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Sunday, August 14, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Roots Rock
Roots rock is a broad term that describes a range of subgenres that began appearing in the early 1980's in the wake of the punk explosion. It is exactly what the name implies; a return to rock's roots and values of the 50's and 60's. It appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, although was much more prevalent in the States; it enjoyed its heyday in the mid-1980's and a boost in the 90's when a new crop of roots rock bands appeared.
The first stirrings of a roots movement can arguably be traced to the dawn of punk itself, around 1976, when artists such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took a stripped down approach towards music and applied touches influenced by the Byrds, particularly their chiming guitars. It also has its roots in the Southern rock of 70's bands like the Allman Brothers, whose hard rock was colored by a bluesy, rural treatment. However, roots-rock didn't really become a movement until the 1980's began. While punk succeeded in leveling the playing field for new artists and in doing away with the bloated spectacle of rock's worst excesses, it didn't provide lasting alternative to the heavy metal, progressive rock, country rock, and singer/songwriter music it helped render obsolete. While many old time rock 'n' roll fans admired the punk vanguard, and sympathized with its aims, they didn't necessarily listen to it. These listeners sought new music, but in traditional forms and styles to which they were accustomed.
Roots rock, a post-punk genre that encompassed both indie acts like the Beat Farmers, the Long Ryders, the Del Fuegos, and Gun Club, and even major label acts like Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen provided the solution. Most of the indie bands and artists were new, or newly reinvented; The indie bands had an agreeable punky edge to them, but they borrowed traditions from American music that had been presumed passe in the late 1970's.
They took their cues from a variety of sources; as a result, roots-rock can be broken down into a number of subgenres, each with its own specific flavor. Among them was cowpunk, which began to emerge in the early 80's, and peaked by the mid-80's. Cowpunk was the logical extension of pioneering punk bands that incorporated occasional elements of rockabilly like X, Gun Club, Dream Syndicate. In their wake came bands that still had a punk aggression, but with a more explicit country connection; lyrically they dealt with alienation themes that championed the cause of the social misfit, the consummate outsider. Musically, they emphasized guitar texture and even harmonies; they dressed in rural clothing for the most part, and weren't punk except in lineage and DIY ethic. Significant among these bands were Southerners Jason & The Scorchers, The Long Ryders, Fetchin Bones. However cowpunk's epicenter was in fact the Los Angeles/San Diego corridor, home to the Beat Farmers, Lone Justice, Blood on the Saddle, and Tex & The Horseheads.
The revivalists and popularizers were another wing of roots-rock. These bands specialized in recreating sounds of Americana, or bringing little known ones to a larger audience. These bands ran a gamut, there was, for example, the out-of-the-barrios-of-East L.A. mix of 50's rock 'n' roll, Tex-Mex, and rhythm and blues, Los Lobos. There was also The Pontiac Brothers, from Los Angeles, were a cross between Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones. The Del Fuegos, from Boston, fused blue-collar workaday rock (Springsteen, et. al.) with British pub-rock. Treat Her Right, also from Boston, revived some blues as an element to their sound. In New York, the Del-Lords, led by guitarist Scott Kemper of the 70's proto-punk Dictators, meshed 60's surf-rock, British Invasion, country, Byrds guitars, and Creedence Clearwater Revival style swamp rock. The Silos built a cult following on a jangly, 60's derived sound.
In Northern California, Santa Cruz based Camper Van Beethoven meshed ska, country, garage band rock, and 60's harmonic rock into a completely new and unlikely hybrid. San Francisco's Donner Party provided a sort of psychedelic roots rock, while Thin White Rope, from the dusty college town of Davis, CA, made a hardcore psychedelic music, with a punk edge. American Music Club created despairing, agonized songs that recalled Gram Parsons and Nick Drake, giving birth to the sadcore subgenre.
Roots rock had other strongholds around America; particularly in Texas, the Great Lakes region (Minnesota and Wisconsin in particular), Chicago, Ohio, Nashville, and North Carolina, each with their own bands of legend.
As the 80's wound down, the roots-rock form that retained its audience and interest the most were the country/cowpunk bands, who enjoyed a new golden age as the 90's began when Uncle Tupelo spearheaded what has come to be known as alt-country. Following in their wake, also known as the "No Depression" movement, were country-rock indie acts such as Will Oldham, Ida, Handsome Family, Blue Mountain, Whiskeytown, and Two Dollar Guitar. All of these bands also fit comfortably under the roots-rock umbrella.
As the 90's turned to the 00's, roots rock still had its various audiences, anthough it had splintered so far and wide that the term no longer could accurately describe the range of bands it was invented for. Its subgenres have grown large enough that they remain the best way to classify the music; among chief subgenres are jangle pop, paisley underground, alt-country, cowpunk, rockabilly revival, psychobilly, Americana, and heartland rock.
Some important/influental roots rock artists/songs include:
1. The Del Lords: Get Tough
The Del Lords were formed in New York City by guitarist Scott Kempner, who had previously been in the proto-punk Dictators, and released their debut, Frontier Days, in 1984. Also featuring Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, lead guitarist for Joan Jett, the band specialized in a blue collar, sweaty mix of garage band country and blues, of which "Get Tough" is their best and best-known, appearing on the debut. The Del Lords squeezed six albums into a career that ended when they disbanded in 1990; Based On A True Story, from 1988, is considered their best by many of their fans. The Del Lords never charted an album, and their cult remained tiny, although they were a popular live draw in New York. Kemper and drummer Frank Funaro eventually joined the Brandos, another New York roots rock band, in 1993.
2. The Beat Farmers: Gun Sale At The Church
The Beat Farmers, one of the first Los Angeles/San Diego roots rock bands to have a significant following, was formed in 1983 by former record store owner, Kinks fan club president, drummer, and vocalist Dick Montana. The band was prolific, releasing seven albums during their run, the first a special one-off release by re-issue label Rhino Records in 1985. "Gun Sale At The Church" is from their sophomore release, Van Go, released on Curb records, their home until Montana's untimely death from a heart attack in 1995. Playing a gritty and dirty country rock, that came to epitomize the concept of cowpunk, The Beat Farmers almost succeeded in gaining a crossover audience, picking up some occasional airplay on country stations. Famous for their live act, and Montana's off-kilter Johnny Cash impressions, their cult remained sizable; Van Go peaked at #135 on the charts.
3. Lone Justice: Ways To be Wicked iTunes
Criminally mismanaged and subsequently overlooked, Lone Justice was an excellent country-flavored roots rock group founded in Los Angeles in 1984 by vocalist Maria McKee and guitarist Ryan Hedgecock. McKee is known for one of the most luscious voices in rock music; accomplished and effective she ultimately outshined the band and got the most attention, hastening a solo career that spelled the end for the group. Signed by Geffen in 1985 at Linda Ronstadt's suggestion, they released only two albums within their lifetime, both excellent guitar-based country/rock. Unfortunately, Geffen didn't know how to promote them; early on they opened for U2 at stadiums, a poor pairing and poor environment to hear their intricacies. "Ways To Be Wicked" was written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell; Campbell helps out on the album. It is a fine showcase for McKee's vocal range and the band's hard rock energy. McKee had an interesting upbringing; her first appearance on a stage was at the age of three at a concert by Love at the Whisky-Au-Go-Go; her half brother was the late Bryan MacLean.
4. The Blasters: Marie, Marie iTunes
Brothers Dave and Phil Alvin, who formed the core of The Blasters, came by their musical education by hanging with such luminaries as T-Bone Walker, Lee Allen, and Marcus Johnson. By the time they formed the Blasters, in 1979, Los Angeles clubs were punk-heavy; they frequently shared bills with quintessential L.A. punk outfit X, which resulted in a cross pollinization of musical ideas. Their best album, American Music, was released in 1980 as their debut and is their conceptual statement of purpose; in The Blasters' universe, the 50's never ended, and their brand of greaser rock 'n' roll was just as contemporary as anything else in 1980. "Marie Marie" revives two classic themes of 50's rock 'n' roll, cars and girls, as its protagonist waits in agony for his girl to join him in the car where he lurks, while her parents disapprove. To this, the band adds their trademarked stomping backbeat, and a pair of speeding guitar solos. The song has been covered by Shakin' Stevens, Buckwheat Zydeco, and MxPx. The Blasters disbanded in 1985, although versions occasionally surface from time to time.
