Rock music fused with a strong country music element is one of the fastest growing undergrounds in the US and now ALT COUNTRY is gaining international popularity. Peter Bate reports.

David Eugene Edwards
David Eugene Edwards

Stetsons, line dancing, cowboy boots and cheesy sentiment. For many buffs, country music simply doesn't seem cool. Yet as any pop historian will tell you, country, along with the blues, was the original American folk form on which much 20th century popular music has been built. Now, as we wander into the third Millennium, there's a new kind of musical hybrid, which brings rock and country into an invigorating, new roots genre. This hybrid is known, among other things, as alternative (alt for short) country. It's become a big scene in the USA, while in Britain up-and-coming bands are suddenly just as keen to reach for a pedal steel as a beat box, more likely to fingerpick an acoustic guitar than smash a Fender Strat. Alt country artists will rarely describe themselves as such -other tags include Americana, new country and roots rock. They look to the roots of country and western rather than the sanitised pop country of today's chart toppers, and more likely to cite Jimmie Rodgers or Minnie Pearl as influences than Garth Brooks or Shania Twain. In fact, some alt country music is a revival of dormant country styles, like Western swing and rockabilly, while the majority of today's American acts look to '60's and 70's giants Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Bob Dylan - writers who synthesised country, folk and rock to mould groundbreaking styles - for inspiration as they mix and match their sounds. Throughout this blossoming movement runs a strong spiritual undercurrent. The pre-war Carter Family song "No Depression In Heaven" was covered by early alt country prime movers Uncle Tupelo to spark the No Depression scene and the leading Americana journal of the same name. Meanwhile, the confessional nature of country writing has given scope for the exploration of biblical themes by the likes of the Jayhawks and reformed drug addict Steve Earle. Even the great Johnny Cash is enjoying a career renaissance as his spiritual foundations hold stronger than ever. Christians like Victoria Williams and Buddy and Julie Miller have become influential figures while, in recent years, the likes of Vigilantes Of Love and 16 Horsepower have won critical acclaim. Both bands have featured in cover-mounted CDs on Uncut magazine, which has given alt country many column inches, and "who's who" lists of Americana.

Yet, while Nashville doubles as the US country capital and the centre of the CCM industry, Christian labels have been tortoise-like in picking up alt country acts. So believers working in the genre tend to forge ahead in the mainstream shining the light of faith into the dingiest corners of personal and corporate despair. These are groups who are more likely to speak in poetic metaphor than ring-up religious buzz words. By their own admittance they often struggle, but then the Bible never promised an easy life. I spoke to four bands who are seeking to be salt as they help shape a culture from the inside out.

16 Horsepower
At first glance David Eugene Edwards is a man of contradictions. A heavy smoking preacher's grandson, neurotic and wild on stage but gentle and humorous in conversation, loved by the NME and other mainstream mags but more willing to discuss theology than many CCM stars, and, maybe most bizarrely, an ardent fan of Andrae Crouch and Motorhead. But one thing's for sure, as leader of Denver's 16 Horsepower, Edwards has forged one of the most distinctive sounds to bolt from the country roots stable. Over the course of three studio albums, the American-French outfit have provided an intersection for followers of Nick Cave, Joy Division, Hank Williams and European folk. Edwards spent his early childhood under the watchful eye of his grandfather, a minister in a strict Nazarene church. "I kinda grew up in a fearful place and my mom was always fearful of different things and the way the Nazarene church viewed everything - women couldn't wear pants or make-up, you couldn't play cards, go to the movies, do anything," he remembers. "I'd see it around but it was always just a joy for me to be at church, I just loved it right from the start. I wasn't a kid who said 'I don't wanna go to church today.' I loved it. I still love it."

