Down on the farm

Call it what you will: roots rock, alternative country, or slightly dusty rock ‘n’ roll. It’s hard to slap a label on Farmer Not So John.

But it’s easy enough to listen to them grub into their second album, Receiver (Compass, 1998). Marked by baleful, scraping steel guitar that dredges underneath the introspective vocals, Receiver is a spade that digs deep, marking the new course plotted by this Nashville band.

Receiver seems far more assured than Farmer Not So John (Compass, 1997), the band’s debut album. It’s been a long year, and Farmer has been through several not-so-gentle metamorphoses. A new producer, the exit of their rhythm section, and a lot of touring have pared the one-time foursome down to a duo and effected a more polished sound.

Singer/songwriter Mack Linebaugh’s mature, lyrical imagery helps set this band apart from the ever-burgeoning pack of alternative-country/No Depression magazine darlings: “The pendulum swings/away from the things/you did as a kid/oh how far/that mirage will lead you/into confusion,” he sings on “No Time to Please You.” The lyrics fade into the ruse of Richard McLaurin’s often understated guitar licks. Akin to R.E.M. and Neil Young, Farmer Not So John waxes poetic while pondering philosophical questions and grinding it all home with often-edgy guitar work.

Linebaugh, a Nashville native, says last year’s heavy touring schedule became an emotional roller coaster for the group. “One night would just be great — people had heard of you, you’re in a town you’ve played before, the crowd’s really responsive, and you’re riding high,” he remembers. “Then the next night you’re somewhere in Mississippi, where they just can’t understand that you’re not playing cover tunes.” Linebaugh also recognizes, though, that he and McLaurin are better off for all the troubles.

“During that year of touring, Richard and I started to jell more and more,” he says. “We started to write together. Then [former bass player] Brian Ray decided to leave, when he felt like he wasn’t able to put as much of his own creative voice into [the music] as he would like.” Drummer Sean Keith left around the same time, after he became a father. Both Ray and Keith contributed to Receiver, but neither will be touring with Farmer this summer.

McLaurin, a native of Bennettsville, S.C., graduated from Clemson University and moved to Nashville, where he met Linebaugh, Ray, and Keith — who were also scrambling to make it in the tough Nashville music scene. “Nashville’s not really known for a live-music scene,” Linebaugh points out. “It doesn’t have a big university, and I’ve always felt there wasn’t a whole lot of support for live music. … Half your audience are musicians. They just sit there and stare. It’s a different thing; playing for musicians isn’t playing for college kids.” Nevertheless, the group made it, and the multitalented McLaurin later produced their first album.

But the band flew Tucker Martine into town to produce Receiver. He and Linebaugh grew up playing in bands together, and even after Martine moved to Seattle and Linebaugh to Colorado, they stayed in touch. “A lot of the textures you’ll find on [Receiver] are because of Tucker,” Linebaugh notes. “He really added a lot of direction to what we were doing.”

And after wrapping up the album, Linebaugh says the duo is ready for the road again. “After being in the studio for a while, I start to feel really pent up and claustrophobic,” he explains. “I love getting in the van and going out and doing some live shows.”

But he’s quick to question the alternative-country billing that so many clubs foist on Farmer Not So John for those live shows, claiming it’s a confusing title in relation to their actual sound.

“I find the alternative-country thing to be really problematic,” he states flatly. “I mean, can we really go back now and put the Rolling Stones into the alternative-country category, because of [the country edge on] Sticky Fingers? I saw this guy last night, Mike Ireland, of Mike Ireland and Holler. He’s excellent — I mean really, really good. Very country. I see that, and it’s clear that’s what alternative country is, and I can accept that. But even when it comes to [so-called alternative-country bands like] Wilco and Son Volt and the Jayhawks, I think you start to get into a much grayer area.”

Ask 28-year-old Linebaugh about his musical influences, and you get a big sigh. “It may sound sort of trite, but the things I grew up listening to, I still really like: … R.E.M … I bought Murmur when I was in the eighth grade. The Talking Heads, too. As I got older, I did sort of get into more of the folky writers, Dylan … and Neil Young. I think when I listen to our CD, even though I’m completely subjective, I sort of hear a blending of those different resources.”

What does Linebaugh have to say specifically to Asheville audiences? “Just put in … ‘Come see the show or be killed,'” he says with a laugh.

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