Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Music: Fall Back in Fall

It's Indian summer--that bittersweet junction between seasons, when the Sun rides low in the sky, and 7 o'clock shadows arrive at 4. After a cold and rainy June, July and (most of) August, our garden bears fruit with an air of desperation. Tomatoes appear and abruptly fall off the vine, barely pink. Sunflowers grow several inches each day, collapsing under the weight of their seed heads. Our giant, weak plants are now securely anchored with green garden twine.

September also brings the Hideout Block Party, although this year it was actually the 15th anniversary party for Bloodshot Records, Chicago's venerated alt-country label. I have a personal connection to Bloodshot, since co-founder Nan Warshaw DJ'd at our wedding.

As outdoor festivals go, this one was light on the tchotchke booths. In truth, who needs to see another array of cheap sunglasses and light sticks? Mexican wrestling masks though--perfect!

Moonshine Willy (above) was the first band to sign a single with Bloodshot, back in the alt-country heyday of the mid 1990s. Looking at the audience, most of whom seemed to be in their late 30's and early 40's, one had to wonder whether American music has another country fusion in it. Recently, the influential music blog Aquarium Drunkard declared that the alt-country resurgence from the 1990's was coasting. Certainly alt-country's best talents, like Jeff Tweedy (formerly of Uncle Tupelo), broke away from the genre and went rock at first opportunity.

I have one degree of separation from the hillbilly roots that inspired alt-country. My father grew up in rural Ohio, a place that in the 1930's might as well been Arkansas. He had memories of the first radio in the county, and the momentous year President Roosevelt brought electricity to their little farm. With that improvement, his family could join the thousands of others who listened, each week, to The Grand Ole Opry radio show. Country music had become the soul music of poor, white America.

One wonders whether it is possible to revive roots country with an eye toward progression of the genre. Perhaps the biggest problem facing alt-country is it's audience. They just don't make white people like they used to--people who farmed a few hard-scrabble acres, made white lightening and died of TB (my great-grandparents) or black lung before they reached old age.

There's a dark and a troubled side of life
There's a bright, there's a sunny side, too
Tho' we meet with the darkness and strife
The sunny side we also may view

[From "Keep on the Sunny Side of Life" by the Carter Family]

The true inheritors of my grandparent's lives, poor rural whites, are a shrinking minority in America, and they are more likely to listen to death metal or hip-hop than to alt-country. So, perhaps it is a genre that will both never grow and never die, subject to periodic rediscovery by a people longing for roots.

I'll close with my favorite from the entire day's lineup, The Waco Brothers. Leave it to a Brit, the irrepressible Jon Langford (who I just saw with the Mekons), to recapture the true grit of rockabilly.

Grieving Angel (or, What Happened to alt.Country) at Aquarium Drunkard

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