Unpromised Land

Reality can hit hard, and Jolene has had the misfortune of fielding some very real blows in the last ten months. The North Carolina quintet has seen its brilliant national debut, Hell's Half Acre, sell a meager 10,000 copies since its release late last year, even with scads of positive reviews. The band's label, the Memphis-based independent Ardent, recently folded, leaving Jolene homeless, penniless and, to an extent, clueless.

"It's interesting because everyone at Ardent -- from the [top] brass to the guy that cleans the studio -- all felt like the record was going to be a success," says John Crooke, the group's chief songwriter, lead singer and second guitarist. "Right about the time it started gaining momentum, the bottom fell out."

That might be easier to swallow if the buildup surrounding Jolene hadn't been so significant, and if the band hadn't lived up to its hype. Curse of curses: the group has been seen in the critical vicinity of R.E.M. -- in the same sentence even, and in a largely favorable fashion. Jolene isn't the first new band to invite such weighty comparisons, but they could be the most deserving of them. After all, Jolene also has a pair of Mikes (drummer Mike Kenerley and bassist Mike Mitschele) and a Bill (pedal steel wiz Bill Ladd) in its lineup, and a Stipe-like singer in Crooke (though there's no R.E.M. parallel for Jolene lead guitarist Dave Burris). Of course, such random similarities can be laid to coincidence, or stock first names. More relevant is Jolene's sophisticated folk-rock portrayal of the New South -- one that shows reverence for its rural roots without being lashed to any particular tradition.

Like R.E.M., Jolene's technique is unmistakably here and now, laid out in a philosophy of modern pop music in which the past is used to color, rather than to shape, the group's direction. Mixing straight-ahead rockers and worn-in ditties with introspective country-flavored ballads and curious, lyrically oblique tracks, Hell's Half Acre is hardly revolutionary in its sound. It fails to boast that defiance of trends and convention that made R.E.M.'s Murmur such a profoundly subversive debut. But it does succeed -- in its own clever way -- in finding roots rock a fresh niche somewhere along the vast continuum that separates George Jones and Merle Haggard from the likes of the Smiths.

At the very least, Jolene offers proof that such a continuum does indeed exist. In fact, it thrives in the heads of the band's co-founders, Crooke and Burris. The two are cousins, and as tykes growing up near Charlotte, they'd spend hours jumping on beds and strumming tennis rackets to Boston, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin albums. Both got a kick out of Hee-Haw, and whether they knew it at the time or not, they absorbed its down-home camp and country influences. Their childhoods were relatively bucolic, Crooke says, and just this side of privileged.

"It wasn't a situation where we were rich, but everybody in our family is either a lawyer or an educator," remembers Crooke. "There was a lot of support for being creative. If you came in a room in a thong and Viking helmet, no one would look twice at you -- you were just expressing your creative ability."

The older Burris turned Crooke on to punk and new wave, and the two traded enthusiasm over seminal '80s releases from Rain Parade, the Jam, the Pretenders and others. Meanwhile, Crooke was exploring America's roots-centric, post-punk underground on his own -- acts such as the dBs, Dumptruck and Austin's Reivers. Crooke didn't discriminate over style and country of origin; he simply absorbed everything, taking much of it along when he went off to college.

Crooke arrived on campus courtesy of a basketball scholarship, but within a semester, and soon after being informally introduced to Buck, Mills, Berry and Stipe, he'd left sports in favor of music. "A basketball bounced into a dumpster, and I was elected to go get it," he says. Lying by the ball was R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction. "So I grabbed it, and the light went off."

In 1987, a month after quitting the team, Crooke formed his first band, the Beatnics. Then came the Hardsoul Poets with Jolene's Kenerley and Mitschele. Meanwhile, over in Chapel Hill, Burris was studying for his master's degree in English and playing in his own group, the Veldt, all the while feeding off the competitive vibe of the town's indie rock scene, sharing gigs with the likes of Superchunk and the Connells. A kinship developed between Burris and Mike Connell, strengthened by their shared respect for Jethro Tull and their tendency to cop Ian Anderson's jazzy/medieval flute licks for use on their guitars. To this day, the Tull influence rears its head in Burris' playing, with Jolene often covering the group's "Mother Goose" live.

