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A Town West of Nashville

21 Apr

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VARIOUS ARTISTSA Town South of Bakersfield, Vols. 1 & 2 CD (Enigma, 1988)

I read about these two Pete Anderson-curated compilations (the first from 1985, the second from 1988) in the pages of SPIN magazine as a teen. And a quarter century had to pass before I’d get around to actually listening to them! Let us be clear: this ain’t nothing at all to do with cowpunk, that’s fr goddamn sure. Critics who bandied around that novelty term when talking about this are probably the same jokers who used it’s root punk to describe late 70’s Warren Zevon records. And we all know, them critics were morons.

What this actually was: a collection of traditionally-minded country artists who’d happened to build careers in the greater Los Angeles area in the mid 80’s. Being so far from the Southern U.S. cultural epicentre of their sound was isolating, and the lack of naturally-occurring support from their environs led some of these artists to develop post-modern chips of varied sizes on their shoulders. That aside, these folks were as pro and adept as anyone then hot in Nashville, and they were most definitely here to prove it.

The artists themselves were quite diverse. Katy Moffatt, Billy Swan, and Lucinda Williams already had well established careers, but were in the process of redefining themselves in more modern terms. Dwight Yoakam, Rosie Flores, James Intveld and Candye Kane belie more urban influences, turned on by the rockabilly revival of The Blasters a few years earlier. Still others, like the rootsy Lonesome Strangers and county-pop Tin Star, seemed to pop outta nowhere, fully formed and more than ready to headline the Palomino Club in a moment’s notice. Nothing here sounded anywhere near as wild or drunken as Tex and the Horseheads, but it’s uniformly strong and proud stuff. And remember, this was country music, not that longhair rock n roll crap.

Approaching this CD in 2013, you have to overcome a couple big hurdles. First, there’s Pete Anderson’s “hip” production. Now I will certainly give it up for that man’s spare, hardcore country arrangements and formidable gtr prowess, but the overall fidelity here is thin and tinny, like some 2nd rate Steve Lillywhite knock-off project. Amplified by state-of-the-art digital CD transfer circa 1988, and you’ve got some seriously brittle, bloodless sonics in your speakers.

It’s curious to compare this with the Don’t Shoot compilation on Zippo Records that came out around the same time. Similarly country-themed, Don’t Shoot focused on spin-offs & solo projects of LA bands like X, Green On Red, The Long Ryders, and Divine Horsemen – you know, guys with actual punker pedigrees. In fact, a full half of that rec was produced/engineered by ex-Flesh Eater Chris D, who understood the need to capture a fair representation of low, mid, and high frequencies. Accordingly, it sounds warmer and more naturalistic than either Bakersfield volume. But in terms of playing/songwriting, the South of Bakersfield cats ran rings around their Hollywood counterparts, telling me Pete Anderson and co. had Nashville in their sights all along.

And the work’s worth it, really it is, especially if you like your country rooted in history, but are turned off by the good-ole-boy chauvinism of some of it’s founding fathers. I reckon Jim Lauderdale’s “What Am I Waiting For” to be the absolute pick of the bunch, as he conjures up the ghost of a young Buck Owens as vividly as anyone I’ve yet heard. As expected, Dwight Yoakam deserves special mention with the inclusion of his great “I’ll Be Gone.” But less well known singers like breathy but tough Jann Browne (“Louisville”) and no-nonsense honky tonker George Highfill (“Waitin’ Up”) sound simultaneously commanding and at ease, no simple trick to pull off.

Whatever your fancy, just don’t call it cowpunk, ok?

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