Hick Hop

Nashvillians attempt to explain their utterly baffling road system by comparing the city to a great wheel. In this analogy, the hub is downtown, and the ten or so hinterland-bound main roads, often called pikes in the local parlance, form the spokes. Each of these spokes has its own personality: Hillsboro and Franklin pikes are Nashville's hoity-toity answers to the Champs-Élysées, while Nolensville is a cosmopolitan sister to our very own Hillcroft. None of these byways interests Trent Summar much.

Dickerson Road is more to his liking. Far away from the tourist trails and utterly unmentionable in the halls of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, dirty old Dickerson is a close cousin to the Telephone Road in Steve Earle's song of the same name. It's the seamy underbelly of the New South, the kind of place where a backsliding country boy's wildest dreams can be fulfilled for 50 bucks. Neither of Nashville's alter egos -- glitzy, shallow "Music City" or the staid and stuffy "Athens of the South" -- knows exactly what to do about this little slice of Sodom, except to sweep it under the rug and hope the tourists don't notice.

Which is exactly what Music Row has been doing for years with tunes that deal with life's less tidy aspects. Today the process is nearly complete. Cheating, drinking, fighting and killing are no longer fit subjects for a C&W song, and the line that was described not so long ago as the perfect country music opener -- "I was drunk the day Mama got out of prison" -- would land the demo on which it was sung in the A&R man's trash faster than you can say white lightning.

For too long, the Row has pretended that the sordid byways of Dickerson's ilk no longer exist, but Summar knows better. That's why he posed for the cover of his new band's CD down there on Dickerson, right near the sign for the Last Chance Liquor store. There's a touch of foreboding and poignancy about that well-chosen sign, as much for the music it indirectly advertises as for the thirsty customers it hopes to entice. Summar's New Row Mob represents what is likely the last chance for Music City to recapture the spirit of the Nashville Scorchers, to date the city's headiest cocktail of punk spirit, rock energy and country sensibility. Summar is one of a dwindling number who remember the Scorchers when they were at their early-'80s peak.

Summar describes his music, variously, as "hick hop," "waterbed country" and "country and rock, but not country-rock." This last approximation hits closest to the mark. Those prepared for laid-back, nicotine-free Californian claptrap along the lines of "Horse with No Name" will be in for a rude awakening. This is about power chords, distortion and bone-crunching rhythms. These are songs, in all their politically incorrect splendor, that shamelessly recall Hank Williams Jr. in his early-'80s heyday.

Said producer R.S. Field: "Trent and I both liked it when country was embarrassing for all the right reasons. We like the old-timey country as opposed to the hot-tub, leotard, Jazzercize country-pop."

Trent Summar, bred in the East Tennessee mountains, cut his teeth in Nashville leading the alt-country-before-alt-country-was-cool outfit Hank Flamingo. After two highly praised but underplayed Warner/Giant albums, and after leaving behind a road paved with the bones of those who attended the band's hyperkinetic shows, Hank Flamingo disbanded. Summar took guitarist Philip Wallace with him and signed with veteran Nashville behind-the-scenesters Harold Shedd and Paul Lucks as the first act on their fledgling VFR label.

"It's a cool record deal," says Summar from the Nashville home he shares with Rosie Flores. "I was just kicking around town doing my thing with my 50 songs in a brown paper bag. They basically let me do whatever I wanted to do, and I think it surprised them -- I know it surprised me -- that we got such a good record out of it. I just love it."

Shedd and Lucks are two men who have found a cursed El Dorado. They are the ones, in large part, responsible for the Shania Twain phenomenon, and it seems by their actions, if not their words, that they have confessed this sin to some high priest of hillbilly and are in full-on repentance mode. They are signing to VFR only acts that they personally like. What's more, they're coloring outside the lines regarding promotion, sales and packaging, and they're pledging long-term commitments to the artists on their roster.

Shedd and Lucks spared no expense putting together a session band for Summar. Featuring Jared "Shade" Reynolds on bass, David Kennedy (Walk the West, Cactus Brothers) on drums, Jerry Dale McFadden (the Mavericks, Sixpence None the Richer) on keys, and the deceptively bookwormish-looking guitar monster Kenny Vaughan (Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood), Summar's studio Mob constituted a rogue's gallery of the best left-of-center players in Music City. The "newer" Row Mob, which tours with Summar and will back him at the rodeo, includes ex-Townes Van Zandt drummer Fran Breen, among others. "We're gonna tear the damn roof off of wherever we play down there," Summar deadpans.

Such words befit a man who would dare align himself with Dickerson Road. Bill Monroe, in some ways a kindred spirit, was by no means immune to the charms of that sinful byway, even as a septuagenarian. His fortysomething wife once found evidence of a Dickerson Road assignation and confronted the bluegrass patriarch. "Bill Monroe," she raged, "you take this here Bible, and you swear on it that you haven't been down there whorin'." Monroe's response was not what his wife expected. He snatched the good book from her trembling hand and, as it was described in the Nashville Banner, "Bible-whipped" his jealous spouse. Trent Summar would understand, if not endorse, this near-perfect expression of purely Southern sin.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax