So I’m sitting in Pub 340, and Devil and the Wood Shack, the Staggers and Jaggs, and the Still Spirits are sharing a bill. Respectively, these bands present a manic, dark-hued folk-punk; a Martime-inflected take on the Gypsy jazz of the Hot Club of France; and a oldtimey jugband that sounds like a high speed spin on R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders. They’re all great, but the thing that’s really striking is, the place is packed: every seat is taken, and the dance floor is full. It may be the best turnout I’ve seen for three local bands in a few years. With punk, rock, and metal promoters bitching all over my Facebook feed about poor turnouts, and bemoaning the exodus to the suburbs that has taken so many music fans out of downtown proper, it’s really striking that three local bands making variants on roots music seem to be bringing 20somethings out in droves. A similar show at Lanalou’s the next week repeats the pattern and consolidates my confusion. It’s made more striking by the fact that a few nights before, at the same venue, I’d seen a respected punk band with long connections to the Vancouver scene, who I’d previewed at length on the Straight website, do a record release to a crowd of less than 10 (though they were a really cool 10).
The members of Devil in the Wood Shack, the Staggers and Jaggs, and the Still Spirits themselves are all younger, so that might be part of it. Maybe younger audiences are tiring of seeing music played by people counting the days to their pensions? But that doesn’t explain why country swing acts like Petunia and the Vipers, or rootsy, folk-and-country based songwriters like Rodney DeCroo or Joey Only are draws. I mean, again—they’re great, but last I checked, there was no one under 35 in those bands, so it’s not just peer identification that’s drawing younger fans to their shows.
So why are Vancouver music fans—and plenty of them seeming to come from a punk rock background—more and more drawn to roots music? From the dark ragtimey folk of the Burying Ground to the ironic “jug band of the damned,” the Creaking Planks, it seems like, big name acts aside, music lovers in our city would rather play and listen to accordions, fiddles, and washtubs than electric guitars and shouty vocals these days. To be honest, I kind of feel the same way. So what’s with that? Is country music—which punks once decried with a vehemence rivaling their contempt for disco—suddenly the new punk rock?
The East Van Opry at the Rio Theatre, on November 4, showcases roots, country, rockabilly, bluegrass, blues, gospel and old-time folk music. Like the aforementioned shows, it’s likely going to be packed (it certainly was last year). So the Georgia Straight put the above questions to a host of East Van Opry performers and event organizers. Was their own background primarily in punk rock? Had they, like me, ever muttered the phrase “country music sucks?” …and if that happens to be the case, what happened that now they’re making it?
Geoff Berner’s new album, Canadiana Grotesquica, released earlier this year on vinyl on the COAX label, is playful, accordion-enriched country music, packed with slyly funny political potshots, from the obliquely pipeline-bashing, over-the-top dark humour of “Super Subtle Folk Song” which arrives at its critique of fossil fuel consumption by way of killer panthers, to my favourite-ever putdown of status-conscious academic posturing, “Hustle Advisory” (which, speaking of punk, reminds me in its lyrics of the Rebel Spell’s “M.I.S.S.” - it stands for “Most Ineffective Secret Society” - except Berner’s song is much funnier and gentler in its humour. It’s easier to make out the lyrics, too!). Berner is occasionally quite self-deprecating (“Phony Drawl”), manages to work a namecheck of Doug and the Slugs into a song (“The Ghost of Terry Fox”), and has drawn unexpected notice from sports news websites for his respectful (but still funny) tribute to Gino Odjick, called, uh, “Gino Odjick.” It’s a great album, and Berner’s draw is “ doing okay,” he says (I briefly peeked into the WISE Hall record release for Canadiana Grotesquica to hit the merch table and it seemed quite a bit better than okay to me).
Berner is quick to state that “country music is not the new punk rock,” but adds that “it's nice that so many old punk rockers can bring their punk energy and skepticism to country music.”
So what does he think is going on?
“Any time a music seems ‘new,’ it's a combination of traditions, or a revived tradition,” he responds. “In my opinion, the Sex Pistols were, in many ways, electrified Irish rebel songs. That goes back to the same roots as country music, [which is] music that largely grew out of the songs Irish descendants brought with them to the Americas. So punk and country are not so different, really. When you get into country from punk rock, you're just returning to the source, maybe. Makes sense to do that as you get older. Get down to the roots of things.”
