The noise emanating from the Zenith stereo in the living room had reached an excruciating pinnacle, an unwelcome racket that brought to mind mechanical bulls, feathered roach clips, and Sergio Valente jeans. The gag-inducing culprit was a slab of wax that had gotten more exposure thanks to the then current era of early ’80s Top 40 radio and its eagerness to play crossover country-pop. The song that was blaring out of this kitschy coffin in front of me was “Swingin’”, a novelty-flirting single by John Anderson, who would eventually land his denim-clad derriere at the Number One spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in 1983. And even though there were more songs on its 12″ point of origin “Wild and Blue”, my Father didn’t deem it necessary to give the grooves a rest and show the rest of the album some needle invasion. Clamoring for my GPX Walkman, I submerged myself into a cocoon of Devo mix tapes and tried to erase the cerebral damage that had been inflicted on my young mind.
Just to be fair, I didn’t hate all of the country music I was exposed to in my preadolescence. I loved the theme song to “The Dukes Of Hazzard” TV series, “East Bound and Down” by Jerry Reed, and “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band, but I had eventually outgrew the folksy bliss and wasn’t stimulated anymore as I approached my teens. Contemporary radio was becoming awash with countrypolitan fare like “Islands In the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “Queen Of Hearts” by Juice Newton, and “Always On My Mind” by Willie Nelson. Twang-tastic ballads and future wedding reception staples were nestling comfortably on commercial radio playlists with the likes of Billy Joel, Christopher Cross, and Fleetwood Mac. For someone with a musical hunger for something left of the dial, these were the Dark Times, even before the Clear Channel Empire.
Being a musically adventurous young lad, I knew that exciting, alternative music wasn’t going to be found on the FM dial, but in the pages of music periodicals like Rolling Stone, Thrasher Magazine, and eventually Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll. If you were into heavy metal, you had Hit Parader and Circus, but overall, that was about it at the magazine racks. In my hometown, there wasn’t an overall large selection to choose from, not like it is now where pretty much every genre has its own monthly titles at the local Barnes & Noble Booksellers. So in order to discover some three-chord life changers, I was going to have to do the research on my own by reading album reviews, making lists of interesting band names, and browsing the band buttons display at my local strip mall record store.
As it turned out, it really wasn’t that difficult building a music collection as the popularity of the cassette tape skyrocketed, decimating vinyl sales (which in the long run, helped kick start the independent record shop biz). Cassette tapes were portable, took up less room, you could buy blank ones and record on them (remember that?), and they were easier to ship. Mail order companies like ROIR who specialized in underground and avant-garde music were making available releases that appealed to a rabid customer base who were now being exposed to artists that they only read about, or had seen on such groundbreaking programs like “Night Flight”. At this point in time, you could go on a frenzied buying spree just by looking at the classified ads and amassing anything from punk demos, to live new wave performances, and dub versions of obscure reggae albums. In other words, underground music was something that could no longer be overlooked, and with the growing popularity of punk and new wave, more and more releases were becoming more easily attainable. As the cliche goes, I was at the right place at the right time.
With my searing hatred and disgust for country music, I hastily stockpiled tapes from a wild and diverse pack of “artistes” such as Black Flag, Devo, the B-52’s, Flipper, the Clash, the Fleshtones, the Ramones, et al, using the aforementioned ROIR catalogs and Rolling Stone album reviews as my beacons into a much more exciting world. The skateboarding mag Thrasher (which I read for the music articles, not for the sport itself) was also heavily influential as my “go to”, which in its irony, presented a game changer…
Little did I know that a curve ball would be slung at me from the pages of a rag that was so drenched in mosh and skater sweat. I had zero knowledge of this band with a fairly (in my opinion) punk name. The review of “Long Gone Dead” was vague, to say the least, but nevertheless, I made a mental note to look more into this group. In the pre-internet days, this wasn’t going to be done with ease. So when I hit up my usual strip mall music haunt, I perused the cassette section (which, in those days, was kept under lock and key like the hunting rifles at Wal-Mart), and I found my purchase of the week. I knew I was gambling here, but it had two things in its favor: One, it was reviewed in Thrasher Magazine, and the other factor, it was on Slash Records, the groundbreaking label out of Los Angeles, CA that was one of the epitomes of musical cool, up there with SST and IRS Records. Considering it a no-brainer, I got the clerk to unlock the glass, looked the track listing over, and told her I would take it. I chucked my $7.99 plus tax down on the counter and rode home on my dilapidated Ripstick, excited that I would be jammin’ out to some Southern California sounds, dangling the case in front of my friends, like some badge of honor. But something happened on the way to punk rock Valhalla, and it would change the way I would view (or listen) to American music forever.
