Friday, March 28, 2008

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...

The following is the opinion of the author only. It should not interpreted as a view represented in any way by The Wilders or it's members (except for me that is...)

I got an email a couple of weeks ago from the advertising department of No Depression Magazine. Seems that the flagship publication of the alternative country genre (as they said, "whatever that means"), is ceasing publication next month due to declining ad revenue. This can only mean one thing- alternative country is officially dead. And there's a part of me that says, "good riddance".

I mean, who came up with the bright idea that we NEEDED an alternative to country anyway? Wasn't COUNTRY good enough on it's own?
Well, I guess it wasn't.

As early as 1985, just as the first baby boomers moved into their forties, the sound of commercial country music started to take on a strange dissonance- it began sounding more like rock and roll. Twangy telecasters gave way to distorted Les Pauls. Outlandish sequin-studded suits and stacks of huge hairspray-solidified hair, gave way to scrubby tight-fitting stone-washed jeans, six-pack abs and the ubiquitous oversize black cowboy hat and omnipresent goatee. As the years progressed, the quaintly-old, brightly-lit stages featuring backdrops of rural simplicity, gave way to full-on rock and roll stage shows. Towers of Marshall stacks lit by dizzying laser lights and exploding smoke bombs painted a new backdrop of excess and self-indulgence. And, at the forefront, there was good old Garth Brooks swinging on a rope above the crowd with a shit-eating grin on his face and a wad of $1000 bills in his back pocket. By 1994, things had worsened to the point that the Country Music Association's Best Album of the year was "Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles". sigh...

At the time that No Depression began publishing in September of 1995, the country music industry had pretty much wrung all of the GOOD out of good old country music.

I guess it isn't that surprising that a magazine proclaiming an alternative to this, so called "new country", would find a willing audience. This alternative to country music was spearheaded by a young and resourceful contingency of disenfranchised punk rockers- kids who grew up with commercial rock forced down their throats, who were looking for something with more substance to hang their trucker hats on. Already sick to death of mainstream rock, this wayward generation looked backward for new musical inspiration. They found it in the true sounds of 1960's country icons like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. They found it in the "don't take no shit" attitudes of the 70's outlaws like Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and Waylon Jennings. And they especially found it in" God's singer of songs", Graham Parsons, who 20 years before, had stuck his dirty hippie thumb directly into the eye of the overproduced ultra-conservative Nashville establishment of the late 60's. These artists were embraced, celebrated and imitated by hundreds of new bands- formed in garages and dorm rooms across the nation. Combat boots and flannel shirts were readily traded in for cowboy boots and fine western snap shirts; solid-body multi-pointed rock and roll guitars were swapped for simple acoustics and banjos. And new songs about drinking and fighting, fighting and loving, and loving and losing, were added to the existing mountains of old country standards- just ripe for the picking.

It was a good run. But 23 years later, alternative country is dead. No Depression is shutting it's doors for good. And WHY IS THAT A GOOD THING?

Because for 23+ years, the corporate interests in Nashville have essentially been given a free pass to promote whatever bullshit makes money the easiest. In this model, substance is the last thing in anyone's mind. Just check out CMT sometime.

I think its time for a return to a country music that actually acknowledges there is sadness and heartbreak in the world- not just sexy trucks and bloated myspace profiles.

The "alternative country" movement was a shining example that this music is still very much alive. Now that "alternative country" is dead, can we please have our country music back?

Monday, March 17, 2008

"I'll be that one..." - SXSW Austin,TX

It was back in October of 2007. I was in Nashville, hucking merch. between sets at the back of The Station Inn. Because sales were nonexistent, I had plenty of time to catch up with B.V.D., a grammy-winning bluegrass producer, and long time "deep-throat" Wilders advisor (who saw something he liked in a very-green Wilders playing in a Nashville hotel lobby 8 years ago). The conversation went something like this:

B.V.D.: What's next year look like for you guys?

Me: Well, we've got a new record coming out in April.

B.V.D.: What are you going to do to promote it?

Me: Uhm, well we're going to tour, of course, and we are going to South by Southwest.

B.V.D.: (rolling his eyes, sarcastically) What FOR?

For the uninitiated, the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) occurs each March in multiple locations throughout metropolitan Austin, Texas. For four days, the streets of Austin fill with music industry hustlers of all shape and size. Managers, agents, label and publishing reps, lawyers, producers, and a slew of other non-musicians converge to catch showcases by literally thousands of musicians that come to Austin each year in hopes of "making it big". From morning until late into the night, there's rockers, rappers, twangers, screamers, punkers and poppers everywhere- a dizzying array of musical styles blasting out of every nook and cranny, restaurant, bar, car wash and parking lot in downtown Austin.

So, five months after my conversation with B.V.D., I'm standing on a street corner outside the Austin Convention Center watching the stream of hipsters flowing around me. And it's like I'm standing in the middle of a military parade, except these soldier's uniforms are not olive drab. There's salon-fresh hair color in every shade of the rainbow carefully coifed to achieve that perfect "unkempt" look. Mirrored sunglasses, tattoo sleeves, Converse Hi-Tops and facial piercings are standard issue. Each soldier's social insignia is represented by carefully chosen graphics printed on their tight black t-shirt. And just like any military parade, the majority of the soldiers are impossibly young.

As the throngs move past me, I realize I'm laughing out loud. I'm remembering a comic strip by artist Daniel Clowes, (later made into a really awful movie entitled "Art School Confidential"). In the comic, an aging painting professor gives a stern "scared straight" lecture to his impressionable first-year drawing students about the reality of their career choice. He rants that only one graduate in a hundred actually makes a living as a professional artist. The other 99, having spent four years getting a degree in what is essentially a hobby, will be left to work mindless jobs at art supply stores, movie theaters and restaurants. Above the head of each student, there is a thought bubble which reads, "I'll be that one..."

And this is the tragedy of SXSW. Here, there are thousands of kids who are looking for the quick pick to stardom. And they are deadly serious about it, focusing every ounce of energy into making some kind of impact. But the reality is that most of them will zero chance of succeeding in this fickle, image-obsessed music business. The truth is that no matter how good you sound, how cool you look. or how hard you work, most success stories come down to at least 50% luck.

Based on this assumption, B.V.D. was right- what the hell business did we have going to SXSW anyway? I mean, we are already a working band with low-level success. We've all quit our day jobs, We are signed to a label that manages our recordings, and we have a booking agent that gets us work playing for money. And what about the SXSW market? Even though it takes place in the heart of Texas, there's precious little country music at SXSW. Sure, there are a lot of so-called "alternative country" bands. But, admittedly, we don't fit very neatly into that category. And bluegrass and oldtime music was nonexistent as far as I could tell. But still we chose to go and throw our hat in like everybody else.

I realize it's sort of weak, but basically my answer to B.V.D.'s question was, "why NOT?"

And, as a result, for three days, we soaked up the warm Texas sun, ate great Texas Bar-B-Que, and saw some killer bands. We also played a couple of showcases ourselves. Who knows what the impact will be? But, like the young soldiers that surrounded us the entire time we were there, we believed it was possible. You've GOT to believe right?