Did he have any gateway drugs into roots music? (I rattle off a few of mine - from the deranged “LSDC&W” of Eugene Chadbourne, who helped me to like country music even back when I thought it wasn’t cool, to 1960’s NY freak folks the Holy Modal Rounders. What about him?
“I love Eugene Chadbourne,” he responds, “and I never didn't like country music. But probably Freakwater's album Feels Like the Third Time is what led me to understand the possibilities of working in that tradition. I still love that album. It is perfect.”
Who else does he love, roots-music-wise?
“I'm partial to the Be Good Tanyas, as a matter of fact. Gillian Welch is good. I like Taj Mahal's country album. I don't know if this counts, but I adore Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band. And Freakwater.”
(One of the perks of writing these articles is that you get turned on to music you’d never heard of before. The day I got Berner’s answers I hit Red Cat, but they were sold out of Freakwater, who I’m excited to explore. They did have multiples of Berner’s new album, however, and a sole vinyl copy of his previous, more klezmer-bent LP We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians).
Confession: I haven’t caught up with Carolyn Mark’s 2016 album Come! Back! Special! yet, but I’ve seen her do her raunchy “Get It Up”, complete with an absurdly copulatory semaphore routine, on more than one occasion, including last year’s East Van Opry (check the video for it below, recorded at the Calgary Stampede). Ms. Mark is a big fan of Geoff Berner’s new album, and explains that she gets a kick of the fact that he recorded “Rule of the Road” with “apologies to Country Dick Montana,” the late drummer and sometimes frontman of the Beat Farmers, “because in the Beat Farmers’ Almanac”—a collectible 1985 pamphlet the band put out that boasts lyrics, band bios, and, apparently, a recipe for something called “Headcheese Cake”—“it says never to write a song about the road.” The Straight caught up to Carolyn Mark on her cellphone on an Ontario roadside, where she was in mid-tour. It turns out that, rather than making a journey from punk to country, she’s always been a country girl at heart.
“I grew up on a dairy farm,” she explains. “Gordon Lightfoot was the only thing my parents ever agreed on.” Even twangy country music counted as an act of rebellion, to them, so she didn’t need to go so far as to play punk rock to piss her parents off, she laughs.
She’s also not sure that genre is the deciding factor in going to see any shows, since it never was for her; she explains that she will go see any band with a good live act, which included, back in the day, plenty of punk bands in Victoria.
“I really liked the bands with melody and harmonies,” Mark recalls. “But I still went to everything, like Deja Voodoo every Hallowe'en and Valentine’s Day; they were a two-piece that traveled by train from Montreal.”
Ah, Deja Voodoo—I know their sludgy, absurd, minimalist garage rockabilly quite well, and have bonded with near strangers when they followed a passing reference to coelecanths by muttering, “the fish of love”—a joke only a Deja Voodoo fan will get. Turns out I share with Ms. Mark an esteem, too, for Calgary libertarian surf-Gospel smartasses Jerry Jerry and the Sons of Rhythm Orchestra, whose Road Gore: The Band That Drank Too Much is an unsung Can-rock classic, no matter how, erm, Calgarian their lyrics may be (check “Pushin’ for Jesus” or their positively Randian putdown of socialism, “Bad Idea.”)
“I like X, too,” Mark continues—especially More Fun in the New World - “and the more rootsy Soul Asylum songs, or the Old 97s or Replacements. Jr. Gone Wild is my favourite, so yes, second wave country I guess you could call it. Jr. Gone Wild introduced me to Lucinda Wiliams and Gram Parsons, who introduced me to Merle Haggard” (or at least his music). Another gateway for her was Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, an album of countrified crooning. “It’s music that people can play and sing together, is what it is.”
Which fittingly enough describes Carolyn Mark’s music, too.
And lest you say, wait a sec, didn’t she play with Nomeansno’s Tom Holliston in Hat Head, yes, indeed she did, but - she laughs at me - “they were a country band!” (I had only ever heard about them, from another member of the band, Tim Chan, and have no idea what they sounded like).
