Author David Ensminger Gets to the "Roots" of Punk—with a Special Guest—at Cactus Music

Mike Watt + The Missingmen, Pop
Obscure Records, Los Angeles,
Mike Watt + The Missingmen, Pop Obscure Records, Los Angeles, 2018 Photo by David Ensminger
In general, music is an art of genres. And subgenres. And sub-subgenres. And even then, the lines get too fuzzy for nitpicky record store clerks looking to place discs in their respective divider cards.

Take punk—itself a subgenre of rock. Is it the street-tough New Yawk ‘60s-inspired buzzsaw attack of the Ramones? The anarchic, snotty, social issue-charged chaos of the Sex Pistols? The politically minded oeuvre of the Clash that also includes dabs of dub, funk, soul, rockabilly and even jazz? Can the average music listener even name any other punk bands?

Author David Ensminger is your Gentle Guide to one specific subgenre as the author of the newly released book Roots Punk: A Visual and Oral History (216 pp., University Press of Mississippi). He’ll have a discussion and book signing local at Cactus Music on November 16 (book price TBD), with a special performance by Peter Case (himself the subject of a chapter) prior to his gig that night at the Mucky Duck.

So, just what the hell is “roots punk?” We force Ensminger to give us a definition that could fit on a slip of paper inside a Chinese fortune cookie.

“Plain punk rock with one foot stuck in the past!” he says over the phone.

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Author David Ensminger
Photo by David Ensminger
Or, as he writes in the book, “Roots punk does not simply mean delivering past styles—like traditional folk, country, or blues chord progressions and storylines—onto punk modes and manners. It certainly can be, but it is also about a frame of mind, a looking glass into an artist’s obsessions and compulsions, in which the past is woven into the present, including idiosyncrasies that have shaped personal taste, manners, and style.”

Roots Punk features more than a dozen interviews and/or profiles with roots punk practitioners, from familiar names like X, the Blasters, Alejandro Escovedo, Mike Watt (Minutemen, fireHOSE) and Peter Case (Nerves, Plimsouls) to more obscure (Gary Floyd of the Dicks, Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club, the Hickoids, Rank and File, Texacala Jones).

All of them looked forward in their own musical career by looking back. “There is a connection between that. How you play in 1979 or 1976 but acknowledging the forefathers of the 1950s had a lot to do with it,” Ensminger adds.

And that choice of decade makes a difference. Most punk musicians and historians will gladly tell you that the genre rose in part as a direct answer or counter against what was seen as “bloated” classic rock, prog rock, and FM “corporate rock” of the day. Punk was loud, fast, snotty and short. One Genesis or Yes album cut could hold eight or so punk songs and still leave space on the vinyl.
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DIY flyer for 1981 Rank and File show
Art by Randy "Biscuit" Turner of Big Boys/Collection of David Ensminger
Ensminger also traces the origins of roots punk to the early ‘80s by which time hardcore, or even faster, nastier, more violence-tinged punk was in ascendence. And geared toward the very young. That left many of the “older” punks (even if only a few years separated them) cold.

“Punk itself had so many different subgenres. The hardcore model pushed into the suburbs and brought out the All Ages crowd. The [older] punks found it restrictive and belligerent, and it pushed out the women,” Ensminger says.

“So, they went back to their record collection for [inspiration]. The Clash covered the Bobby Fuller Four! [“I Fought the Law”]. They went back to what they themselves were listening to as kids.”

Throughout the book, there are plenty of contemporary and vintage photos (many taken by Ensminger himself at gigs and appearances). There’s also bevy of vintage gig flyers, most handmade by the band and/or their friends.

They come from Ensminger’s personal collection of some 5,000 examples, all carefully filed away in protective mylar sleeves that he gets at comic book stores.

“Those flyers are essential to understanding punk, because it’s all about the DIY aspect,” he offers. “And you learn more, like the price of a show. And it has the amateur, naïve, almost child-like cut-and-paste art that’s also an example of what you could do in the early Xerox era.”

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Peter Case
Photo by David Ensminger
Bands and fans would also use them to write down set list, song ideas, or contact info after they served their purpose affixed upon light poles or bulletin boards. Diehard fans would even trade them. Ensminger himself remembers as a kid ordering original Dead Kennedys or Avengers flyers by sending $2 in the mail to some address and hoping for the best.

Interestingly, Elvis Presley—who died in 1977—became a touchstone for these bands. Roots Punk has an entire chapter on how The King served as both inspiration and satire for the bands.

“When you have the Clash singing ‘No Elvis, No Beatles, No Rolling Stones in 1977,’ that’s really a bunch of bullshit!” Ensminger laughs. “We know that [Clash singer/guitarist] Mick Jones was going to record stalls and buying Rolling Stones albums. There’s firsthand reports of that!”

He mentions that Gary Floyd of the Dicks was not above covering a Jimi Hendrix song, or (later) playing music that had more in common with John Mayall and Creedence Clearwater Revival than any “punk” group.

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Texacala Jones at Fitzgerald's in Houston, 2018
Photo by David Ensminger
“These people weren’t 18 anymore. They were 25 or 28,” he adds. “And they wanted a broader definition of what punk was. Also, what made punk interesting was the sense of the authenticity, directness, sparseness. And that was really captured by people like Johnny Cash. He spoke to the American experience.”

Ensminger notes that when it comes to Houston, bands in the city didn’t really cotton to roots punk like in other places around the state. He says groups like Really Red, Bevatron and AK-47 were more “art punk.” Though Bevatron’s singer, Alison Fisher, has since gone on to a career in blues music.

His connection with Cactus Music stage-sharer Peter Case is not new, as the pair have collaborated on previous prose and poetry projects. The Cactus event will feature him talking a bit about the book, and then an on-stage interview with Case who himself will then play a few tunes.

“To me, Peter represents all those eras of punk combined. He’s one of those rare musicians who spans the generations, but also pulls from his own upbringing,” Ensminger sums up. “He helped gestate punk and still has a very DIY vision with roots in Bob Dylan and the blues. And he’s a special, unique troubadour songwriter”

David Ensminger signs and discusses Roots Punk and Peter Case performs at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 16, at Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth. For information, call 713-526-9272 or visit Free, adult beverages provided by St. Arnold’s. You can also order the book here.

Peter Case plays at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 16, at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. For information, call 281-357-9478 or visit $30 & up for live show, $30 for livestream.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero