"I'm at the epicenter, so I think I know a thing or two about it," singer/songwriter Austin Lucas says of the current cowpunk resurgence. Sure, punk bands have been drawing inspiration from and even turning to country sounds for decades. Rank & File led the charge in the '70s, Mojo Nixon always mixed his post-punk with twang and, fairly recently, Tommy Ramone of pioneering punk group The Ramones resurfaced in bluegrass act Uncle Monk.
"Obviously the biggest one is Johnny Cash," Lucas points out, dating the movement back to the 1950s. But Lucas — who turns 31 the day after his Asheville performance — is at the epicenter of a punk-to-country shift so current that, while living in the Czech Republic from 2003 to 2008, he almost missed it.
Lucas grew up in a musical family (songs by his father, Bob Lucas, have been recorded by Alison Krauss, New Grass Revival and Sam Bush; his sister Chloe Manor also sings and plays guitar) and was a member of the Indiana University children's choir for six years. Somehow — angst? rebellion? As sweetly as Lucas speaks of his family ("There's not much we like to do more than play and sing together") that seems unlikely — the musician turned from roots, classical and choral to punk.
"The community I was part of was crust punk which is like Anarchist hard core. It's very, very removed from the rest of the world of punk. It's the most aggressive style; it's aesthetic is very different from the rest of the world of punk. It's got a totally different thing going on. Those people don't give a shit about the singer from Avail and what he's doing."
It was a friend from Lucas' punk shows who broke the news, musing, "When did it become punk to be country?" Says Lucas, "I looked at him as was like, 'Is it?' and he was like, 'Yeah, dude.' That's when I started finding out about all these bands that were doing. A lot of people will tell you the same story, that they had no idea, but I really had no idea."
Because, even more than the isolation of crust punk, Lucas was isolated in Prague where he was working in a bar opened by his brother and performing in metal band Guided Cradle. "When I first moved there, it was a real boom for indie rock [in the U.S.]," he remembers. But the Czechs "were stuck in the '90s." Working 10-hour shifts at the bar, Lucas immersed himself in his brother's extensive mp3 collection, imbibing a steady diet of country and roots music.
Which might seem out of character, except that Lucas had — even before leaving the U.S. and a lukewarm turn with the grind band Rune — worked on several roots albums. "My first album, Common Cold, came out in 2006. I'd started recording it in 2003. That was my first solo album … seven months after it came out, I recorded my second full-length, Putting the Hammer Down. It was more of a side project before I moved to the Czech Republic."
Lucas also collaborated with singer/songwriter Chuck Ragan on a 2007 seven-inch and on 2008's Bristle Ridge; but it was his 2009 solo release, Somebody Loves You, that garnered critical attention. That record — produced by Bob Lucas and including Manor and Manor's boyfriend Chris Westhoff — highlights Lucas' finger picking guitar and lithe, clear vocals. "His themes are love, serenity, and a sense of place that are reminiscent of old school country but with a smoother voice and more ethereal demeanor," reported a review in Scene Point Blank. In fact, a listener unfamiliar with Lucas' background would immediately hear the polished production and adept musicianship found on a Union Station recording. The punk influence lies between the lines: a shadow of melancholy, a nod to lost faith.
Poised at the — as he put it — epicenter of cowpunk, Lucas seems content to keep a foot in both worlds. Guided Cradle (with Lucas on guitar) still plays shows in both Europe and the U.S.; meanwhile the singer/songwriter is gearing up for a studio album with his Dad's involvement. Says the musician, "It wouldn't be one of my records without my family's input."
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Austin Lucas
what: Punk-turned-country singer/songwriter
where: Static Age Records
when: Thursday, March 4 (8 p.m., $5. staticagerecords.com or austinlucasmusic.com)