Though it’s undoubtedly popular in terms of cash flow and “units” sold, country music may be the most misunderstood art form in America today. Mocked and marginalized by the urban cultural elite, it’s the last social phenomenon about which blatantly racist and classist epithets — such as “white trash” and “trailer trash” — are tossed around by even the haplessly politically correct. And in a world where the suburban insolence of artists like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock is seen as the true soundtrack of the time, listening to country music — let alone playing the older style your father used to enjoy — is probably as far off the “hip” barometer as you can get. Which, for some musicians, is entirely the point.
The members of Asheville’s White Heat play real country music — that is, they play the old stuff without irony. And though pedal-steel guitars and laments about lost highways and my-baby-done-me-wrong have been somewhat rediscovered lately (due to the recent surge of so-called “No Depression” bands around the country), White Heat is not part of some zeitgeist-chasing “Johnny Clash” bandwagon. The band possesses an in-the-bones sincerity that only the truth can provide. Pedal-steel player Scott Murray puts it this way: “I try to play the steel breaks exactly how I hear them. There’s just no way I’m going to improve on the original.”
Lead singer/rhythm guitarist Bryan Marshall agrees. “We take it pretty seriously,” he says. “We’ll play a Buck Owens song or a Merle Haggard song pretty much the same way they did it. We feel … strongly about that sound.”
“That sound” is late-’50s/early-’60s honky-tonk — trucking songs and drinking songs, heavy on the pedal steel and Bakersfield treble and twang — evoking a time when men wore flat tops and women sported bouffants, when you’d get the Beatles on one station and Lefty Frizzell on another (and the jury was still out on which of the two was truly more influential). It was a time before “country” had become “countrypolitan” — when high-haired women like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette were standing by and up to their men (men like George Jones, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Dave Dudley, Jim Ed Brown and Harlan Howard).
White Heat started out inauspiciously enough, when Murray caught Marshall singing Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” last December at a local open-mike session. Then Jamie Sterling — former drummer for the now-defunct local psycho-blues power trio The Merle — joined up, bringing former Merle guitarist and front man Chris Geer along to make things even more interesting. And with laconic bassist Dave Gay — who also does time with the celebrated dark-country combo Freakwater — on board, White Heat found themselves instantly elevated somewhere near the level of a local supergroup.
Quiet and self-deprecating, though, the band goes out of its way to pay respects to country music’s legends — announcing the original performer of each and every cover tune in their live shows. That’s changing some, however, as the band unveils more original tunes. “We try to give credit where it’ due,” says Murray, grinning. “But we like it when our originals sound like the [older] songs.”
So far, most of the originals have come from Geer — some written recently, some retooled from The Merle days. “Chris already has an incredible backlog of songs,” Murray reports. “It’s just a matter of picking out which ones work best for our purposes.”
“A couple of The Merle’s songs were written as country before they were done as rock songs, anyway,” Sterling confirms.
White Heat takes a fairly laid-back attitude toward the kitschier aspects of their chosen genre — the straw-in-the-mouth, hillbilly-gothic, Jethro Bodean-on-crank mannerisms that a growing contingent of bands of a similar ilk (think Southern Culture on the Skids) seem all-too-eager to flaunt. “A lot of those guys come off as more kitschy than they really are,” Murray offers generously. “I think their intentions are probably more pure than they seem.”
Still, there’s a sense that what the kitsch bands and what White Heat are doing are two very different things. Says Sterling: “Personally, I don’t appreciate people making fun of this tradition. Everyone’s got their hair slicked back, or they’re all dressed alike. … There’s something sort of artificial about it.” Bassist Kevin Sluder, who fills in when Gay is on tour with Freakwater, is less diplomatic: “If you listen to those people play,” he says, “they’re not nearly the caliber of musicians who play it for real.”
In the end, though, White Heat seem less interested in what everyone else is doing than in what they’re doing: celebrating the music, the culture and the mythologies of “that sound” — the broken hearts, late-night roadhouses and highway dreams of a once-pervasive culture, now forgotten by most of the nation.
The irony of that is not lost on them, however. “We’re in a weird place, playing ‘older’ country music,” Murray says. “I mean, do you even call it country? As soon as you say it’s country music, so many people think ‘Darth’ Brooks or something.”
Hell, what’s the sense in fencing off traditional country, anyway? Isn’t it really just American music, after all?