After an unsuccessful debut CD on Mercury Records, the Veldt came unglued. At about the same time, the Hardsoul Poets foundered, and a merger between Crooke and Burris seemed natural. By the end of 1994, Jolene (its name taken from the Dolly Parton classic) had begun to gel. The group sealed a deal with Ardent in '95, releasing both an EP and Hell's Half Acre later that year.

"We decided," recalls Crooke, "that here is our one chance since we were kids jumping around with tennis rackets to start a band together."

Jolene, Crooke says, has been jabbed a bit by the '90s alternative country crowd. "People had to put us somewhere, and the immediate classification was Son Volt, Wilco, Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo," he notes, admitting that "we're cousins with those bands in a lot of ways." At the same time, though, says Crooke, "we've been attacked by some people, who say that we're just a pop band -- Oasis from the South."

Jolene's closest ties to the alt-country movement lie with their perpetual tourmates Blue Mountain, whose bass player, Laurie Stirratt, is the sister of Wilco bassist John Stirratt. And though Crooke loves groups such as Wilco, he'd prefer to see their kinship with Jolene downplayed. "There's a certain element of us that is very not Americana," he says. "There's times when I feel like we're the Catherine Wheel."

Still, it's a struggle to hear even a hint of the Catherine Wheel's urbanized wall-of-guitars sprawl on Hell's Half Acre. From the quaint, metaphor-dropping grace of "Birdland" to the precious trickles of peddle steel that drape "I Read What You Wrote Today" (with backup vocals from aspiring new-country diva Kim Richey) in soothing melancholy to the anthemic, hick-rock hook and grassroots political postulating of "China Card" to the lovingly rendered cover of Vic Chesnutt's "Isadora Duncan," Acre's rough-hewed strains speak to an easy, unpaved lifestyle. Refined in structure yet starkly working-class in its no-bullshit veracity, the CD is seeped in the rustic, back-country twang of Jolene's beloved Appalachian countryside.

According to Crooke, however, there will be less rootsiness on future Jolene projects. "The creative process in a band's development is very amorphous," Crooke says. "You're not going to have the same shape all the time -- it bends and it pulls. It's been a year since we made Hell's Half Acre; we're a very different band now."

Still in the market for a new home, Jolene is currently in the process of completing a four-song demo, which the band's forwarding to an interested party rumored to be a major label. Acre producer Jeff Powell is handling the recording at Ardent Studios, and the band is footing the bill.

"Feel free to shut me up, because I ramble. One subject leads me to another, and we'll be on the Dole and Clinton debate in a few minutes," says Crooke, who's been killing time over the phone from Ardent while awaiting the completion of mix-downs on the new tunes, which he describes as (big surprise) "darker and not as rural."

In his late twenties and already a nine-year veteran, Crooke still gets worked into a fan-ish frenzy when in the company of musicians he admires -- guys from bands that, like Jolene, may have little in the way of wealth to show for their efforts, but plenty in the way of respect.

"Check this out," he says, "I had a moment the other night. After we played with Hootie [and the Blowfish] in Austin, we went out to the Continental Club with Peter Holsapple." He pauses to note that Holsapple, now of the Continental Drifters, was in the dBs, making sure the name rings a bell. "Here I am talking to Peter, the guy from Dumptruck and John Croslin from the Reivers. If any member of R.E.M. had been there, I would have ended it all right there -- probably said, 'Thanks a lot, guys,' and shot myself."

Though he's less than jazzed about Jolene's being lumped in with the post-Tupelo brood, Crooke welcomes comparisons to his teenage heroes in R.E.M. "with open arms," even if it means his band will continue to be subjected to increased scrutiny.

"It's a lot of pressure," admits Crooke. "But I'll tell you, when CD Review says, 'they're the best thing to come out of the mid-South since Stipe, Berry, Mills and Buck,' that can either put pressure on you, or you can go, 'Man, that's great.' "

Jolene performs Thursday, October 17, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $4. Garrison Starr opens. For info, call 869-