Maniacally ripping the plastic off the tape case, I inserted my new acquisition into an inexpensive generic boom box, and sat in rapt attention for some three-chord deliverance. However, when the music started playing, I was transported back to the Chinese water torture of “Swingin’” years before, aghast that I had actually lost this poker hand. I had just bought a country album, or at least to my narrow-mindedness, that was the conclusion that I had trampolined on. I had to straight jacket myself to keep from ripping this obtrusive piece of plastic out of the clutches of my apathetic radio, who sat staring at me without emotion. After the opening track “Long Gone Dead” was over, I had to focus. Next came “I’m An Old Old Man”, which honestly, didn’t make me feel any better. But by the third song “Sound Of the Rain”, something clicked, and I ventured into an aurally voyeuristic experience that had me rewinding back to the beginning, over and over again. Then I gathered up the courage to listen to the entire recording, front to back, amazed that I didn’t wear it out. Finally, I was converted. But first, I had to find out what this was, because it wasn’t country music in the “Swingin’” sense or in any sense of the genre at all. This was something special, and it was called “cowpunk”.
Cowpunk was a catch-all term that critics had come up with to categorize a number of non-mainstream bands and artists who were heavily influenced by country music, but also parlayed their love of blues, roots, and rockabilly, while still keeping their punk, new wave, and/or psychedelic sensibilities close at hand. This emergence was, more or less, a reaction to the over commercialization of synth pop and punk evolving into hardcore. There was also a disdain for the current state of contemporary country music that had become bland, boring, and a hollow shell of its former self. The collective artists in the cowpunk movement were gifted songwriters that were appealing to rural intellectuals as well as finding a home on college radio. There was quite a number of bands that joined the ranks, but due to geographics (among other things), only a select few truly arose out of obscurity where major labels awaited, hoping for the next big cash-in. If you kept MTV on 24/7 back in the 1980s, chances are good that you remember some of the more successful Beatle boot wearing troubadours.
Rank and File: Here’s where it all began for me, Ground Zero, Genesis. Rank and File was the musical brain trust of brothers Chip and Tony Kinman who formed the band out of the ashes of their former California-based project the Dils. After migrating to Austin, TX, they hooked up with ex-Nuns member Alejandro Escovedo and released their first album “Sundown” on Slash Records in 1982. Their second release “Long Gone Dead” saw them institute more use of steel guitar and fiddle, and parlaying their love for traditional country music, they covered Lefty Frizzelle’s “I’m An Old Old Man”. For their self-titled swan song, the band went with a more pop-oriented, yet still twangy, sound to try and capture more commercial interest. Unfortunately, this never happened, and the band was dissolved. Afterwords, the Kinmans formed the synth pop experiment Blackbird, then ventured into the alt-country waters with Cowboy Nation.
Jason & the Scorchers: If there was ever to be a symbol of the movement as a whole, then this band should be the one holding the flag. Formed in Nashville, TN in 1981 by Jason Ringenberg, this Molotav Cocktail powerhouse was an amalgamation of ’70s punk bands like the Clash and the Damned fused with the traditional country music stylings of Hank Williams. It didn’t take long for the band to gel and kick out a debut EP fittingly titled “Reckless Country Soul” in 1982 where they paid homage to Hank and even attacked Jerry Falwell within the four tracks. A second EP titled “Fervor” was released the following year, with the video for their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” getting rotated regularly on MTV and giving them much needed national exposure. However, commercial success kept eluding the Scorchers, as rock stations deemed them “too country” and country music stations found them to be “too rock ‘n’ roll”. Two full length albums, “Lost and Found” and “Still Standing” were released to little fanfare, and their label, EMI, dropped them. Going on a three year hiatus, the band returned with “Thunder and Fire” a more heavier and metal-influenced album in 1990 that got mixed and negative reviews. Feeling defeated, the band temporarily fell apart, with Ringenberg going the solo route, even taking on an alter-ego called “Farmer Jason”, writing and performing songs for children. Since 1995, Ringenberg has released ten albums to date with various line-ups of the Scorchers, and has seven solo releases under his belt, while original member Warner Hodges has also released solo work and is currently playing in Drivin N Cryin.
