PUNK TO COUNTRY
A personal musical transition and reckoning
By Danny R. Phillips
"Is it really punk rock/ like the Party line?" -Jeff Tweedy
Since first hearing punk, I was drawn to it. As a kid that enjoyed music and books while being unfortunately stuck amongst the farmland of the Midwest, the challenge that punk brought to the norm, the rebellion, the speed, the polar opposite of Top 40 radio, drew me in to its snarling side like a magnet to a forgotten Chevy in a scrap yard.
I immersed myself in punk and alternative of the late eighties and early nineties as a way, I later realized, to distance myself from the music that I heard growing up with my family. My hatred of country music was a stubborn act of youthful defiance and thick headed stupidity. The final nail in Country music's coffin for me was the arrival of Garth Brooks. His "music" was inescapable in my bullshit town. It was pop music with a fiddle and a twang, and he was everything wrong with music in a big white cowboy hat. I was fucking done.
For years, after moving away and becoming a music journalist, I successfully avoided most things Country, barring the occasional Hank Williams or Johnny Cash tune. This lasted until I spent a year and a half booking bands at a punk bar in the heart of America. I loved it, and I certainly dug the bands, but I could feel a shift was happening inside of me. The emotion of the music, the power of the words, cookie cutter anger, the rules, the keepers of cool; the messages were all bleeding together into a pile of repetition. Every night became the same. Don't get me wrong, I still love The Ramones as much as I ever have, but night after night, seeing bands play the same three chords that have been played since 1977 gets old.
While punk was, and always will be, in my heart, it seemed it was time to re-evaluate the space it held in my life. I longed for a well-placed mandolin, a Hammond B-3 organ, a pedal steel full of emotion or a lyric line that breaks my heart no matter how many times I hear it; sadness over anger, purity over pretense, melody over disjointed lines. Sonic beauty over a wall of sound and spit.
That's when the musical beast I hated so much as a young man, the music I rubbed against in my 20s, began to make sense to me in my 40s. You may call me a poser or a never was, you could pull my card, whatever you see fit, but sadly, very little punk spoke to me anymore. My struggles in life, the tragedies, and the losses pulled me away from a dude named after a Gelatin dessert product and toward a guy from Bakersfield named Buck.
I began combing through the old country catalog and memories came flooding back to me: mornings hearing "Together Again" and "Folsom Prison" as I ate cereal, riding with my uncle as Merle's "Mama Tried" blasted from his International Scout's blown out speakers, Marty Robbins playing while my grandma made a quilt. It was all there, just waiting.
I dug deeper, remembering my brushes in college with The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Jayhawks, Missouri's greatest band The Bottle Rockets, and one of the all-time best bands, Uncle Tupelo. All of it called back to the country in one way or another.
The thing is, I've come to realize that I never hated country music, I just think I hadn't been fucked over enough by life for the music to ring true. It took a divorce, drug addiction and true loss for me to understand it. I had to live a country song. So, as I watch young punks who cover Green Day and think of it as classic punk, or the lost, battered warriors still bitching about Reagan and a system that will be forever broken, I drift off.
I think of The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers, or even the creator of Cosmic American Country, Gram Parsons. I recall those before that had real trials and tribulations, I think of geniuses like Hank, who were swallowed by the very things they warned about in their songs. I think of all those that came before, and those that will come still. I think of the late Justin Townes Earle, Tyler Childers, Lydia Loveless, Billy Strings, Jenny Don't & the Spurs, and the new crop of players digging through the surface to find the country roots below, to all the ones forgotten in my memories waiting to be found again.
Punk mostly has worn thin and threadbare to me. A foggy, weary, and tattered part of my life; an angry yet joyous piece of my puzzle. However, now that I'm looking hard at 50, I'm tired of the shouting.
I want peace in my life. Perhaps that's in the form of smoking a joint while I listen to the Man in Black. We shall see.