5. Steve Earle: Guitar Town iTunes
Steve Earle began his long career as a country version of Bruce Springsteen in some respects; blue collar and unpretentious, he specialized in a neo-rockabilly that bordered on outlaw country and found himself with fans on both sides of the country and rock divide. Born in Virginia, he was raised in San Antonio, TX and eventually settled in Houston when he was 18. It was in Houston that he met singer/songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker, both of whom had a significan impact on his musical development and subsequent career. The following year, he left for Nashville, where he first appeared on record as part of Guy Clark's backing band in 1975. He also appeared in the Robert Altman film, Nashville. Eventually, he returned once more to Texas, where he got his solo career launched with an EP in 1982. In 1986, he released his debut album, Guitar Town, for MCA. The title track is emblematic of his early sound; a rugged rockabilly number recounting his years on the road, notable for its instantly winning guitar line. The album reached #1 on the country charts, and #129 on the pop charts.
6. The BoDeans: Fadeaway
One of the best of the Great Lakes region roots rock bands, the BoDeans were formed in Waukesha, Wisconsin by high school friends Sammy Llanas and Kurt Neumann in 1984. Their debut Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams (the title is from The Rolling Stones' "Shattered") was produced by T-Bone Burnett and featured a twangy neo-rockabilly approach, with the nasal harmonies of Llanas and Neumann, and a lot of catchy riffs. "Fadeaway" is a highlight from the album, and while its fairly unassuming on its own, it's a fine example of the band's essential strengths and a key componant of the album and their early stage shows. The album peaked at #115; subsequent albums would chart even higher. The BoDeans are still out there; their most recent release was in 2004. In 1996, their "Closer To Free" was used as the theme song to the TV series Party of Five.
7. T-Bone Burnett: Driving Wheel
Born in St. Louis, but raised in Fort Worth, TZ, Burnett is an accomplished singer/songwriter better known for his prolific production work on others' albums, having produced everyone from Roy Orbison to Elvis Costello to Counting Crows. His own recording career dates back to 1972; he then toured with both Delaney & Bonnie and Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. A short band followed, the Alpha Band, which released three late-70's albums. He found his voice in 1980, with a return to solo work, and he recorded six albums through 1992 before concentrating solely on producing. "Driving Wheel" is from Truth Decay, his 1980 album that marked his first return to solo work since 1972; in it, one can hear the sum of all his influences, which include rockabilly, blues, folk, and country.
8. Los Lobos: Will The Wolf Survive? iTunes
Arguably the singular most important roots rock band ever, Los Lobos' long career dates to their 1973 formation in the East Los Angeles barrio district. Their influences are very broad; rock, Tex-Mex, folk, country, R&B, blues, traditional Spanish and Mexican music, but the band never sounded gimmicky or forced. Instead, their sweaty, organic sound was distinctly their own. The band paid a lot of dues in their first decade, playing countless gigs and becoming very tight; their debut album didn't appear until 1983, and it was their sophomore album, How Will The Wolf Survive? in 1984 that broke them nationally. The album was a tour-de-force, one of the most crucial releases of the 1980's, as it not only takes a roots rock journey all across the Southwest, it also benefits from some poignant and pointed lyrics and meaty guitarwork. "Will The Wolf Survive?" can't be considered indicative of their sound, which is too eclectic to represent with a single tune, but it was a college rock staple in 1984-1985.
9. Jason & The Scorchers: Absolutely Sweet Marie iTunes
Country fried hard rock from Nashville characterizes Jason & The Scorchers' sound, although their impact is more than that glib label may suggest. Led by Jason Ringenberg, from Illinois, the band created a stir in the indie world with its debut EP, which managed to merge fast-played hard rock with twngy country and a Rolling Stones type swagger, and interspersed it with acoustic country music with distinctive melodies. "Absolutely Sweet Marie" a smoking Bob Dylan cover was the highlight of the 1982 EP, Restless Country Soul, which sums up their credo with its title. Like many roots rockers, this approach hurt them commercially; they were too country for rock stations, and too rock for country stations. The group disbanded in 1989 after three albums, but have periodically reformed in various configurations and released several more.
10. Rank & File: Amanda Ruth
Brothers Chip and Tony Kinman had originally been in the late 70's L.A. punk band the Dils, best known for their single "Class Warfare". When they re-emerged in the early 80's with Rank & File, they had changed their musical approach considerably, sounding like a post-punk cross of Gram Parsons and Merle Haggard, with some Byrds thrown in for good measure. The brothers' singing style was distinctive, singing a high-low octave mix that gave the impression of more than two singers at times. Their brand of cowpunk was so authentic sounding that they even guested on the PBS country showcase, Austin City Limits. Their debut album, Sundown, came out in 1982 and earned considerable acclaim from all quarters; its leadoff track "Amanda Ruth" is an excellent distillation of their sound. Despite their critical acclaim, the band was never really able to capitalize on their success, and disbanded in 1989 after three albums.