The Long Ryders: Rising Phoenix-like out of the the Los Angeles-based band the Unclaimed, the Long Ryders were a major force in the Paisley Underground movement. Mixing their record collections of Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Beatles, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Ryders birthed a unique, jangle pop sound but with an edge that would forever influence the alt-country scene that’s felt even today. Releasing a debut EP titled “10-5-60” in 1983 (and suffering a personnel change), the most well-known line up of the band stabilized afterwords with Sid Griffin, Stephen McCarthy, Tom Stevens, and Greg Sowders. In 1984 they released “Native Sons”, followed by “State Of Our Union” in 1985, and “Two Fisted Tales” in 1987. Although the band was getting airplay on college radio, they weren’t getting the necessary support from MTV, which was a virtual kiss of death. The viewings of their videos were scarce at best, elbowed out of the way for more Top 40 friendly faces that weren’t sporting mutton chops and suede vests. The group disbanded in 1987, and their reunions have been sparse. Their released output since their demise has been obligatory “Best Of” comps and live recordings. All of the members have stayed active in the music industry in some capacity, including Griffin who has fronted the British-American bluegrass band the Coal Porters since 1991.
The Beat Farmers: Formed in 1983 by the charismatic Country Dick Montana, this San Diego-based group would also come to define the true meaning of cowpunk, with its rockin’ stew of swamp rock, Americana, and rockabilly. Included in the original line-up was Jerry Raney, Rolle Love, and Buddy Blue. In 1984 they won a Battle Of the Bands competition in their hometown, gaining them a cult following throughout Southern California. That same year, they signed a one-off record deal with Rhino Records for what would become their most well-known album, “Tales Of the New West”, released in 1985. One of the singles off this release was “Happy Boy” which received much support and airplay on the Dr. Demento Radio Show, giving them national exposure, but also pigeonholing them as a novelty act. After a stint in England to record the “Glad ‘N’ Greasy” EP (produced by Graham Parker) for Demon Records, they signed a seven album deal with Curb Records which wasn’t the harmonious relationship they expected. Fed up with working under Curb’s thumb, Buddy Blue quit the band, and was replaced by Joey Harris. The band soldiered on with the label, releasing the single “Make It Last”, and dabbling in side projects and movie soundtrack contributions. Becoming increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied with Curb, they found a way out of their contract in 1993, and began releasing albums for the Austin, TX-based label Sector 2. Tragically, Country Dick died of a heart attack during a performance in British Columbia on November 8, 1995. Three days later, the remaining members dissolved the band, eventually going forth and getting involved in other musical projects such as Raney-Blue, the Farmers, the Flying Putos, and Joey Harris and the Mentals, among others. Sadly, Buddy Blue died of a heart attack on April 2, 2006.
Green On Red: Formed in the Tuscon, AZ punk scene in 1979 as the Serfers, Green On Red made their move to Los Angeles and quickly became associated with the Paisley Underground. This heavily psychedelic-influenced four piece included Dan Stuart, Jack Waterson, Van Christian, and eventually Alex MacNicol. In 1982, they self-released an EP known at the time as “Two Bibles”, followed by them getting signed to Slash Records in 1983 to release their first full-length album “Gravity Talks”. Meshing twangy guitars with Ray Manzarek-style keyboard playing, the band sounded like a country version of the Doors, with some Velvet Underground influences, yet still able to churn out tunes that wouldn’t be out of place on a honky tonk jukebox. In 1985, San Francisco-based guitar player Chuck Prophet joined the band for the “Gas Food Lodging” album on Enigma Records, after which MacNicol would be replaced by Keith Mitchell on drums. After “The Killer Inside Me” was released in 1987, the band called it quits. However, Stuart began collaborating with Prophet in 1989, and the duo released “Here Come the Snakes” under the Green On Red name. Three more albums were released with their swan song “Too Much Fun” getting released in 1992. Since that time, the band has participated in numerous reunions under different line-ups.
