I could get my ass kicked for saying this too loud at taverns in every single state of this union, and all up and down Mexico, but the cowboy hat as an indoors, after-dark ornament has always irritated me. It’s my impression that such a flagrant, space-hogging style of headgear evolved to protect men exposed to long days of direct sunlight out on the open range. When the sun went down on the Brazos, the funny hat came off the head. It wasn’t put on at night over carefully coiffed hair during a primping session at one’s city apartment, to be worn inside a dark nightclub.

I would even argue that the cowboy hat has no place whatsoever in the entire city of Chicago, at any time of day or night, indoors or out. Don’t those tall buildings shade the sun, son? Why, howdy, ain’t the sun done gone down, anyways? Just a picker a-thinking out loud, now. No use in a-gittin’ all riled up about it.

I don’t suppose there is any point in trying to disguise my pompous sense that we were present at the creation of this animal, insurgent or alternative country, and had since moved on to more interesting things. We had moved onto stuff like African proverb collages jacked up with Rolling Stones riffs, or Mayan creation myths adapted for slacker rock potheads.

I am sure we didn’t disguise this pompous feeling the night of the Bloodshot Records showcase. Guitar Johnny, who has an especially sharp aversion to cant and pretension, kept slipping out of the club to get away from the guys wearing cowboy hats to ward off the burning rays of the stagelights, singing about white trash cowboys and honky-tonk has-beens in iffy accents.

It’s bullshit, this pompous feeling of ours. We weren’t really present at the invention of anything. I don’t know about “insurgent” or “alternative” country. I prefer the term Brian Henneman used when I first interviewed Chicken Truck, before anyone outside of Cicero’s or Belleville had ever heard of Uncle Tupelo: “this suped-up country shit”. (Brian’s new band, the Bottle Rockets, appeared on that Bloodshot Records compilation with us, by the way, though they were not present at the Chicago showcase with the rest of us pickers.)

Suped-up country shit was certainly older than Uncle Tupelo or Chicken Truck, older than Hasil Adkins, older than the Byrds or Neil Young. Rockabilly and early rock & roll were just suped-up country shit and blues, and if you go all the way back to the banjo shouts Bascom Lamar Lunsford collected in what he called “mud-dauber happy homes,” that original country shit was pretty suped-up all by itself, even if the only available electricity were traces of lightning in the sky.

I doubt anyone at Bloodshot Records or No Depression magazine would dispute this today, or even care to poke the dead cow of this discussion. Both the label and the magazine went onto explore and spread the deeper roots of this music in ways that deepened all of our understanding about this music we all love. Though it must have been an impolite attitude for us to adopt when we were all young and they were first trying to peddle their awareness that there was something new going on, and they had named it.

One thing is beyond doubt: by the fall of 1995, right when the time was ripe to play suped-up country shit, we no longer played suped-up country shit, and didn’t get out our old clothes just to walk down the insurgent country showcase runway. Without steady practice, Elijah had lost his chops on fiddle and banjo, so now he played soaring electric guitar, very much under the spell of Alex Chilton and Big Star.

I sang Sioux Indian totem chants about elks and African proverbs about banana stalks as the boys played power pop on electric guitars, Jim licked the ends of his hair, and the country music revival quietly waited for us misfit city pickers to leave the stage so they could get on with the hoedown.


From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).


Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
Trading horses
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead
Fruits of the tunes



“Espoontoon” (Matt Fuller, Chris King, Meriwether Lewis, John Minkoff) was eventually released on the Eleanor Roosevelt record Walker with his head down, availible on iTunes, etc.

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