Days Between Stations: The Biblical Hillbillies (05/97)

On March 9, the front page of The New York Times featured coverage of the seemingly endless flood in the Ohio River Valley. Kentucky was devastated. Downtown Louisville was still safe, thanks to a system of protections going back to the aftermath of the great flood of ’37—but other places were not so lucky. “Residents of Flooded Town,” ran the head to a story datelined Falmouth, Ky., “Put Lives in Shopping Bags.”

The same day, the paper ran a feature on the latest new sound: “al­ternative country,” or “Americana,” as the trend-unto-movement has been named by the editor of a radio indus­try trade magazine. “Americana,” one reads, takes in everyone from such supposedly now-scorned prophets as George Jones and Dolly Parton to disillusioned rockers like John Hiatt to leg­end-in-his-own-mind Junior Brown to “quirky new groups like the Freight Hoppers and Bad Livers.” “If you can name something,” Americanan musician Chris Smither was quoted as saying, “you can sell it.”

There is something odd and compelling taking place in what might be called the country milieu or hillbilly arena—but it has little to do with the latest swing of the pendulum away from Nashville gloss, which is to say the latest play of the card marked “I Don’t Think Hank Done It That Way.” With Louisville’s Palace Music (formerly Palace Brothers and Palace Songs) as a center of gravity, this is country after punk. It is not all-American. Among its most shining exemplars are Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons, both English (Timms solo, Langford with the Waco Brothers), and Australian Nick Cave, at least on last year’s brutal and weirdly austere Murder Ballads (“in which he murdered some lovely ballads,” Langford wrote in Great Pop Things, the comic strip he co-authors as “Chuck Death”).

The music made here is darker and funnier than anything trading under the name Americana. A lot of it might be summed up by a Langford painting called Cold War Hank I. Langford’s picture of Hank Williams is based on a news photo of the country star from the early ’50s: under arrest, still drunk. He’s naked to the waist, save for the cowboy hat hiding his bald head. The poor man is not yet thirty, not that he ever would be—and not so poorly off as Lang­ford renders him, with his skinny torso pierced by half a dozen arrows: Hank Williams as St. Sebastian.

Certainly such a picture captures the spirit of what Chicago’s Blood­shot Records calls “insurgent coun­try,” a style best chronicled on the compilation Straight Outta Boone County, where such present-day unknowns as One Riot One Ranger and Slobberbone take up the songs of the ’40s, from the Volebeats’ almost unbearably lascivious version of the York Brothers’ “Hamtramck Mama” to Robbie Fulks’s “Wedding of the Bugs.” The record is an all-night party, with moments when the whiskey hits everyone too hard and the only way even to begin to break the drunken silence is for the Handsome Family to step up with their recreation of Merle Travis’s 1947 rendition of “Barbara Allen.” But if this is insurgency, what is Palace? The graveyard?

The music made by Palace—singing and guitar by Will Oldham, bass, drums, and keyboards by brother Ned Oldham and a shifting cast of oth­ers—can seem older than “Barbara Allen,” which is hundreds of years old, and younger than the snottiest country-punk combo in Austin, Texas. Oldham’s voice breaks constantly as he sings about salvation and damnation, blood and semen, ritual and violation, a landscape so perfect it repels all human efforts to name or own it: summoning up elemental forces, Old­ham sounds like a teenager. Sometimes, as on the stirring, shaking title cut of Lost Blues and Other Songs (Drag City), a retrospective covering Palace’s work since it emerged in 1993, Oldham is a seeker, the white city on the golden mountain looming in the sky before him, the voice of the woman singing by his side at once the voice of innocence and experience. Sometimes, as on the queer little drama of “A Sucker’s Evening,” from last year’s Arise Therefore, Oldham is a poseur, claiming he knows more than he can—as an artist—convince a listener he really does know. And some­times that combination of searching and knowing is as scary as it is thrilling.With the Ohio River cresting as I write, it’s impossible to hear Palace’s “Ohio River Boat Song” without thinking of whole towns swept away, of death, loss, terror, and judgment; but in truth the music contains all that. The song knew about the flood in advance. It had taken it fully into account. The singer is not surprised, but ready. As a set of words, the song is merely a lover’s lament, crude and implacable. The music grows louder and stronger, the flat tone of Oldham’s voice never varying, the melody never developing. But a body takes shape in the voice and in the melody, an enormous presence, either that of a demon or a god. Soon enough—too soon—the music, without quickening its pace, seems strong enough to bring the flood about, if that’s what it takes to wash away the singer’s pain or his memory.

As with “Riding,” the number that follows, or “Lost Blues” or “Stable Will,” “Ohio River Boat Song” plainly presents itself as a song that could have been sung on its river any time in the last two-hundred years—that was sung. When the Waco Brothers or Nick Cave cast back half a millennium or so for material that feels completely present-day—to “The Cuckoo,” “Henry Lee,” “Knoxville Girl,” or a variant of “Froggy Went a-Courtin'”—the literal appeal to the past is displacing, but what Will Oldham is doing is displacement itself.

The feeling that results is religious, but not Chris­tian. With its addled, adolescent cracks and dips, the style is too deep for Nashville fashion; the music demands that you look all around yourself, perhaps to see the century or even the country playing itself out, without drama or purpose. If that is what you see or what you hear, perhaps it makes more sense to seek a new voice in the past than in the future, in the airs of the oldest Appalachian ballads than in the Book of Revelation.

Interview, May 1997

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