Lone Justice: Fronted by the gifted and talented Maria McKee and backed by the tight unit of Ryan Hedgecock, Marvin Etzioni, and Don Heffington, Lone Justice’s blend of country rock, rockabilly, and punk, made them a popular draw on the Los Angeles bar scene. So much so, that Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fame was a frequent guest at their gigs for like-minded jamming. Gaining a reputation as a band that you had to get out and see and exposure in music periodicals brought them to the attention of Linda Ronstadt who helped them get signed to Geffen Records. They released their self-titled debut in 1985, followed by the single and video of “Ways To Be Wicked”, co-written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell. A second single, “Sweet, Sweet Baby” was released, along with a support slot on a tour with U2, but with all of this going for them, the album just wasn’t selling. Even though critics loved it and placed it on their “Best Of” polls, the public wasn’t buying it. In the wake of this disaster, McKee’s bandmates jumped ship and she was almost forced to call the band “A-Lone Justice”. Hiring an all-new line-up, the new Justice hit the studio with E-Streeter Little Steven Van Zandt for the second album “Shelter”, which fared worse than its predecessor, abandoning the band’s original roots rock sound for a more typical pop/rock feel with synthesizers and drum machines, foreign objects to bands of this caliber. With its dismal sales, “Shelter” became the band’s Waterloo, and McKee broke up the band. Eventually, she would release solo material.
There were scores of other bands that either flirted with or were wholeheartedly part of the cowpunk family tree. Now they would be more commonly associated with the “roots rock” banner than cowpunk, which today sounds antiquated to most rock historians. The Blasters, the Gun Club, the Cramps, the Del Fuegos, X, the Lazy Cowgirls, Blood On the Saddle, Mojo Nixon and others are held in the highest regard to music buffs that enjoy true American rock ‘n’ roll. In the present time we have such fine examples such as Southern Culture On the Skids, Hank III, Pat Todd & the Rankoutsiders, Whiskey Daredevils, the Hickoids, and an immense plethora of underground bands who love their Johnny Cash mixed in with some Misfits on a bender of moonshine.
Interestingly enough, two performers who came along in the midst of the cowpunk movement have been churning out successful albums throughout the years since they were categorized in this genre. Dwight Yoakam was viewed as a “punk in cowboy boots”, brandishing a traditional Bakersfield sound on his “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc.,Etc.” album in 1986, earning him a shunning from country radio stations who found him “too traditional”. And Steve Earle, who felt more comfortable around punks as opposed to rednecks was also viewed with disdain with his 1986 album “Guitar Town”, which was considered “too rock”. The influence that these two have had on American music cannot be stated enough. Both were underdogs in an ever changing fickle business. And speaking of underdogs, I’d like to close with one last entry…
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Los Lobos. Although they weren’t cowpunk, they were and still are, champions and survivors of the music industry and true representatives of the roots rock movement. Having made one of their first public appearances in Los Angeles opening for Public Image, Ltd., in 1980, they were gathering enough attention that by the time they released their EP “…And A Time To Dance”, the 50,000 copies sold out. Now possessing some capital, they hit the road and toured all over the U.S. Their clout got them back in the studio in 1984 for their breakthrough album “How Will the Wolf Survive?”, released on Slash Records. With the release of the single and video of “Will the Wolf Survive?”, the band was making a statement on their struggles trying to gain success in the States while maintaining their Mexican heritage. After releasing their next album “By the Light Of the Moon” in 1987, they contributed several songs to the film and soundtrack of “La Bamba”, which the title track hit the number one spot on the singles chart. Los Lobos has since continued to tour with a diverse mix of artists, released numerous albums and singles, appeared in films, and all along the way, they’ve stayed true to their roots. Will the wolf survive? They sure as hell did…