Or what about her own early band, the Vinaigrettes? Certain elements of their humour seem a bit punkish (calling an album Gross Negligee, say, with cover art to compliment it). And occasionally their songs (like “Mr. Yuk”) approach a punky garage zone, but there’s also surf, country, rockabilly, and a non-punk twanginess in evidence. How does she feel about them sometimes being described as punk rock?
“I think it was by accident,” she says, having more to do with the way the band presented live than their songs per se. “Honestly, I'd be all like, ‘what is making that noise?’ and it would invariably be my own amp. I just keep getting smaller and smaller bands so you can hear the words.”
As for the East Van Opry, she pays big respect to organizer Kathleen Nisbet, who she she thinks has a lot to do with the success of the Opry. “When Kathleen organizes an event it always works out perfectly, and she stays so chill the whole time. It's incredible.She is sure the show at the Rio “will be good, and full.”
She might even do “Get It Up,” complete with hand gestures.
Matthew Rogers (The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer)
The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer is a blues duo consisting of Matthew Rogers (guitar, bass, synths) and Shawn Hall (vocals, harmonica). Besides having a rather entertaining name—which references, if you haven’t puzzled it out, the main instruments the two men mostly play—they certainly know and like their blues. Rogers namechecks Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry, and Son House as influences, saying “folk blues is what got our group started.” He also pays respects to Alan Lomax. Piedmont blues, Etta Baker, Elizabeth Cotton, Big Bill Broonzy, and even BB King.
But the truth is, The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer makes music that is quite a bit more contemporary than any of that. Check their 2017 album Apocalypstick on Bandcamp to get an idea: it takes in Motown, Muscle Shoals R&B, and contemporary rock, has very little that smacks of old-timey or Delta blues, and, for the record, absolutely nothing of punk. Neither member came from punk bands - “there’s never been much punk and metal in either of our lives, and blues has always been quite present,” he tells the Straight. About as close as he’s come is a fondness for Soundgarden, who were pretty bluesy in their own way.
He does see what I mean, however, about the punk-to-country transit that some people seem to make. “There are indeed a bunch of Corb Lunds and Daniel Romanos that have gone punk to country. Maybe their past punk attitude is what gives them a distinct edge in country music”. Rogers is of the opinion that country music could always use “a little more punk, and punk a little more country.”
But Rogers thinks part of the reason that old punks end up listening to or playing roots music is pretty straightforward: “Because we get old, of course. Loud music is great, and there's still a rebelliousness to it. As teenagers most of us needed to let off some steam and didn't give a fuck about hearing loss, and loud shows were a way to do that. But all of us who have made music our lives will have evolving tastes.”
And “old country done anew may be the new punk that was the folk revival protest songs that were the old folk ballads.”
A theme seems to be emerging, that punk and roots music aren’t actually that different, and that the latter is just kinder on throats, ears, and on people who like to know what someone is singing. It makes a certain degree of sense. Other answers, while foregrounding different aspects of the question, seem to follow suit.
One of the acts playing the Opry not from Vancouver, Kim Beggs hails from the Yukon Territories, and is presently working her way across Canada on a forty-date tour supporting her fifth album, Said Little Sparrow. The East Van Opry show comes in the midst of a bunch of other BC gigs, with a show tonight (Thursday, November 2) at the WISE Hall. There will also be shows in Duncan, Tofino, Port Alberni, Victoria, Cumberland, and Wells following it, before she treks into the prairies.
Her coming from Whitehorse means that she can’t really speak to the Vancouver scene. She grew up, she explains, in Ontario (and a bit in Quebec) listening to the Who, the Stones, and the Beatles, with the Violent Femmes coming as close to punk as she got. Other important touchstones in her musical evolution include Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, and even Neil Diamond.
“I always I thought I didn’t like country music too, until I worked in an isolated community that didn’t get CBC radio reception, only country music on CHON FM. So it grew into my cold and lonely bones while I built a house in Ross River [in the Yukon] along with the rest of the crew. I was a first year apprentice. We ate moose meat and drank coffee together at lunch and dinner. Bacon and eggs for breakfast. Not much salad.”
