This Is (Cracker) Country: Why I Love Countrysides
By just j
just j is a music fan who lives somewhere in the Southeastern United States. Thanks to Miss Krista Norstog Leonard for her comments on an earlier draft of this blog post.
Years ago, Facebook had a quiz entitled “What Cracker Album Are You?” I took the quiz, and the result was Countrysides. I probably am the only one who was not surprised. “But j,” you say, “Even though you have lived in the Southeastern United States for over 20 years, you are one of the most Yankee-fied Yankees out there. What do YOU know about country music?” A fair question. It is true that I grew up in New York City and lived either there or in Connecticut until my 22nd birthday. Neither of my parents was a country music aficionado, let alone a country music fan.
My mother, however, grew up in Virginia. Whether it was because of or in spite of this, we did watch “Hee Haw” on television as a family. The host of “Hee Haw,” one Buck Owens, was the pioneer of the so-called “Bakersfield Sound.” Now we are getting somewhere. As other fans of Cracker know, the band recently released its two-disc album Berkeley to Bakersfield. The Bakersfield disc pays homage to Cracker’s country roots, which are centered in or around that part of California. In any event, as a kid I watched and listened to Owens, Roy Clark, Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Minnie Pearl and the like once a week, with occasional viewings of performances from the Grand Old Opry thrown in for good measure. Until my parents got a second television. I guess this early exposure influenced me more than I thought. Through Cracker, I have discovered many other bands and artists, many of which are country. Good music transcends its genre. Witness the late, great Patsy Cline and the late, great Johnny Cash.
Cracker, on the other hand, has always acknowledged, if not embraced, its country roots. Countrysides came out in 2003, but I did not truly come to appreciate it until 2006, when I was going through a period of great change in my life. When Cracker released Countrysides, of course, it was going through a period of great change as well. At that time, Cracker’s lineup was lead singer, rhythm guitarist and co-founder David Lowery, lead guitarist and co-founder Johnny Hickman, drummer Frank Funaro, keyboardist/accordionist Kenny Margolis and bassist/vocalist Brandy Wood. The band, which had always acknowledged its country leanings, performed mostly country cover songs for a six-month period around that time under the pseudonym Ironic Mullet. In a contemporaneous interview, Hickman said, “As an observation, you only see mullets in certain regions. We noticed that people wearing them in New York were wearing them ironically, [because] they’re doing it to make fun of the ‘true mullets’ out there, man. It was sort of the working title for the country band within Cracker.”
Midway through the recording of Countrysides, Cracker’s long-time label, Virgin Records, dropped the band. No surprise, then, that the album, which Cracker released itself on Artists Direct, included, along with the eight cover songs, one anti-Virgin screed called “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself.” But I am getting ahead of myself here. The cover songs on the album fall, in my mind, into two categories: (a) “This is Country!” and (b) “This Is Country?” Please allow me to explain.
In the “This is Country!” category, half of the songs (“Redneck Mothers,” “Family Tradition,” “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Reasons to Quit”) are typical, straight-up country songs about drinkin’, smokin’, and a** kickin’. These four songs were originally written and performed by arguably conventional country artists – Jerry Jeff Walker, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard (who duets with Willie Nelson on “Reasons to Quit”). Cracker’s versions of these songs are nothing if not respectful. Lowery is singing at the highest, most nasal end of his register on these songs. Hickman’s guitar is at its most twangy. Margolis’s keyboard and accordion work are at their finest. All of these superb recordings compare very favorably to the originals, except for the absence of pedal steel. The current east coast Cracker lineup, with Matt “Pistol” Stoessel on pedal steel, could play the sh*t out of any of these songs! (That is a hint.)
The other four covers (“Truckload of Art,” “Duty Free,” “Sinaloa Cowboys” and “Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room”) are the “This is Country?” half of Countrysides. All four fit into the album from a sonic perspective. They are, however, more unconventional country songs from a subject matter perspective, and two were not even written by artists thought of as country musicians. To be sure, Terry Allen is a country musician, but he is also a visual artist. These two passions come together in “Truckload of Art,” a wistful ballad about a truckload of paintings and sculptures that overturns on its way to New York City. Ike Reilly, who wrote “Duty Free,” is from Libertyville, Illinois, for heaven’s sake! And the subject matter? Irish dudes who fish bodies out of the River Shannon? (I did once see Frank Quinn perform with Ike, and he IS that Irish tourism poster guy. But I digress.) That said, Ike has recorded with, and written for, one Shooter Jennings. And in his song “Hip Hop Thighs,” he namechecks both Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. If I can be a country music fan, Ike can be a country music fan. And a country music songwriter besides.
“Sinaloa Cowboys” is another beautiful, plaintive ballad about two brothers, Miguel and Luis, who cross the border from Mexico to California to make a living working in a meth lab, written by, of all people, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss’s voice on his version is somewhat more Dylanesque, but Cracker’s cover retains the pathos of the original in its tone. The last of the “This is Country?” songs, “Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room,” is a slightly more conventional country ballad about a lying, cheating woman. It suits the earthy voice of Hickman, who had earlier penned “Mr. Wrong,” “Trials and Tribulations” and “Hold of Myself,” and would go on to record “Mexican Jail” with his alt-country side project, The Hickman-Dalton Gang, to a T. (Or should I say, a winged lizard. But I digress again.) That said, the songwriter, Dwight Yoakam, although a successful country artist, first got his start performing alongside bands like X, Los Lobos and The Blasters. So in the same way that there has always been a country band within Cracker, perhaps there has always been a rock musician within Dwight Yoakam.
The last of the nine songs, “It Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself,” is an even bigger thumb in the eye of Virgin Records than the rest of the album. Its loopy, non-rhyming and only somewhat assonant lyrics recount the story of Lowery getting on a plane to confront his label. The only thing he gets out of the trip is a box of Mexican frozen popsicles. Jackson Haring, Lowery’s traveling companion, allegedly gets the “Sticky Fingers” master tapes. Margolis channels Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” on his keyboard work. And Wood, who isn’t really Lowery’s cousin, joins in on vocals and puts in a word for feminism at the same time. This song does not suck. Itself or otherwise.
So that, ladies and gentlemen, is my love letter to Countrysides. Although Cracker’s “Bakersfield” disc, with its beautifully worked ballads and two-stepping ravers, represents the band in all its sonic maturity, I also appreciate its earlier love letter to country music. Now if you will excuse me, I am off to see what Amazon has in the way of Roy Acuff recordings.