Good Alt Boy
Country singer Dallas Wayne has logged a lot of miles in pursuit of that one big break. Raised in Branson, Missouri, before it became a country theme park, he moved to Nashville and then Chicago, where he spent three and a half years singing and playing bass for the Special Consensus, the world-class local bluegrass band that at the time also featured Robbie Fulks. And for most of the past four years, he's honed his take on red-blooded American country music from his home in Helsinki--as in Finland, where he's a bona fide star. "[I was] the number one selling country artist in Finland for about six or seven years," he says. "As my friend Jon Rice puts it, it's like being the smartest kid in the fifth grade."
This past spring Wayne moved to San Jose, California, with his wife, Jo Albers, who was transferred there by her employer, the Finnish conglomerate Nokia. Ironically, shortly after his arrival he scored a deal with the respected west-coast roots label Hightone--his first U.S. recording contract. He'd been in touch with the label regularly for nearly a decade, he says, but "the rap was always, 'Yeah, but he lives in Finland.'"
When Wayne came to Chicago, in 1983, it was to record for a fledgling label called Nashville North, run by the owner of a Bensenville country bar of the same name. But the imprint folded after a few singles, and Wayne spent the next five years leading the house band at the bar through sets dominated by other people's Nashville hits. In 1988, he heard that the Special Consensus was looking for a bassist, tried out, and made the cut. In 1991, while the group was on tour in Europe, he was approached by the Finnish label Texicali about making a solo album; he proceeded to make five--none of which is available in this country. By 1996, spending progressively more time on the road in Europe with his Finnish backing band, it occurred to Wayne that he might as well just move to Finland, and Albers agreed. "We had a two-year plan which stretched into a four-year plan," he says.
Wayne's Hightone debut, Big Thinkin', was actually in the works before he came back. He sketched it out in a collaboration with Fulks by phone. "Robbie and I had a bitchfest about our lives," he says. "I was tired of doing the same old schizophrenic albums--half singer-songwriter, half hard-core country--and I really needed to settle on a sound and a direction." The duo had written songs together off and on for 13 years, including "Rock Bottom, Pop. 1," which appeared on Fulks's debut, Country Love Songs, and gets a rousing revival on Big Thinkin'. They cowrote ten more tracks especially for the album, and in March they recorded it in Springfield, Missouri, with the Skeletons for a backing band. The collection frames Wayne's big, resonant baritone--his floor-rumbling low notes recall singers like Vern Gosdin and John Anderson--in timeless honky-tonk that ranges in mood from barn burning to tear-jerking.
Fans of Fulks's infamous anti-Nashville screed "Fuck This Town" will get instant gratification from "If That's Country," a rip on the tarted-up, countrified rock churned out by Music City these days: "There's a certain song that's got my local station stuck / It's got a steel guitar and I believe that it mentions a truck / But the singer don't sound like he ever worked a stick shift / It sounds more like bad Phil Collins with a hip face-lift." But tunes like "The Only Way to Die," the story of a heartbroken man drinking himself into oblivion, reveal Fulks's rare ability to succinctly capture the lowest moments of human existence, and Wayne uses his rich vibrato to draw out the pathos of lines like "Loneliness destroys your mind / So take it one night at a time / And let the bottle raise you high / It's the only way to die."
Not surprisingly, Fulks's sly, acerbic humor and the music's relative grit have quickly marked Wayne as an up-and-coming "alternative country" artist. "I have no idea why people are calling the stuff on the album alt-country," he says. "It's the same stuff I've been doing for 25 years; same songwriting style, same singing style, same instrumentation. It kind of freaked me out when I came back here because that's suddenly become alt-country." But although he earned a better living fronting the bar band in Bensenville, he says he's thrilled to be playing for audiences more receptive to hearing his originals than the Nashville hit parade.
Wayne opens for Commander Cody on Friday at FitzGerald's.
Keepin' it real is the catchphrase for the hip-hop underground, but a couple of acts on this Sunday's big underground hip-hop bill at Metro seem to be all about keepin' it unreal. On his recent album, Operation: Doomsday (Fondle 'Em), MF Doom--aka Zev Love X of the early-90s trio KMD--takes on a twisted persona inspired by Dr. Doom, the metal-faced villain from the Fantastic Four. And newcomer Aesop Rock's debut, Float (Mush), is crammed with syllable-crunching verbiage like "Though accused by robot news casters who capture and pollute / Spoon-fed hazardous fog to joy luck Catholic squad / Please take me, please calm me, please make me a zombie / Please, I want to donate my brain to the monstrous Panasonic profit." Also performing are the ferocious Chicago crew Rubberoom, the politically charged Atlanta duo Micranots, and Minneapolis DIY paragons Atmosphere.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Tadsen.