Friday, June 12, 2009


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 12, 2009

You can sweeten it with lush strings and horns. You can punk it up and strip it down. You can call in Hollywood golden throats or manufacture achy-breaky phony-baloney dance crazes. You can make it “alt” or “progressive” or “new traditionalist.” You can mock it with sarcastic “yeee-haws” or, even worse, take it oh so seriously.

But it’s hard to beat good old honky-tonk music, the kind made back before country music became so self-conscious. Though the originals are always the best, there are a couple of recent albums on which the artists honor the classic honky-tonk sound — plus one that represents the most ambitious case of hillbilly revisionism ever.

* Country Club by John Doe & The Sadies. This is a collection of (mostly) country classics — Willie Nelson’s “Night Life,” Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” Hank Williams’ “Take These Chains From My Heart,” etc. — along with some inspired obscurities and a smattering of originals.

Doe, of course, is the frontman for the Los Angeles punk band X, while The Sadies, led by Canadian brothers Dallas and Travis Good, are an ace utility band that has backed the likes of Neko Case, R & B lecher Andre Williams, Jon Langford, and others.

Even though he doesn’t have any Southern twang in his voice (and fortunately he doesn’t try to fake it), Doe’s husky vocals are just right for these songs. It’s obvious in every note that he and his band truly love this material. Of course we’ve known that ever since Doe and then-wife Exene Cervenka teamed up with Dave Alvin to form The Knitters all those years ago.

And while all the love is there, Doe and the Good brothers aren’t afraid to take some liberties with the tunes. The most obvious case is Merle Haggard’s “Are the Good Times Really Over for Good.” Hag’s version is slow and mournful, aching with nostalgia for those times before microwave ovens (“when a girl could still cook and still would”). But Doe & The Sadies (backed by Kathleen Edwards on harmony vocals) do it as an outright stomper. I’m torn here, because it does alter the mood of the song. But then again, it sounds so dang good.

One of my favorites here is the cover of Roger Miller’s “Husbands and Wives,” the late Tesuque resident’s lament about divorce. Then there’s “It Just Dawned on Me,” a bluegrassy stomper (with fiddle and mandolin by Travis Good) written by Doe and Cervenka.

But the very best is a forgotten little nugget by Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.” It’s a twofer — a cheatin’ song and a murder ballad packed into one sad tale. And, shades of O.J., it’s a rare double murder in which the weapon is a knife.

* Viper of Melody by Wayne Hancock. Wayne the Train is perhaps the greatest living purveyor of ’50s-style roadhouse honky-tonk. His band — featuring an upright bass (Huckleberry Johnson), steel guitar (Anthony Locke), and guitar (Izak Zaidman) — is certainly retro, but it never sounds hokey. It’s Texas through and through, produced by Lloyd Maines and recorded in Dripping Strings.

All but one of the songs here are original, the exception being “Midnight Stars and You,” a jazzy little hillbilly torch song. There are some economic blues — “Working at Working” and a train song “Freight Train Boogie” (not the Delmore Brothers classic) — and some proto-rockabilly (“Dog House Blues”).

But once again, my favorite is a murder song. “Your Love and His Blood” contains a should-be-classic line: “The next time we’re together, you’ll be on the witness stand.”

One sad note: Viper of Melody is dedicated to guitarist Paul Skelton, an Austin picker whom Hancock describes as a mentor. Skelton, who played with the Cornell Hurd Band, died earlier this year. He apparently was slated to play on this album but was too ill to do so. Skelton would have made this record even better, but Hancock and the boys have made some music that would have made Paul proud.

* Naked Willie by Willie Nelson. Lots of casual fans believe that Willie sprang out of the Outlaw era of the 1970s, along with Waylon and Jerry Jeff and the boys. Many are unaware that he made a bunch of records in the 1960s.

And the sad part is that they probably wouldn’t recognize Willie even if they heard these early tracks. That’s because, like so many Nashville artists of that era, his music was overproduced, oversweetened, and over-country-politaned by the lords of 16th Avenue. Nelson was produced by Chet Atkins himself, and while Chet was an amazing guitarist, some of his Nashville Sound recordings are crimes against nature.

So Willie’s longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, took it upon himself to rescue some of these great old Willie songs. He appointed himself “un-producer” and went about scraping off all the horns and strings, all the Anita Kerr Singers choruses.

This is similar, in concept at least, to Let It Be ... Naked, which was a de-Spectored version of Let It Be, the final Beatles album, which many believe was Phil Spector’s first murder victim.

While Naked Willie doesn’t sound nearly as sterile as Let It Be ... Naked, there is a hollow feeling to many of the tunes. This isn’t Raphael’s fault as much as it is the fault of the original arrangements. Even without Anita Kerr, these tunes are a lot stiffer and poppier than the 1970s records — Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, Red Headed Stranger — that most of us Willie fans first came to love. Even without the horns and strings, most of the songs here still sound overproduced.

If you really want a glimpse of 1960s Willie in the raw, seek out Crazy: The Demo Sessions, which features Willie and his lonely guitar singing “Permanently Lonely,” “I’ve Just Destroyed the World,” “Opportunity to Cry,” and other haunting tunes.

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