Sounds like a pretty good atmosphere for listening to country music, actually.
Being up north, she explains, means coming to terms with a bit more isolation, so artists “tend to be more isolated in our creative paths,” following their own thread into whatever music they make. But shortly before she started playing guitar - to sing around the campfire on cold Yukon nights - Beggs “was exposed to several female artists, like Tracy Chapman or Melissa Etheridge, for example. Later it was Stacey Earle, Nancy Griffith, Lucinda Williams.” A bit later, “Iris Dement played on the radio and that open up Pandora’s Box for me. I had no idea who she was. I was working on a house outside of Whitehorse, sitting down for lunch listening to CBC. The next day I went about town trying to find out who she was. I ordered her album from the local record store. That fall I started writing songs.”
There was a flourishing roots music scene in Whitehorse at the time, she says, mentioning the Undertakin’ Daddies, Kim Barlow, and Anne Louise Genest as examples (Genest will also be performing on Saturday). “I felt embraced and welcomed to share the songs I knew and later, the songs I wrote.”
Another influence that came to be important was West Virginia bluegrass vocalist Hazel Dickens. “I have some of her music and have learned a couple of her tunes. I love her impact on the bluegrass world. She had to work very hard. But she was herself.” Also, she explains, “a friend of mine made me a tape of some amazing oldtime country blues artists like Mississippi John Hurt. I listened to it a lot. Their language is not complicated, and neither is mine. It all hits home.”
Beggs’ background includes producing her own Opry-styled concert series, the Grand Old Northern Opry in Whitehorse, for two years, in 2011 and 2012. “It was a major production that involved over fifty artists and many other personnel. It was about embracing all communities and all levels of artists. It was about collaboration and working outside the box. People loved it. It brought people together.”
While she’s done music in a band context herself - with her friend Natalie Edelson, in the Blue Warblers - Beggs sees herself as more of “an independent type,” and just hires musicians to back her on tour. She says she likes “to hear people’s voices that are not hurting themselves. If it sounds like it hurts them, then it hurts me too. I hurt my voice once you see. Also if I can’t hear the lyrics then the music has very little impact if any.”
Charmaine Slaven (Squirrel Butter)
Squirrel Butter—presumably named for what you get if you put the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a grinder—hails from Seattle, and make, according to their website, “traditional and original music influenced by Appalachian, early country, jug band, and blues artists from the late 1800’s through the 1950’s.”
Fiddler and square dance caller Charmaine Slaven thinks there is “quite a difference in the audience who attends roots music shows vs. punk shows, and this could account for the current surge in attendance in Vancouver and other West Coast cities. In Seattle, we find that while there are many young folks in their 20's at our shows, we tend to attract many 30-40 somethings. It could be that this audience has been seeking this type of music, or many of the events we offer are friendly to families, so these folks are willing to come and bring their kids. The music is accessible to a broader age range, so that helps our cause.”
Slaven’s own background includes punk rock and ska, but she says she “just sort of outgrew that music over time, and gradually became more attracted to a more acoustic sound. A lot of the old-time, bluegrass, and country music that I love still has the same sort of driving feel as some punk music. I discovered that many of the musicians that my father listened to are actually very appealing to me.” (I think fondly of my father’s own copy of Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs as she says this, but don’t know exactly who she’s thinking of). “I'm not sure how to explain this phenomenon, but for me, I think quite a lot has to do with the community around roots music, and that I really started to find ‘my people’ there, more so than the rougher crowd of punk rock lovers I knew when I was younger.”
I’ve asked every musician I interviewed for this article about (cartoonist) Robert Crumb and (filmmaker) Terry Zwigoff, bandmates in the Cheap Suit Serenaders. In films like Ghost World or the Crumb documentary, there’s no shortage of the two men opining that most contemporary forms of music—and especially rock—are sonic abominations and that old-timey is where it’s at. Steve Buscemi’s character in Ghost World even has a collection of 78s. But no one has claimed either Crumb or Zwigoff as an influence or a guidepost; while Crumb and Zwigoff would doubtlessly be tickled by the music bands like Squirrel Butter make, and would think the resurgence of roots music enheartening, they appear to have been no one’s gateway drug, or at least no one we interviewed.
