I once pissed off Buck Owens during an interview by sharing with him a comment I’d heard concerning Bakersfield, Calif. — that if Buck’s beloved hometown were a drink, it would be a dirty shot glass with half an inch of dust at the bottom.
Times have changed. For one, I try to avoid pissing off country-music legends. For another, you no longer have to serve time in Bakersfield or San Quentin to make convincing music that’s heavy on the heartbreak and honky-tonk. Today, you can emerge from a perfectly respectable ‘burb or white-bread city, skip the trip to prison (and Bakersfield and Nashville altogether) and still put out some damn fine country music — the kind even Buck would recognize.
Do it, though, and someone’s going to smack you with the exhausted “alternative country” label — whatever that means today — and Clear Channel Communications ain’t gonna play your songs.
John Howie Jr. heads the Chapel Hill-based Two Dollar Pistols, whose latest CD, You Ruined Everything (Yep Roc Records, 2003), could have come straight out of Bakersfield, circa 1967. Buck would be proud, and probably Merle Haggard would be, too — which puts the Pistols firmly in alt-country land.
Howie, however, isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think a lot of your typical alt-country folk think of us as a part of all that, and I don’t really disagree with them,” he says.
Where, then, to point the Pistols?
Pressed for some kind of indication as to what makes today’s alt-country, well, alt, the Mississippi native responds, “Hmm … if such an element exists, I can’t seem to find it.”
To the rescue come the Pistols’ label-and-alt-country-bin-mates The Sadies, who have a clearer idea what the genre is trying to be — or are at least they’re more willing to hazard a guess.
The Toronto band’s recent release, Stories Often Told, sounds like what might happen if John Wayne commissioned guitarist Dick Dale to compose the soundtrack for a spaghetti western in which the cowboy hero has a serious jones for Zoloft, and the surf-rock god is tripping on acid.
The Sadies are led by Dallas Good and his younger brother Travis, sons and nephews to Canada’s longtime, old-time traveling kings the Good Brothers. So what makes them alt-mates with the varied likes of Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch and Willie Nelson?
“Alt-country,” ventures Dallas, “is a collection of musicians [who] are all seeking to draw from older styles that are time-tested [and] true and good for everybody; and each person puts their own influences on that. I think it’s made for a new genre of music that’s great for going to bars and drinking and listening.”
He then — of course — adds a caveat.
“Having said that, the only reason I would remove myself from [the alt-country label] is because we definitely … stay very disciplined in the same way that maybe our idols in some sense did.
“I would have to mention Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys,” he elaborates. “They all worked so hard, driving around in a little, tiny van in pressed suits, and never straying from the formula. And it was like an intellectual form of hayseed, hillbilly music.
“Or like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys,” he continues. “They worked on a level of discipline, whether they were completely drunk out of their minds or not, that to this day is unparalleled. That type of musical discipline is what dictates our style.”
Reviews of The Sadies’ live show back up Good’s contention.
“They can play louder, longer, sweeter and drunker than any band in NAFTA,” declared The Chicago Tribune.
About the Pistols, Dallas comments, “Yeah, I would definitely call them a pioneer of [alt-country], for sure — so much more than us. … [But] I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole them, either.”
That’s OK by Howie.
“I try to think of it as just music,” he offers. “I consider myself a songwriter whose basic sound is traditional country, augmented by Southern R&B and some rock ‘n’ roll.”
So fine. No one really wants the alt-country label. How about something a little more in line with that old country-and-western cliche, drinking? What if the Two Dollar Pistols were a drink?
Howie: “Some sort of bourbon and Cheerwine concoction.”
And The Sadies?
Good: “Something very frothy with many, many shots in it, many styles. It would probably have many different colors to it. And it would be very sweet, and it would probably be on fire. And if you had one, you’d never be able to stop drinking them. And that one drink would be the most delicious, knock-you-off-your-ass drink you ever had.
“And yet,” he amends, “subtle … “
The Sadies and the Two Dollar Pistols play the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Friday, May 30. “Honky-Tonk Night” will also feature free BBQ (while it lasts), door prizes and games benefiting Quality Forward. Showtime is 10 p.m. (doors open at 8:30); tickets cost $10. For more information, visit www.theorangepeel.net, or call 225-5851.