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by Josef Woodard
Santa Barbara Independent
July 7, 2003

TWANG TOPOGRAPHIES: Alt-country got its “alt” less through a conspiracy among alternative-minded artists than by the inverse influence of a mainstream country scene grown slick and stagnant. Just recently, Santa Barbara audiences have been visited by fine maverick twangers: self-made and highly-musical Texan Lyle Lovett played the Chumash Casino last Friday, and, at SOhO, the acclaimed neo-country-rock band outta L.A. known as I See Hawks in L.A. made its Santa Barbara debut. The band has been rightfully compared to the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parson’s pioneering country-rock outfit from the early ’70s.

The parade of alt-country (a genre which most of its brightest stars bristle at) continues Saturday at the Lobero, with Todd Snider, the next victim in the Sings Like Hell series. Snider is a salty-tongued wise guy with a natural songwriting skill, minimal commercial potential, and relatively little fear. He was good enough to grab the ear of one of his biggest heroes, John Prine, who signed the protégé to the Oh Boy! label, co-run by Prine.

There’s something very restless and American about Snider, a Portland, Oregon native who went South-literally-as a music-loving teenager. He has moved around the land since making his 1994 debut (and scoring a fluke hit was his grunge satire “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues”). Of late, Snider has landed in a town he loves enough to have devoted an album to: East Nashville Skyline. No, Snider is not dissing Dylan, an admitted icon to Snider. Rather, Snider is singing the praises, in wild and poetic terms, of his adopted hometown of East Nashville. It’s the funkier, more Boho counterpart to Nashville proper, across the river.

Meanwhile, way out west of Nashville, our own piece of earth has proven fertile ground for new country hybrids. Not for nothing has Bakersfield-home of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard-become “Nashville West,” and folks like Dwight Yoakam staked their claim in the Pacific Standard Time zone. There are plenty of worthy country-rock artists and players hereabouts, as heard in the Gram Parsons tribute at the Bowl last summer, and in bands like I See Hawks in L.A.

Anyone expressing surprise about the easy fit of country-folk musical traditions and Southern California isn’t paying attention to the larger, longer picture of life here. Gather ’round, children, and hear the nostalgia-checked tale of a once-agrarian terrain where suburban sprawl and mini-malls now reign (burrito) supreme. Los Angeles, the city which grew from stolen water in a spot God never wanted a city, is still enveloped in vast natural topographies, from the Santa Monica Mountains to the desert wonderland of Joshua Tree.

Closer to home, orchards and farmland once prevailed where neighborhoods and nearly all of Goleta now command top real-estate dollar. Slobbering developers seek yet more depletion of all things natural, and we cling, ever more firmly and desperately, to unspoiled enclaves worth saving: Ellwood Mesa, the Gaviota Coast, the San Marcos foothills, and any scrappy vacant lot you might find (an endangered species).

So we may feel a tiny sting of recognition hearing the line “I know that we’ll never see trees that used to be,” as I See Hawks’ Rob Waller sings on “Hope Against Hope,” the opening track of the band’s inspired latest album, Grapevine (Western Seeds Record Company).

Asked a leading question about the strong sense of place in his songs, including the new album’s “Humboldt” and “Grapevine,” Waller took the bait: “We’re a regional band with global aspirations,” he said. “In my opinion, songwriters-and writers in general-are better suited to being localists than globalists. Your work might just end up universal if you pay very close attention to the specific people and places in your immediate environment. Look at William Faulkner, he wrote novel after novel about his mythical ‘postage stamp of soil’ in central Mississippi. It’s unnecessary to comment on the global impact of his work.”
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