That’s true of Slaven as well. “I discovered my love for roots music outside of them, though I believe they influenced other folks in the community that I know, so indirectly perhaps. Anyhow, I was pleased to discover that Crumb and others were also roots music fans.”
Her own formative influences include “attending live square dances with really great bands like the Foghorn Stringband pushing the beat. Doing something participatory to this great music really got my attention!”
She had grown up listening to golden-era country, and “did always enjoy Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash. But I got really turned off in my early teenage years by all the modern country. It had really taken on a pop-music sort of sound that wasn't appealing to me, so I started seeking out more underground music, which lead me to punk, ska, et cetera. I later found my way back to the early country music,” and got into Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, and the Carter Family, who, she says, she learned a lot of her early material from.
“I’m also a big fan of Hobart Smith, Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and many of the old-guard musicians who were the old-timers who influenced folkies of the '60s and '70s. There's also a great number of black musicians, such as the Mississippi Sheiks, Bo Carter, Blind Willie McTell, and Ruth Day who've greatly influenced and inspired me.”
You can hear Squirrel Butter’s album Chestnuts here.
Kathleen Nisbet, who curates the Opry, is “not sure why” people are looking to the past these days, but she agrees that it’s happening. “I do think there's a resurgence of old time and classic country. There's a lot of young people going to square dances, or listening to Hank Williams, and I've noticed that there is a lot of crossover with punk music, I think the genres relate in a way, there is rawness and simplicity, but they also come from the heart and can be comical too.”
Has punk proper finally played itself out? She wouldn’t say that, just that “people are finding different ways to express themselves.”
Nisbet’s own musical past wasn’t rooted in punk rock. She liked it, but adds that she “had a broad range of tastes, growing up: I listened to rap, musical theatre, gospel and pop music,” she says, but she “never enjoyed country until I found the old stuff. I've been a fiddle player all my life, though, and I had to find a place to use it.”
Her gateways to old-timey came from looking for places to play, starting with the PBHS [Pacific Bluegrass and Heritage Society) Bluegrass Jam. “Then I discovered some local gems, like Jimmy Roy and Steven Nikleva” (both former Ray Condo sidemen, now playing with Petunia and the Vipers). ”I realized that there was a long history of country and roots music in Vancouver, including Ray Condo, Lucille Starr and many others, so it's definitely not a new phenomenon.”
Nisbet started the Opry at the Rio because she was inspired by the space itself, she explains. “It was at the first anniversary party of the Rio Theatre when they had just received permission to put on live shows again, after they had applied for a liquor license and got shut down temporarily. It was the perfect venue for a showcase and it coincided with my discovery of many of these incredible local players. I was there with C.R. Avery [also playing this year] and Noah Walker [of Kitty and the Rooster, who played last year] and Corinne [Lea, the owner] said ‘Ok guys, I need you to put on some shows here now!’ And I said, ‘this would be a great place for a country music show like an East Van Opry.’ That was it, she said ‘you're on, let's do it!’ The Rio has been an incredible asset to the community and very supportive of the local scene.”
Nisbet and her fiddle will pop up onstage a few times at the Opry, she says—where her full band, Viper Central, played last year (they don’t play all that regularly around Vancouver, alas). But those wanting to hear more of her own music can catch Nisbet’s gigs at the Heatley “every other Sunday, for Bluegrass Sundays, and, she adds, “I will be playing Tuesdays with Big Top at the Libra Room. Sadly Jimmy Roy”—who shared the stage at the Rio with her last year—“will be away for Saturday’s show, but he’ll be back next year, and he still plays regularly at the Revel Room on Sundays and Wednesdays.” (Nisbet joins them from time to time, I’m told).
There’s more to the Opry than we’ve been able to fit into a feature, with artists from Dawn Pemberton to CR Avery, the Airstreams to the Alimony Brothers, plus a host between acts, comedian Kyle Bottom. The event does tend to sell out—so don’t delay; like Carolyn Mark says, the music will be good—and the house will be full.
The East Van Opry starts at 8 p.m. on Saturday (November 4). More information can be found on the Rio Theatre website.