My dad once told me that he had loved Bobby Bare's "Detroit City" the very first time he heard it. No wonder. Describing a man who has left his southern home for an auto worker's gig up north, that 1963 crossover country smash told one version of my dad's own story, and of our people's: of his pappy who left Missouri's Ozarks for construction work in Kansas City, until he couldn't take it any more and disappeared back into the Morgan County hills; and of my father who came north with my grandpa when he was just a boy because he had to, but who stayed behind when he was a man because digging ditches in the city seemed to offer more of a future than doing it in the sticks--and because, by then, he knew no other way to live.
It's no understatement to say that there are millions of people in the midwest and the new south, and in the rust belt and the sun belt, who could tell similar stories about their parents. (My significant other Doris' folks, for example, left the deepest Missouri Ozarks for good union jobs at a Cessna plant in Wichita, Kansas; my best friend Julie's mother and father are from Arkansas hollers, which they abandoned for worse-than-shitty jobs in a box factory and a Nabisco plant, respectively.) Like me, a lot of the children of these southern immigrants grew up hating their parents' country music. The country favorites of all our twangy talkin' kin represented the very working class trap we hoped to escape -- we were AOR kids; we were "pullin' outa here to win." Today, however, as the pop album chart proves each weak, many of those same kids have grown into big country fans. And it's no surprise that a still-small-but-growing number of them are also fans of the 90's version of country rock and of bands like the Jayhawks, Wilco, the Bottle Rockets and Son Volt.
With guitars and voices that both rock and twang, these bands sound great (call it alternative or insurgent country, or Grain Belt or No Depression rock, or Americana -- take your pick). But they also often capture the cold, hard facts of life for the metaphorical children of "Detroit City": all those twenty- and thirtysomethings whose folks headed north for good jobs and better lives -- only now the jobs are gone.
Today's midwestern country rockers grew up as characters in this story, and now they make music in the same context. So it bugs the shit out of me when critics, who apparently don't know this context, dismiss these bands with glib pronouncements. (Bugged but unsurprised: most critics, truth be told, just don't much care for anything that sounds remotely like country; it's not as hip as traditional/alternative guitar rock and it surely isn't as exotic as R&B and rap.) Critic Will Hermes, excerpted in this year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, offers an example that could easily stand for the rest: "(This music is) purposefully vague, nostalgic for times that even it realizes probably never were, and tending toward depression."
Nostalgic is the last thing this music is. I know because much of the best of it has been created right here in Missouri, and it hits me smack where I live. I hear "Get Down" (about a small town perpetually sunk by high waters), from the Festus, Missouri band the Bottle Rockets, and I immediately recall the faces of the weary men and women who I once interviewed in Boone County, Missouri, after they had, once again, been flooded out of their cramped but cheap homes. I listen to their "Manhattan Countryside" and immediately think of Branson and Osage Beach, Missouri, and of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, as those tourist traps spin ever-widening webs of "development" out into the surrounding hills. I listen to their "Welfare Music," or their "Kerosene," and I hear the hopes and fears of Missouri's left-for-dead working-class neighborhoods that, in the wake of corporate downsizing and factory shut-downs, now house a new generation of kids who may not "ever stand a chance." (Nearly 1500 Missouri jobs have been lost to NAFTA alone in the past two years -- and that's just the official figure.)
The Bottle Rockets aren't alone out here, either. I hear "Bad Times Are Comin' Round Again," by the Waco Brothers (including, among others, a transplanted Mekon and a Bottle Rocket on loan), and am reminded that many of today's insurgent country bands know what time it is just as surely as Coolio and Snoop Dog do. I hear "Little White Trash Boy," by Kansas City's the Starkweathers, and it's far too easy to place that kid in any number of forgotten midwestern communities. When I hear "Casino Queen" by Wilco (a spin-off of Uncle Tupleo, originally from Belleville, Illinois, just across the water from St. Louis), I don't have to imagine the fleet of gambling boats now docked up and down the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Those boats represent one of the few chances those white trash boys have of landing a way out.
A similarly inclined group of bands, more closely aligned in a single scene, is developing in North Carolina, around insurgent acts like Freightwhaler, Six-String Drag, and Jolene. The best of these Carolina bands is Whiskey Town, whose folks came down out of the Appalachias rather than the Ozazrks (one character "stumbles down the same streets my daddy done stumbled before," another came down "from a mining town, they closed the mine down"). Their debut, Faithless Street, is destined to go down as one of the year's best albums, and one of alternacountry's best ever -- and it too is charged not with nostalgia but with blue collar anthems of the here and now. On "Matrimony," fiddler/singer Caitlin Cary contends that a quick marriage to the first guy that comes along is just another way of killing off options that this working-class gal has too few of to begin with. And on the exquisitely meloncholy title track, lead singer Ryan Adams delivers what could be a reason d'etre for the entire alternacountry movement: "Been living on Faithless Street all by myself/ Work your whole life for someone else...But (Christ) never shed his peace on this land/ So I started this damn country band."
While the Bottle Rockets, Whiskey Town and others paint detailed portraits of what working-class life actually looks like in today's heartland, Son Volt, my favorite of the bunch, tries to capture the inner life of that existance -- what it feels like to have been left for dead. That's not to say Son Volt's frontman Jay Farrar writes songs that are anything like vague: "Ten Second News" is explicitly about the creeping death of towns like Times Beach (now permanently evacuated due to dioxin contamination) and about the men and women who once lived there; "Tear-Stained Eye" does the same thing for the old factory towns rusting away on my state's rivers -- specifically, Ste. Genevieve on the Mississippi south of St. Louis, but it could just as easily have been about St. Joseph, just north of Kanasas City on the Missouri. Though east-coast critics Robert Christgau has obviously missed it (in the same Village Voice, he calls the band a "contagion," claims its music is more "soundscape" than meaningful, and suggests Farrar's singing is as as inauthentic as a "PBS docudrama"), there is actually nothing but specific, pure feeling to catch in Son Volt's music.
In his former band, the late, great Uncle Tupelo, Farrar was neither afraid to point fingers at the causes of the misery he saw around him ("This trickle down theory has left all these pockets empty") nor to name solutions ("Let's sink this capitalist system to the darkest pits of hell"). Less rhetorical but no less concrete, Trace was my favorite album of 1995 because it nailed perfectly the weary thoughts and ambivalent dreams of those forgotten children of "Detroit City": how we're racing against the powerful "traveling hands of time," desperate to find the "right kind of live free or die" before we're "out of the picture" -- and especially how "we're just living this way cause we know no other." "We're all living proof that nothing lasts," Farrar moans, sounding -- as do many of the classic country singers he loves -- like a depressed man who's already given up. But, in the long view, the singer also knows there is hope in that line, and in its grimly patient steel guitar: this will not last. In both sound and vision, Trace twangs, but it also rocks.
In Son Volt's best song, "Windfall," Farrar comes across "an
all-night station somewhere in Louisiana." It "sounds like 1963,"
he says, citing a year he could hardly remember but one he knows was filled
with promise, a year when the man in "Detroit City" (my old man
loved it the very first time he heard it) at least had a reason to head
north. Then Farrar adds, "...for now, it sounds like heaven."
But the old song is merely a momentary respite. As Farrar already knows,
as anyone who lives in these parts knows too well, it doesn't sound like
heaven out here anymore. No wonder I loved that song the very first time
I heard it.
Copyright 1996 David Cantwell
This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Rock & Rap Confidential