In a parallel universe, the mid-1980s Roots revival shaped Country & Western into something completely different than the wasteland we have today.
June 14, 2014

Matthew Grimm & the HangdogsThe other day I was lamenting the embarrassing state of Country & Western music. While listening to Matthew Grimm's Songs in the Key of Your Face. And I couldn't help thinking: did it have to be this way?

There was a moment, back in the mid-1980s, when something really interesting was happening in the music world. There was Lone Justice, based in LA, also home to Dave Alvin and The Blasters. Boston had the Del Fuegos. New York had the Del Lords. Wisconsin gave us The BoDeans.

It might seem odd at first, but Los Lobos were also a part of this sound. Austin served up The Fabulous Thunderbirds and The Tail Gators. Atlanta gave us The Georgia Satellites. Nashville was home to The Royal Court of China and Jason & the Scorchers, billed as the "hardest working cowboys in rock & roll." And by god, they were. If you ever saw them live you know what I mean.

All over the country there was an upsurge of bands that, despite their differences, had some things in common. All of them were infused by a certain grittiness. There was a strong bar-boogie thread, even a little punkishness, through a lot of their music. Each derived an authenticity from musical traditions that lived beyond the mainstream. There were clear C&W influences. Add it all up and I guess you'd arrive at "Roots."

Some of these bands even enjoyed a measure of financial success. Lone Justice had a minor hit with "Ways to Be Wicked" and Maria McKee has had a respectable solo career. The BoDeans evolved (sadly, in my view) into an adult alternative mainstay - sort of a Michael Bolton for the Americana crowd, if you will. But if you set aside what they became and go back to that first album, it's hard not to be impressed. Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams was truly superb.

Los Lobos, of course, became a huge success in the Latino market and had a big moment in the sun with their contributions to the La Bamba soundtrack. The T-Birds did well for themselves, too - they had a hit with "Wrap It Up" and went on to become pillars of the Austin community.

And, I'm trying to remember - did The Satellites ever get any airplay?

I'm thinking about these bands in the mid-'80s because I'm imagining an alternate future for Nashville - I'm dreaming about what Country & Western might have become. All genres grow and evolve over time, and the path to the future is by no means pre-ordained. C&W will be different in 20 years than it is today and while we're probably safe fearing the worst, it isn't easy to predict the particulars. All it takes is one or two important figures, be they artists or producers or label execs or even radio weasels, to alter the course of the industry, and sometimes major turning points are barely noticeable at the time.

For instance, what would Rock look like today had John and Paul never met? Take a second to get your head around this. Subtract all the influence that The Beatles exerted on the genre and describe what it's like today. Good luck.

I think about Lone Justice and The Scorchers and the rest and I wonder what would have happened if some Nashville visionary had, circa 1985ish, decided that C&W should embrace these young, talented, emerging bands. What if this hypothetical tastemonger, someone with vision, influence and an enterprising nature, had worked to claim this Roots movement and to assimilate what has become Americana, alt.Country, that Austin Bluesy thing and even the massive crossover potential of Latino music (which, once you get past all the racism of the white C&W audience, has a lot in common, musically and culturally, with Country) into the Nashville mainstream?

Listen to anything by Jason & the Scorchers. Listen to that first LJ record and then give lead singer Maria McKee's 1993 solo release You Gotta Sin to Get Saved a spin. Listen to any of those Austin bands. Tell me about the sound of "Will the Wolf Survive."

Listen to what's going on inside Royal Court's "Half the Truth," and pay close attention to what happens at the 1:43 mark.

In some respects this is more than idle speculation. From a 1984 perspective, what I'm positing here makes a lot more sense than what actually happened - that is, the Beyoncefication of Country. 2014 Nash Vega$ has more in common with her than it does with Tammy Wynette, and had you predicted Taylor Swift back in the mid-'80s you'd probably have gotten laughed out of the bar.

But Lone Justice and McKee made perfect sense.

I don't want to hear any crap about the importance of cheesecake, either. Swift is a pretty woman, but if you can't market McKee's combination of beauty and talent you need to go see HR and ask if they have a job you're smart enough to do. (Also, McKee is a fantastic songwriter to boot. Go ask the Dixie Chicks.)

Quantum Physics, as I understand it, actually predicts that there's a parallel universe where it all went down exactly as I imagine. In that reality, Nashville is today a very different and far more palatable place. It wholeheartedly embraced The Drive-By Truckers and The Hangdogs. It played the shizzle out of The Pinetops and Jeffrey Dean Foster's last solo disc, Million-Star Hotel.

Jason Isbell's last two records dominated the CMAs and anything Southeastern didn't win Matt Grimm's Songs in the Key of Your Face did. Radio programmers are so giddy about the rumor of a new Jeff Foster CD this year that their nipples are stiff.

I'd rather live in that universe than this one. It could have happened here, and for all we know we may have come close. Knowing the music industry, it may all have come down to one ambitious, amoral A&R rep showing up at the right place with a hooker and a bag of blow.

That would certainly be consistent with contemporary Nashville, wouldn't it?

Oh well. Ponder this if you like and imagine a universe where, when you're looking for great music, radio is the first place you go instead of the last. And as you're doing so, hop over and give Matt Grimm's latest a listen. It's smart as hell, it's progressive, it's funny, it's packed with great tunes, and I don't know about you, but I was loving it even before we got to the cover of "Telegraph Road."

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