11. The Long Ryders: (Sweet) Mental Revenge iTunes
The Long Ryders never got their proper due during their existence, but retrospectively have come to be recognized for their groundbreaking roots-rock, country-rock, and alt-country contributions. Formed in 1981 by Kentucky native and Gram Parsons fanatic Syd Griffin, the band first gained notice playing in many of the same L.A. venues as the psychedelic Paisley Underground bands, some of whom subsequently developed country touches. The Long Ryders' sound was like a garage band version of country, with heavy Parsons/Byrds leanings and a dose of psychedelic color. "(Sweet) Mental Revenge" is a Mel Tillis song from 10-5-60, the band's debut EP, and sums up their approach well; subsequent releases from the band were arguably the strongest country-rock since the 1960's. Unfortunately, the band never did break through nationally, and broke up in 1987. Griffin has since written a well-regarded biography on Gram Parsons.
12. John Mellencamp: Pink Houses iTunes
The most successful roots rocker ever (unless Bruce Springsteen counts), John Mellencamp's popular mainstream career goes back to 1976, when he released Chestnut Street Incident under the name of Johnny Cougar. The name was the brainchild of his manager, Tony DeFries, who also worked with David Bowie, and Mellencamp was infuriated when he learned of it only by seeing the finished record jacket. The album tanked, and Mellencamp was dropped by MCA. He returned in 1978 with a sophomore release on Riva, and in 1979 he had his first top-40 hit, "I Need A Lover". American Fool, in 1982, earned him his biggest sales to that point and his first real critical respect; his next release, Uh-Huh began the process of restoring his name, billed as John Cougar Mellencamp. "Pink Houses" was the key song, and a signature hit. Sounding like a midwestern version of Bruce Springsteen, it was an enormous MTV hit, and peaked at #8. His subsequent releases would mine this approach further, with mixed results, although Mellencamp remains a relatively consistent performer.
13. The Del Fuegos: I Should Be The One
The Del Feugos, from Boston, took a decidedly garage band approach to roots rock, and earned acclaim early on for their bare-bones, traditionalist approach to 50's and 60's rock 'n' roll. A quartet consisting of singer Dan Zanes, brother Warren Zanes on guitar, bassist Tom Lloyd, and drummer Steve Morrell, the band was hard-working, playing many gigs on low-budget east coast tours before coming to the notice of Slash records in 1984. Mixing in garage band conventions with a southern rockabilly style, their debut album, The Longest Day from 1984, remains a roots rock classic. The band allegedly wasn't happy with it, claiming producer Michael Froom sanded off too many rough edges that made their live shows so wild, but to the casual outsider its a fine revival of what once made rock 'n' roll so vital in the first place. In later years, the band would fall out of favor for doing a beer commercial, moving to a major label, and supporting such overdogs as Tom Petty and the fading Replacements. In 1990, they disbanded.
14. NRBQ: Me And The Boys iTunes
NRBQ (The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet) had been faithfully releasing roots rock records for almost 15 years before the great roots-rock boom of the mid-80's. This they did in relative obscurity; despite a fanatical cult, they never came close to mainstream success, despite the inventiveness of their albums, which mixed old-style rock 'n' roll, bar-band rhythm and blues, country, blues, and jazz into a heady brew they played very tightly. "Me And The Boys" appeared on their 1980 album, Tiddlywinks, and was added by Bonnie Riatt and Dave Edmunds to their own stage shows. A driven rocker that recalls Chuck Berry with a reverb-drenched vocal it succinctly captures this very eclectic band's essence. The band is still performing and recording, their most recent album appeared in 2003.
15. John Doe: Fallen Tears
John Doe is best known as founding member and bassist for the seminal L.A. punk band X. X, tourmates with The Blasters, took a solidly punk attitude and eventually fleshed it out with rockabilly/psychobilly leanings that grew more overt over time. In 1990 Doe recorded a purely country solo album; most of his solo work since then has been in an alternative country vein. "Fallen Tears" leads off his 1995 album Kissingsohard, a punkier country-rock album than his debut. While this recording comes almost a decade later than most on this list, it fits right in; Doe's no frills, energetic brand of seedy alt-country fairly screams 1980's. He's still making music, sometimes with X (or with X members) and sometimes solo; he has also appeared as an actor in several films.
