For as long as Nashville's had a stranglehold on the country music industry, there've been defiant outsiders who refuse to play by its rules--the Johnny Cashes, Waylon Jenningses, and Steve Earles who make names for themselves without heeding the conventional production values (or today, conservative family values) the industry so treasures. This weekend, two of the most promising new rebels, Chris Knight and Johnny Dowd, perform at different venues in town, and their stories say a lot about how little Nashville has budged despite the success of their forebears.
Knight, 37, is from Slaughters, Kentucky, population 200, but he takes his musical cues almost exclusively from Texas-bred bards like Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, and most of all Steve Earle. In fact, at the start of the 90s, when Knight decided he had a thing or two Nashville might want, the first man he called was Tony Brown, head of MCA's Nashville division and producer of Earle's first three albums (which are also his best). Brown, predictably, never called him back, so Knight reluctantly made the trek to Nashville and auditioned for A and R men at the legendary Bluebird Cafe. There he caught the attention of publishing executive Frank Liddell, who's taken up the causes of other great square pegs like Jim Lauderdale and Kim Richey; but it wasn't until Liddell took a job with Decca half a decade later that Knight got his deal.
Like Van Zandt, Keen, and Earle, Knight writes songs celebrating tragic cranks and loners, men whose implacable beliefs usually precipitate their undoing. The narrator in "Framed" is jailed for a murder he didn't commit, but upon his release he wastes no time settling the score; in "House and 90 Acres," a failed farmer steadfastly refuses to sell off his property. An even more direct link between Knight and Earle is guitarist Richard Bennett, who lends the same edgy country-rock flavor to Knight's debut that he did to Earle's Guitar Town and I Feel Alright. Knight's highs aren't as giddy as Earle's and his lows aren't as dark and brooding, yet still his lean, mean tunes haven't been able to muscle their way in among the fluff on country radio. The label has kept him on the road nonetheless, hoping for a crossover success--last month Knight opened a couple shows at the Vic for innocuous rockers the Freddy Jones Band. On Friday at House of Blues, though, he makes a much better match: he opens for Jerry Jeff Walker, one of the key figures of the 70s outlaw-country movement.
Johnny Dowd, who plays Saturday at Lounge Ax with Firewater, has even less chance of breaking down Nashville's doors than Knight did; if the 50-year-old had bothered to come knocking with the music on his debut album, Wrong Side of Memphis, he'd have been tossed out of Music City on his ass. Like Knight, Dowd loves a self-destructive loser, but whereas Knight lets one or two of his characters die, Dowd's songs feature casualties by the truckload, and it's his protagonists that are doing the killing. In the spirit of Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" Dowd turns his grating, tuneless croak on one unrepentant freak after another--imagine a Daniel Johnston fixated on serial killers instead of Casper the Friendly Ghost. In "One Way," a little ditty about predestiny, Dowd damns all his characters from the outset, moaning, "There are two roads, but there's only one real way."
Dowd was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up in Oklahoma and Tennessee, but for the last 25 years he's operated a one-truck moving company out of Ithaca, New York. He started dabbling in music about the time he moved there, but not until last fall did he record (and produce) his first LP, which he released in an edition of 500. One copy fell into the hands of Chicagoan Eric Babcock, formerly of Bloodshot Records and now the manager of the Checkered Past label, which reissued Wrong Side of Memphis earlier this year.
On the record Dowd frames his modern-day murder ballads with not only spare blues and old-time country but also alien synthesizer flourishes and eerie multitracked vocals; and a live tape I've heard is even weirder: supported by a drummer, a keyboardist, and a trumpeter, Dowd freely mixes rock, blues, country, and free jazz in such a way as to guarantee that he'll never be completely welcome in any one of those segments of the industry--and that this is a show I won't miss.
David, Goliath, and the Aftermath
Less than two years ago, local singer Kyriakos "Charlie" Tsiolis and guitarist Steve Sacco filed a lawsuit against rap producer Dr. Dre for copyright infringement. Dre was calling his new Interscope-distributed label Aftermath, which also happened to be the name of the underground metal band Tsiolis and Sacco played in. A New City cover story in December 1996 said that Interscope had offered the band a record deal in exchange for the use of the name, but that our heroes had righteously refused. Yet this spring the Los Angeles-based Interscope released the debut album by a Chicago band called Mother God Moviestar--a band featuring Tsiolis and Sacco that headlines Metro on Saturday.
How did this happen? After turning down the label's initial offers, Aftermath failed to get a preliminary injunction against Dre. Pete Tsiolis, Charlie's brother and the band's manager, says after that the band backed off because it looked like they would lose, and then broke up because they were afraid any further Aftermath records would be mistaken for releases on Dre's label--not because they were persuaded by a record deal. A recent story in the Illinois Entertainer, written by Murray M. Coffey, the same guy who wrote the New City piece, claims the Mother God Moviestar deal was a result of friendships Aftermath had struck up with Interscope executives--most improbably with head cheese Jimmy Iovine--during the legal battle, and that one thing just led to another. Now, my legal experience is pretty much limited to a few episodes of The People's Court, but how often do you see adversaries walking out of that courtroom arm in arm?
I never heard Aftermath, which sold a respectable 4,000 copies of its last self-released record, but Mother God Moviestar is a horrible, plodding piece of work and Tsiolis comes off like a robot whose battery needs charging. The Interscope publicity machine doesn't seem to be doing much to aid Iovine's new best pals--the Entertainer piece is the only feature the record has inspired anywhere in the country. Nor does MGM's upcoming tour with the Genitorturers look like the plum spot a favorite of Iovine's would be likely to get. Mother God Moviestar's deal talks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, and we all know what that means.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chris Knight photo by Mark Tucker; Johnny Dowd photo by Kat Dalton.