Recession-era rock goes back-to-the-backwoods or rises from the rusty dust
If it left here tomorrow, would you still remember redneck rock? In the 20-tweens, you might hear it rushing through the purple veins of Southern gothic TV: within Jace Everett's growling poster-boy blues, "Bad Things," which opens True Blood, and Gangstagrass' hip-hop-drenched banjo-and-fiddle hillbilly vamp, "Long Hard Times to Come," the theme to the trigger-happy Justified.
In 1974's The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, author Jan Reid defined the genre as Texan through-and-through, based in irreverently reverent Austin and embodied by Willie Nelson, Kinky Friedman, Janis Joplin, Doug Sahm, Townes Van Zandt, and Billy Joe Shaver. Reid sees the Dixie Chicks, Steve Earle, and Stevie Ray Vaughn as its unlikely descendants, but that's only one blood line. The rusty dust of redneck rock can also be found rising from the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" and "Sweet Home Alabama" and the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man" and "Blue Sky" on classic rock radio. Or whenever 38 Special's soft-rock stab at Top 40 popularity, "Caught Up in You," pops up, be it in a biker bar or a key girl-power moment from Drew Barrymore's Whip It. Redneck rock lives wherever the Nuge wanders, crossbow in hand. Do the ghosts of redneck rock lurk wherever Buffalo Bill beards and American Gothic facial hair may roam?
Today, Nashville yields few answers: you'd be hard-pressed to hear anything beyond the "new rock" recent past in the OTT bounce of the Kings of Leon, apart from the sinewy guitar snaking beneath the pelvic thrust of, say, "Sex on Fire." Though perhaps this year's watery disaster — evoking the legendary 1927 Mississippi floods that inspired a generation of blues songwriters — will bring in a new wave of soul-searching.
You're likelier to find remnants of redneck rock in the fiery ambitions of Louisville, Ky., combo My Morning Jacket. Or out west, in the Cali-rock dreams of Howlin Rain and the Portland folk-psych ruminations of Blitzen Trapper. These bands are also fans, unafraid to demonstrate their allegiance to those enlightened rogues the Allmans — shred-savants in the name of "Jessica" and the still-astonishing "Whipping Post" — or the Band, the group whose wide, deep catalog likely has the biggest impact on post-punk's redneck rockers.
Perhaps it's a sign of the times, with the recession continuing to bear down unsparingly on the music world, but neither My Morning Jacket, Kings of Leon, nor Howlin Rain has released a studio album since 2008. The exception is Blitzen Trapper. Enigmatic storyteller Eric Earley and company came to most critics' attention with their third full-length, Wild Mountain Nation (Lidkercow Ltd., 2007). That recording dared to reclaim a kind of back-to-the-backwoods, Green Man-tapped mythos, complete with saintly tramps, critter call-outs, country caravans, and a genuine-dandelion-wine "Wild Mtn. Jam." The new Destroyer of the Void (Sub Pop) yields further clues to the ensemble's redneck of the woods.
The four-eyed Minotaur on the cover of Destroyer replaces the spectral Bigfoot skulking through Wild Mountain Nation's underbrush and the changeling wolf-boy in the title track of Furr (Sub Pop, 2008). In the opening title track, this Destroyer stalks a spaghetti southwestern dreamscape awash with rolling stones, wayward sons, and other rock 'n' roll archetypes, pieced out with harmonies more akin to "Bohemian Rhapsody" than "Good Vibrations." Is this a rustic-rock mini-opera variant on the Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away"? Instead, Blitzen Trapper appears intent on chasing away yawning distractions, the enemy of imagination — bounding over Rockpile hill and dale on "Laughing Lover," fluttering after acoustic-guitar-glittered butterflies in "Below the Hurricane," then finally settling down for a tale about "The Man Who Would Speak True," a protagonist who destroys all who listen with his terrible honesty.
Does this fear point to why Blitzen Trapper prefers to take refuge in a lush, obfuscating thicket of folk tales, rock 'n' roll tropes, and unexpected sonic switchbacks? Truth is feared, and healing sanctuary can found in the natural order. No wonder Blitzen Trapper treats its windy musical changes — the roaring fuzz-guitar-and-B-3 overture of "Love and Hate," the dying trees and elegiac piano and strings of "Heaven and Earth," and the minor-chord yet blissfully sweet "Dragon's Song" — as mysterious, unchanging, and impossible to tame.
"Sadie, I can never change," wails Earley, in a feather-light tip of a cap to "Free Bird"'s "This bird you cannot change/Lord knows I can't change." It's a slight, very specific turnaround from the proud, loaded declaration of independence hammered out with such lyricism by Skynyrd: Blitzen Trapper stands its ground in fertile soil, part Mississippi Delta and "The Weight," part A Night at the Opera and Village Green Preservation Society, its melodies — and heart — ever unresolved, its notions semi-nonsensical and wild-eyed.
With the Moondoggies
Wed/30, 9 p.m., $20
1805 Geary, SF