16. John Fogerty: The Old Man Down the Road iTunes
The great granddaddy of roots rockers, Fogerty is best known as leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late 60's/early 70's. Creedence was an aberration during its heyday; they weren't psychedelic or heavy like most of the big bands of the day; instead they focused on a swampy blues-rock and folk-rock mix that stood in contrast with their peers for its sheer modest scope. After Creedence disbanded, Fogerty embarked on a solo career in the mid-70's and then took an extended break. When he re-emerged in 1985 with the album Centerfield, the time couldn't have been better; many roots rock bands cited Creedence as an influence, and in 1985 roots rock was perhaps the biggest thing going. Centerfield was a huge success, spawning three hits and reaching #1. "The Old Man Down The Road" is vintage Creedence; so much so that Fogerty made history when he was sued by Fantasy records for plagiarizing the Creedence Clearwater revival hit "Run Through The Jungle"; he may well be the only man sued for plagiarizing himself.
17. Treat Her Right: I Think She Likes Me
Treat Her Right, from Boston, was a mix of blues, swamp rock, rockabilly, and rock 'n' roll with a perverse taste in covers, unearthing obscurities by captain Beefheart and James Blood Ulmer, who wrote "I Think She Likes Me". Led by David Champagne of the rock 'n' roll revivalists Pink Cadillac, Treat Her Right never really found an audience outside their native Massachusetts, although their records are worth hearing. Their 1986 debut, Treat Her Right is the best, mixing their influences with a good dose of wry humor. The band disbanded in 1989; bassist Mark Sandman went on to form the rootsy sax-and-bass driven Morphine.
18. The Georgia Satellites: Keep Your Hands To Yourself iTunes
Formed in Atlanta in 1980, the Georgia Satellites recording debut was Keep the Faith in 1985 on the small Making Waves label. the following year, they made a big splash with "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" from their major label debut, Georgia Satellites on Elektra. "Keep your Hands To Yourself" is a great piece of Chuck Berry styled hard rock and is a great introduction to the band, which went beyond the usual roots rock influences to also throw in some AC/DC riffs on occasion. The song made it all the way to #2 on the charts, and the album peaked at #5. The band's descent was rapid and unfortunate; their follow-up album never got higher than #77, and they broke up after the 1989 release of their third Elektra release.
19. Texas Tornadoes: Who Were You Thinkin' Of? iTunes
The Texas Tornadoes represented a renaissance for some other respected old-timers. A Tex-Mex supergroup, its lineup consisted of Doug Sahm and Augue Meyers (both from the Sir Douglas Quintet), Freddy Fender, and Flaco Jiminez, an accordian master better known to Mexican listeners. The band mixed Tex-Mex with rock 'n' roll, r&b, blues, Mexican folk, and a variety of other styles, they played in a loud, boisterous, lets-have-a-party style that instantly made them favorites on the Tex-Mex circuit. At the time of their 1989 formation, all were considered has-beens; none had done much significant work since the 70's. Together, they found their fortunes reversing; they became much in-demand as a live act. The band released five albums, but came to an end when Doug Sahm died of a heart attack in 1999. "Who Were You Thinking Of?" kicked off their 1990 debut, and remained a signature tune for the band.
20. Drivin' 'n' Cryin': Fly Me Courageous iTunes
Drivin' 'n' Cryin' were formed in Atlanta in 1986 and immediately gained local renown for their hard rocking Southern roots rock approach. A trio of singer/songwriter Kevn (sic) Kinney on guitar and vocals, Tim Nielsen on bass and Paul Lenz on drums comprised the original lineup, released Scarred But Smarter in 1986. The closest the band ever got to a national breakthrough was Fly Me Courageous from 1991, which includes the title track, a political number built around a thunderous guitar riff. By this point the band was a quartet, with Kinney backed by bassist Tim Nielsen, guitarist Buren Fowler, and drummer Jeff Sullivan; the fuller lineup had considerable range and find a comfortable middle ground between R.E.M. styled jangle pop and a harder Southern rock. The album peaked at #90, their best showing.
Sunday Morning Playlist, late this week, is a weekly feature.