"And I can sing all those songs about Texas..." — David Allan Coe, "Longhaired Redneck"
In that longhaired redneck's most famous song, 1975's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name," his spoken monologue recounts Coe's (presumably real) conversation with Steve Goodman, the late Chicago-born Jew who wrote the song along with "City of New Orleans" and "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request."
"He told me it was the perfect country and western song," Coe begins. "I wrote him back a letter and said it was not the perfect country and western song, because he hadn't said anything about mama...or trains...or trucks...or prison...or gettin' drunk."
Whether it meant to or not, Sirius XM Radio — the two former satellite-radio rivals who completed their months-long merger by integrating their 100-odd channels November 13 — may have created the perfect country and western station. Outlaw Country, channel 12 for ex-XM subscribers and 63 for Sirius types, has been virtually all Noise has listened to for weeks.
In some ways, Outlaw Country feels like coming home. Bands Noise first fell in love with in college — Wilco, Son Volt, Old 97's, the Bottle Rockets — are never very far away. Neither are people he used to go see whenever possible in his Austin days: the Gourds, Bad Livers, Dale Watson, Kelly Willis, Jesse Dayton, Sunny Sweeney, Derailers.
Whoever programs Outlaw Country has a cagey ear. It's not unusual to hear John Hiatt's version of "Instant Karma" back to back with the Beatles' cover of Carl Perkins's "Honey Don't," and a triple-shot of Hank Williams III, Bocephus and Hank Sr. Johnny Cash's "Hurt" is just as likely to come on as "Folsom Prison Blues."
Country-friendly rockers from Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones to Jakob Dylan and Ryan Adams get plenty of airtime. And needless to say, the channel is lousy with Texans of every stripe — Willie, Waylon, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver and Townes Van Zandt through Doug Sahm, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Asleep at the Wheel and Delbert McClinton.
Perhaps most surprisingly, though, Outlaw Country doesn't shy away from playing artists from that notorious subgenre known as "Texas Music," which country commentators (around these parts, anyway) tend to regard with the same degree of critical esteem as their rock counterparts do, say, Nickelback or Staind. But there they are, yee-haw acts like Kevin Fowler and Cross Canadian Ragweed right alongside NPR/Starbucks twangers Nanci Griffith and John Prine.
Noise chalks this apparent anomaly up to one of two reasons. Either Outlaw Country's programmers think the channel's audience is too dumb to tell the difference between honky-tonk poetry and cookie-cutter crap (or too drunk to care), or — perish the thought — they recognize that country music is a tent as big as Texas, with plenty of room for hell-raisers and sensitive souls alike. And, just as importantly, that those two extremes are not nearly as far apart as some would like them to be.
Leaving Texas behind for just a minute, Outlaw Country consistently drives home a point that may be lost on nonlisteners. Despite the parade of ex-American Idol ingenues that dominate country's mainstream media coverage, radio play and record sales — which, by the way, is one of the few sectors of the music business not totally devastated by the Internet — creatively, country is in a place it hasn't been in years.
This month, George Jones, whose "Burn Your Playhouse Down" duet with Keith Richards is currently in Outlaw Country's heavy rotation, will be saluted at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors alongside Morgan Freeman, Barbra Streisand, choreographer Twyla Tharp and the Who's Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend — only the third country artist to be so honored this decade (Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn are the others).
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's Raising Sand, another Outlaw Country favorite, won a CMA award last month for Musical Event of the Year on the same telecast that saw Lil Wayne contribute a wigged-out Funkadelic guitar solo to Kid Rock's "All Summer Long." When the year-end top ten lists start popping up in a few weeks, new albums by Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Drive-By Truckers, Kasey Chambers, Chris Knight and Ryan Adams & the Cardinals will no doubt make several.
And believe it or not, it's been a pretty good year for Texas Music too, something Outlaw Country has noticed. Sure, there's been a dog or two — Brandon Rhyder's Every Night accomplishes the dubious feat of crossbreeding Grey's Anatomy singer-songwriter pabulum with watered-down roots-rock — but at least a third of the artists on the most recent Texas Music Chart (for the week ending November 24) appear regularly on the channel.
Reckless Kelly's "American Blood," from the Oregon-cum-Austin roots-rockers' Bulletproof, is as pointed and political as anything Steve Earle has written lately, and the younger Braun brothers in Micky & the Motorcars didn't do too bad with Naïve. Eli Young Band shows flashes of Robison-like songwriting potential (either Bruce or Charlie) on his irresistible hit "Jet Black and Jealous."
Roger Creager's "I'm From the Beer Joint" and Jason Boland & the Stragglers' "The Party's Not Over" are both fine honky-tonk specimens that wouldn't embarrass Dale Watson or the Derailers at all. Former Houstonian Hayes Carll has been wowing both Americanaphiles and Texas Music fans all year long with songs like "She Left Me for Jesus" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" from his Trouble in Mind album. Cross Canadian Ragweed's "Late Last Night" just rocks, pure and simple.
Like Texas itself, Texas Music has a bit of an image problem at the moment. (Thanks, W.) As with any other especially polarizing genre — metal, punk, rap — it can be difficult for otherwise rational people to separate the music from its audience, and a dance hall full of ballcap-clad, longneck-hoisting, screaming Aggies isn't everybody's idea of a fun Saturday night. Unless, of course, they themselves are a ballcap-clad, longneck-hoisting, screaming Aggie.
Consider "The Road Goes on Forever," more or less the unofficial Texas Music national anthem. When Joe Ely does it, it's a roadhouse rocker for people who also dig Dwight Yoakam, Uncle Tupelo and the Clash. But when original author Robert Earl Keen closes his set with it, suddenly it's frat-country in the extreme. Same song, and the arrangements aren't even that different (Keen's usually has a fiddle in there somewhere). Either way, it's a ripping good yarn, particularly for a song that's not even set in Texas.
To be fair, a lot of Texas culture is as rooted in football, Lone Star beer, pickup trucks and barbecue as the worst shitkicker stereotype imaginable. Most, but not all, Texas Music artists know this and play it up to varying degrees in their music; they do have to pay the bills, after all. But that music also remains as rooted in the state's rich storytelling tradition as it ever was. There might seem to be a world of difference between Pat Green's "Take Me Out to a Dancehall" and Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," but save Gilmore's considerably more melancholy tone, there's really not.
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And, just as much, if anyone tells you Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams don't have at least a little shitkicker in them, they're either lying or just stupid. (Listen to Earle's "Copperhead Road" and Williams's new AC/DC cover "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)" and tell Noise he's wrong.) Billy Joe Shaver shot a guy last year, for God's sakes.
Because he makes his point clearly, concisely and hilariously, Kevin Fowler's "Beer, Bait and Ammo" isn't a worse song than Guy Clark's "Desperados Waiting for a Train" because it's about rednecks who like to fish (and drink) and not a bunch of Deadwood extras lingering at the depot to see who gets the last swallow of whiskey. To its eternal credit, Outlaw Country recognizes this where the narrower-minded among us don't. Or won't.
And if that ain't country, I'll kiss your ass.