It might seem like career suicide to write a scathing tune about the very genre you operate in, but that’s exactly what former Dwight Yoakam sideman Brian Whelan has done at the beginning of his second solo album, Sugarland. “Americana,” which the Houston Press is premiering today, is a jet-blast critique of a genre swollen with fakers and copycats, many dressed in vintage or Civil War outfits and “positioned” or “staged” by management and public-relations gurus to fit the Americana Music Association's one-size-fits-all mold.
Whelan, who has a music degree from the University of Southern California, was on the road with Dwight Yoakam for five years as Yoakam’s utility man (piano, accordion, steel guitar), and says the idea for the song had been germinating for a while, but the song sort of wrote itself as a series of observations.
“As we went around the country, I’d see so many bands who I thought were trying to fake the ‘being organic’ thing, like you could do that if you wore certain clothes, let your beard grow wild, get some old beat-up-looking instruments, rip your pants knees, whatever,” Whelan laughs. “Don’t get me wrong; this song is not a middle finger to the Lumineers or even to the whole Americana genre, if there is such a thing. I know I’m definitely over the whole 'whang on a banjo and stomp around' shtick as some kind of important back-to-basics thing. That’s laughable in most instances.”
Whelan comes to town as part of his annual trek to Texas for South By Southwest and opens tomorrow for local stalwart Mike Stinson at Cottonwood for Rick Heysquierdo’s "Troubadour Tuesday" series. Sugarland just went out to radio last week and will be available to the public March 25. Whelan headlines a second Houston show at Under the Volcano March 23.
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Produced by Dwight Yoakam drummer Mitch Marine, Sugarland is Whelan’s second solo album after 2012's Decider. The title track is something of an homage to his significant other’s hometown, the southwest Houston suburb. It's a nice mix of Whelan’s poppy rocker love songs like “Don’t You Go Dancing,” the album's first single, and breezy California country-rockers. But it’s “Americana,” Sugarland's opening track, that peels the paint from the walls. According to Whelan, it’s no accident that the bruising track begins with Marine trying to break the head of his bass drum.
“We really had some fun doing that track,” Whelan grins. “There’s the line ‘come on, man, you’ve gotta make the scene/a big bass drum and a tambourine,’ so we highlighted the drum in the mix in the intro. Same with the banjo-twanging thing. It’s all part of the joke.”
To heighten the irony, the first solo is a ferocious burn-it-down banjo solo by California roots heavyweight Herb Pederson of Desert Rose Band fame.
“That’s one of the beauties of L.A.,” says Whelan. “You can just call up guys like Herb and they’ll come on over if they’re interested. He just slaughters that solo, and so does Gabe Witcher from Punch Brothers on the final fiddle solo. They both just went crazy in the best way.”
Whelan’s take on the Americana scene is withering yet spot-on funny.
You look you stepped out of the Civil War
But you’re all just a bunch of prima donnas
“The whole song is really just a mishmash of impressions that have come to me over the last few years as I’ve tried to get my own career going separate from Dwight’s band,” says Whelan. “It’s like a summary of some things that have bothered me, like that website called Saving Country Music. I get what they’re going for, but at the same time, like it says in the song, country music doesn’t need saving, country music is going to outlive us all. I watched Dwight night after night just give it 101 percent because that music is really what Dwight is and who he is. He’s as legit as it gets, but country music people pretty much ignore him and Americana sort of claims him, but you don’t see Dwight winning any AMA awards or any of that, mostly because he doesn’t play the game and go along. I respect that way more than I can respect that ‘hey ho, hey ho’ stuff, you know.”
Whelan gets some pretty funny licks in on the Americana set with lines like “You industry kids with your college wit/ You're a pretty nice guy but you sound like shit.”
“Yeah, we actually had to come up with an alternate clean edit for that one,” Whelan laughs. “But that’s a real thing to me. I’ve got people I’m friends with in Los Angeles who have bands or are in bands, and I can be friends with them but not necessarily like their music. The whole ‘it’s all good' attitude irks me no end.”
Whelan notes that Yoakam continues to take an interest in him since he’s left the band. He takes comfort in some of Yoakam’s long-in-the-tooth wisdom and his example.
“Dwight doesn’t necessarily tell you so much as show you,” Whelan observes. “I watched him five years and got to see how he built his career and how he sustains it. When I told him I was leaving the band, he told me, 'What you’re doing is going to be harder than shit.' He actually said, 'I don’t envy you because radio isn’t going to play you.' His advice was just go play some place, then go back and play there again.
“I’m not being marketed like a lot of people are,” says Whelan. “Social media and videos are all well and good, but the fans you win at your live shows are the ones who’ll keep coming back and tell other people. Touring really is what it’s all about for me. My publicist keeps pestering me about a music video, but that’s not the route I want to base a career on.”
Whelan finds the whole issue of branding to be rather tedious.
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“A lot of what I see is more like the indie world than what I call Americana or country. Like these duo acts with just a drum and one other instrument. To me, that’s got a lot more in common with what I know about the indie world than it does with bluegrass or folk music or than it does with old-school country music. But again, that’s image and branding and marketing. It’s like the music, the songs, the playing, that’s all just stuff but it’s not the key stuff. How you look, how you present yourself is the key for a lot of acts and the labels that are pushing them. When I think about all that, I get a kind of perverse pleasure out of knowing I didn’t fit into that, even if I never get anywhere in this.”
“This is why my generation is so fucked,” says Whelan, “the desire to get rich and famous without working hard. I feel completely out of touch with that world. I want to be a musician, a producer, a performer like Dwight or T Bone Burnett; these are my main guys. Doing it that long way is more important to me than all this empty marketing stuff. And doing everything yourself makes it harder, but I think it makes it better."
And, no, “Americana” is not a middle finger to the Lumineers.