by Buddy Blue
Mainstream country clearly contends for recognition as the most wretched music extant on the planet today; we all recognize this, no? The alt-country movement, on the other hand, is undoubtedly preferable, if characterized by three well-defined schools with issues of their own. They are:
1.) The self-serious arteests who perform with one foot in tradition and the other in contemporary, derivative trendiness, inevitably becoming abysmally over-rated, cherished darlings of the rockcritc set despite sounding as if they believe playing music some gallant mission with earth-shaking ramifications, as opposed to something so frivolous as, oh, say, actually having fun. Exhibit A: Son Volt.
2.) The frat-boy-sensibility-having, white-trash-chic funsters, whose sophomoric sense of humor inexorably celebrates double-wides, methamphetamine abuse and semi-functional automobiles, and who glean tremendous pride in their studiously cretinous persona and lack of musical skill, but who have a wonderful time entertaining their heavily-tattooed, halitosis-afflicted fan base. Exhibit A: Supersuckers.
3.) The piously retro singer-songwriter who slavishly assumes the sound and appearance of Merle Haggard, Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, and who shamelessly plagiarizes the songs of one or more of the above, while employing a group of ace sidemen from Austin to camouflage the fact that they can’t play a note and possess nothing original whatsoever to offer. Exhibit A: Wayne Hancock.
Happily, an antidote to all this alt-unpleasantness appears Saturday night at Acoustic Music San Diego in the form of a group curiously christened I See Hawks In L.A. Where the alt-schools above draw their inspiration from the honky tonkin’ ’50s and/or post-punk ’80s, the Hawks’ sound derives from the nascent country-rock merger of that most musically fertile of decades: the ’60s, an era oddly ignored by most alt-slingers.
On the Hawks’ second and latest album, “Grapevine,” one encounters the thrill-seeking, psychedelic cowboy sensibility of the Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage; the cactus harmony and ghost town steel guitar of Gram Parson’s Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers; the earnest, pastoral songcraft and time-honored instrumentation of Johns Stewart and Prine.
“We don’t want to be all about old Cadillacs and wife-beater T-shirts,” says singer/guitarist Robert Rex Waller Jr., who’s joined in the Hawks by guitarist Paul Lacques, fiddler Brantley Kearns, bassist Paul Marshall and drummer Shawn Nourse. “On the other hand,” Waller says, “we don’t feel the need to dress up like Gram Parsons, either. I love Gram Parsons, but I don’t have to put on a Nudie suit to prove it. With some people, the fashion aspect is as far as it goes; their music doesn’t even necessarily reflect that (love of Parsons).”
Nope, the Hawks are hardly about fashion, vintage or otherwise. Variously bearded, balding, bounteous-bellied and bespectacled, this isn’t a group to dazzle with image; these guys are all about the music. It’s no coincidence that most of the acts name-checked above hail from the Golden State, either.
“Our vision is as a California country outfit, writing songs about the whole Californian experience,” Waller says. “There’s also the aspect of the effect California had on country music, adding electricity and sort of a psychedelic sound. Bands like the Byrds took roots music and paid homage to it very respectfully, but also added vocal harmonies, effects and other experimentation. Those are the two streams that came together for us; country music with that rich, reverby, psychedelic thing.”
The multi-generational Hawks range in age from thirties to fifties, helping to strike an uncommon balance between veteran instinct and youthful daring; members have worked with an array of artists from old-time country icons Rose Maddox and Hank Thompson to contemporary roots music heroes Dave Alvin and Dwight Yoakam. Just don’t try to lump these guys in with the usual alt-county suspects.
“People talk to me like they think we’re doing the same kind of thing as Son Volt or Ryan Adams, and I really don’t understand where that comes from,” protests Waller. “I can’t even listen to that stuff!”
You are not alone, Mr. Waller.
I See Hawks In L.A., June 4 at Normal Heights United Methodist Church, 4650 Mansfield Street in San Diego, 7:30 p.m., $15 – $20, (619) 303-8176.
Buddy Blue is a San Diego musician, writer and all-around curmudgeon. His Blue Notes column runs weekly in Night&Day in the San Diego Union Tribune