Under(ground) Achievers

Can Nashville's creative underbelly save country from Music Row?

Poet R.B. Morris's Take That Ride (on John Prine's Oh Boy label) is one of the most stunning singer/songwriter debuts in recent memory, a funky, swampy slice of back-roads white-boy soul that's smart and erudite ("I don't want to die like James Agee in the back of some taxi," reads the title tune's first line). But its overwhelming intelligence never comes at the expense of his songs' irresistible country-folk hooks.

Lonesome Bob, a former Ben Vaughn Combo drummer, released Things Fall Apart on Bloodshot offshoot Checkered Past; he sounds like the bastard product of a union between Waylon Jennings and a Louvin sister. His rocking outing bristles with grit, insight, menace and heart, combined with the sort of wicked wit pioneered by Loudon Wainwright III.

Pan-American Flash, from Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub, draws its groove from the plowed furrows of country's back 40. Think Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys driving that long, black vintage Cadillac down the interstate of modern roots music.

Another Lower Broad song poet, Tom House, calls his publishing company Raw Bone Music, an apt description for the urban back-porch sounds of his The Neighborhood Is Changing CD. Like the Lonesome Bob and Burch releases, it's on Checkered Past, the Sun Records of the Music City underground -- even if it is based in Chicago. For his part, Greg Garing has shifted from the blue yodel of The Other Side of the Alley track "Safe Within Your Arms" to a decidedly contemporary rock effort in Alone, on Paladin/Revolution. Emerging from his residency at the Lower Broadway bar Wolfy's, Jamie Hartford is the offspring of John "Gentle on My Mind" Hartford, and a hotshot picker and songwriter in his own right. His debut, What About Yes (Paladin/Revolution), restores the good name of country rock with its beer-soaked tales of tough and tender love, all driven by a melange of hyper-twang, blues and barroom rock from some of Nashville's fieriest players.

All of the above acts renew the notion that Nashville is, at its heart, a song-centric town, an attribute that Music Row's commercial cliche factory has tried its best to squelch. Further countering the sound-alike dross that is country radio, Nashville's thriving underground songwriter scene is well represented on Kevin Gordon's Cadillac Jack's #1 Son (Shanachie) and Chris Knight's self-titled debut (on Decca, a Nashville major, no less). Both restore real lives to the songwriting equation by exploring varying scenic byways of the American rural-rock sound, following Steve Earle's blue-collar storytelling lead right on into the heartland. Also worth a mention is Lucinda Williams's guitarist Duane Jarvis, another Other Side of the Alley standout whose new album is out on the Watermelon label, while Nashville residents Tim Carroll (former leader of New York's Blue Chieftains) and Gwil Owen (who pens the bulk of Austin country/ blues ingenue Toni Price's material) are readying new albums for release sometime this year.

Ironically, living and working adjacent to Music Row in all its manufactured glory may be both a motivating and liberating factor for underground acts. "I know that those people aren't going to be interested in what I do, so I figure, why not do what I want to?" says Lonesome Bob.

But Bob also maintains that in an industry town, even the cult heroes take the business of music more seriously than in spots like Austin, where the slacker ethos is strong. And even if the Row-affiliated major labels remain largely wary of most good music in their city (genuinely new country acts like Kim Richey and the Delevantes have garnered critical praise but no real airplay or sales), there are heartening signs of indie success. Small labels like Oh Boy and Dead Reckoning -- formed by major-label refugees Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane (of the O'Kanes) and Mike Henderson, along with drummer Harry Stinson and fiddler Tammy Rogers -- have established a firm Music City foothold. (Dead Reckoning's most recent release, Kane's Six Months, No Sun, finds this former Music Row chart contender evolving into Richard Thompson's American country cousin.)

Meanwhile, it seems that those big labels that are taking an interest in new-country acts are all offshoots of pop divisions on the East and West coasts. Steve Earle's Warner Bros.-funded E-Squared imprint has initially focused on more rock-oriented artists such as the V-Roys, Ross Rice and 6 String Drag. But with the release of former Blood Orange Cheri Knight's critically lauded The Northeast Kingdom, E-Squared has inched its way into the roots-music arena. The Paladin/Revolution marriage, run by left-leaning Nashville legal eagle Jim Zumwalt, released the Hartford and Garing discs, as well as an album by RRAF (Roots Rock Action Figures), a project from America's canniest roots producer, R.S. Field. Now, Sire Records has opened a Nashville operation headed by Andy McLenon, whose Praxis management firm and label have been touchstones of the new Nashville ethos for the past 15 years (his former Praxis partner, Jack Emerson, is the second "E" in E-Squared).

And if Music City's alternative roster seems a bit heavy on the testosterone, fear not. Just as it's been the women who've generally made the better commercial country albums (I'll take Shania over Garth any day) lately, female artists may just end up sharing leadership duties with the guys in Nashville's new-country movement. Joy Lynn White's The Lucky Few on Little Dog Records (Dwight Yoakam producer/guitarist Pete Anderson's label) is a thus far criminally overlooked gem that boasts winning material sung with authority, marking White as the logical '90s successor to Linda Ronstadt's '70s country-rock mantle. And this year's South by Southwest Music Conference offered a stunning preview of country's female future in the form of Allison Moorer, the sister of Shelby Lynne and the secret vocal sauce on the Lonesome Bob CD. With nary a concession to modern country-pop showmanship, the 24-year-old Moorer celebrated the unassuming merits of a great singer and a great song. Leaning into the mike, eyes closed, she delivered her self-penned tunes (many written with husband Butch Primm) as nothing less than prayers of redemption. With her amazing pipes, striking looks and sturdy material, Moorer just might have what it takes to woo the mainstream while keeping her integrity intact. Indeed, Moorer hopes her admiration for vintage C&W will find a niche in Nashville.

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