Poor Little Knitter on the Road
By Anders Smith-Lindall
Here's a concept: a tribute record to a tribute record.
In 1985, LA punks John Doe, Exene Cervenka, and D.J. Bonebrake from X, Dave Alvin from the Blasters, and stand-up bassist Johnny Ray Bartel--all of whom had what in those days and in that scene was considered a literal weakness for country music--formed the Knitters, a band that paid homage to Merle Haggard, the Carter Family, and other country icons for the sheer fun of it, a la the Waco Brothers. Unlike the Wacos the Knitters recorded just one album, Poor Little Critter on the Road, mixing a handful of twangy originals with the covers, then faded back into X, with Alvin replacing guitarist Billy Zoom.
They weren't the only punks to tip the ten-gallon hat to country greats--a hemisphere away that same year, the Mekons unveiled a penchant for Hank Williams on Fear and Whiskey that they'd never quite put away. And where the Mekons would return to that influence to stoke their creative fires for the next decade and a half, X's best years were behind them. They'd release only one more album that really mattered, 1987's See How We Are. But Poor Little Critter endured, becoming as much a foundational text of the alt-country phenomenon as Gram Parsons's Grievous Angel.
More specifically, it presaged the subsector of alt-country known as "insurgent country"--a term embraced by the Chicagoans who founded Bloodshot Records five years ago with the various-artists compilation For a Life of Sin, whose cover featured a painting of Hank Williams by Mekon and Waco Brother Jon Langford. The label went on to release about 40 full-length albums and has a roster of a dozen or so active artists, but owners Rob Miller and Nan Warshaw are still paying off debts to the people they credit with opening their eyes to the pleasures of twang.
Last month Bloodshot issued Poor Little Knitter on the Road, a song-by-song revisitation of Poor Little Critter (plus one previously unreleased original Knitters recording). And this Thursday at Lounge Ax the label will host a release party featuring at least half the acts on the record (see Section Three listings for details). The Knitters "threw quite a wrench into my loudfastrules, all-history-is-bunk notions of music," Miller writes in the liner notes to Poor Little Knitter. Once convinced that "country music [didn't] have to suck," he "started seeking out the names on the songwriter credits--the Haggards, the Carters, the Ledbetters."
Poor Little Knitter is a solid collection of strong songs and distinctive sounds, and as such it's better than the other big alt-country tribute album of the year, Return of the Grievous Angel, which had more than its share of slow spots. But perhaps because the Knitters' output was so small and focused to begin with, the new disc is more interesting as a Chicago scene survey--all but four of the covers are by local artists--than as a Knitters paean. The local alt-country scene is arguably the nation's best, and if you don't have the time or inclination to skulk around Schubas and the Hideout three nights a week, Poor Little Knitter can double as a crib sheet.
But if you're a seasoned scene watcher, you may be disappointed with these bands' failure to challenge expectations. What better opportunity than a one-off cover to test a new direction or tweak an old sound? The majority of the local contributions sound great but lack ambition. Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line"--as done by Devil in a Woodpile and the Texas Rubies' Jane Baxter Miller, with all the good humor of the band's debut album--is the least nettlesome; Devil in a Woodpile is more or less a cover band anyway. The Handsome Family's mournful take on the Delmore Brothers classic "Trail of Time," on the other hand, is a bit of a letdown. Brett and Rennie Sparks single-handedly established a weird, wonderful niche that might be called goth country, but they now seem content to merely continue occupying it.
Robbie Fulks tears through the Knitters' "The Call of the Wreckin' Ball" with what might feel more like abandon if the song didn't sound just like five or six others he's recorded. Fulks is on the rebound from a major-label fling that couldn't have gone much worse--Geffen released the genre-busting Let's Kill Saturday Night last fall, then watched it drown in the Universal-Polygram merger. Now that he's back in the alt-country fold, hopefully Fulks won't revert to the approach of his first two albums. Both on Bloodshot, they're as smart, funny, and feeling as hard country comes, but limited nonetheless.
Two tracks on Poor Little Knitter--Anna Fermin's version of "Love Shack" and Kelly Hogan's take on "Someone Like You," two more Knitters originals--emphasize that in some respects, alt-country ain't so "alt" after all: just like in the Nashville of yore, the Chicago scene's leading ladies--Hogan, Fermin, and Sally Timms, who's not on the tribute--are best known for their golden throats, and of the three, only Fermin writes most of her own material. Sure, great voices are exactly that, and interpretation is its own art, but it would be encouraging to see risk-taking singer-songwriters like Nora O'Connor (who appears on two cuts) and Deanna Varagona (who's not here at all) garner more attention.
Of course, when it comes to covers, interpretation's the thing, and the inconsistency of O'Connor's contributions is startling. On the Carter Family's "Poor Old Heartsick Me," she and Ground Speed, a spare trio featuring former Moonshine Willy banjoist George Goehl, spur one another into a satisfying frenzy. But when she lays back behind her cohorts in the Blacks on the very next track, the results are unbelievably bland. It's quite a feat to render a tense, vital tune like Doe and Cervenka's "The New World" this stiff.
Honorary Chicagoan Catherine Irwin (she's lived here in spurts but always retreats to her native Louisville) is perhaps the sharpest lyricist in all of alt-country as well as a sly interpreter--see her gender-bending cover of the Conway Twitty hit "You've Never Been This Far Before" on Freakwater's third album. But though neither of those skills is in particularly high relief here, her pairing with Toronto's adventurous Sadies makes for the disc's finest track, a raucous and supremely confident attack on the traditional "Walkin' Cane."
The average tribute album pays simple homage to a collective influence; successful tribute albums reveal something about both the subject and those paying homage. By these standards Poor Little Knitter on the Road is successful, but not the way you'd think--it reminds us that change is as essential to alt-country as it was to punk, that music that stops moving is in danger of sinking under its own weight.