Edwards' father was less comfortable with fundamentalism. "He was supposed to be a preacher but he rebelled and became a biker in Colorado. I think he was a nice guy but he was an alcoholic. He died young 'cos he had leukaemia. My stepfather went to school to be a Nazarene preacher but we moved away from that. We got into a Baptist church where I grew up and that was much less fearful." The singer's Bible-thumping roots didn't steer him into the pulpit, but his captivating presence on stage at London's Dingwalls tonight suggests they haven't left his blood. Perched on a wooden stool, guitar, banjo or bandoneon in hand, Edwards delivers four-minute tracks brimful of biblical references - whether it's urging "taste and see that the Lord is good" ("For Heaven's Sake") or warning "You ain't got away with nothin' boy/See his hand and feel his staff" ("Clogger"). His twitching, praising and muttering (speaking in tongues?) between verses is unnerving to some, inspiring to others. Vigilantes Of Love leader Bill Mallonee tells me he can't work out if Edwards is a "genius" or a "clown" when he sees him live. Edwards laughs. "I'm probably a clown. I have a tendency to be a little neurotic."

"When I get up there I don't feel comfortable, I don't feel confident and I don't know how to act. I feel like, 'Why have you people paid money to come see me? And what am I going to do? I can't even play!' So it causes in me a kinda nervous manner. Sometimes I work with this and use it to my advantage. I make that my performance but in a way it is a bit contrived. I kinda have to 'cos I don't know what else to do." His amenable manner off stage suggests the singer's bark is worse than his bite. "I'm giving myself a talking to in the songs and trying to come to grips with myself. My hope is that people relate. I'm not pointing the finger at anybody other than me because I know I have the same problem as everybody else - maybe even more so. It's important for me to let people know that I'm not barking at them, I'm barking at myself."

Edwards formed 16 Horsepower in 1992. A&M snapped them up, resulting in the albums 'Sackcloth 'n' Ashes' and low Estate', before last year's stunning 'Secret South' was released by German label Glitterhouse, followed by recent live LP 'Hoarse'. The quartet's current lineup includes founder members Pascal Humbert (bass) and Jean-Yves Tola (drums) plus guitarist Steve Taylor. "We don't present ourselves as a Christian band," Edward explains. "Steve and I are the only believers in Christ and the Bible." Doesn't this cause tension? "It doesn't surface really but I know it does. How can it not? Light and dark don't mix. But at the same time they love me and I love them and we respect each other. I'm the singer, what are they gonna do?" he laughs. "They don't have to play with me but they do." It's not easy to make a career from God-focused lyrics without sinking into banality. And maybe the respect Edwards has earned is down to his lack of a hidden agenda and one-track passion and originality. Which is why his love of Bob Dylan, who 16 HP have supported, Larry Norman and even 70s-era Andrae Crouch is understandable - along with his fondness for Black Flag, AC/DC and Motorhead.

Edwards refused Christian bookshop distribution for his A&M discs due to stipulations that he delete the "cuss" words from certain tracks. But the father-of-two remains gracious towards the CCM industry, is working on a side project with Daniel Smith from the Danielson Famile, and has even turned his hand to hymn writing. "I've written two or three together with a friend of mine called Bobby Winter who was one of the greatest Christians I've ever known. His kidneys were completely shot, his body was completely wrecked and he could barely walk. All he cared about was telling people about the Lord. We wrote together because we went to the same church. It was just taking different Scriptures that meant something to us and putting them to music - just acoustic guitar, just simple kind of Hebrew-ish rhythms." Which takes us full circle to Edwards' religious roots and his refusal to blur the boundaries for the sake of acclaim. "The Word is the Word and if the Word convicts you it convicts you. You can say whatever you want about it - that it's being judgmental, that it's this or that and you can write it off in whatever direction you want. But the truth is the truth and if it affects you and causes you to feel guilt or shame, good for it. That's what it should do."

Vigilantes Of Love
If there's one Christian who has done his bit to pioneer the roots rock racket in recent years it's Vigilantes Of Love leader Bill Mallonee. The band's ever-changing line-up has been satisfying perspiring punters at pubs, clubs and festivals in their native America, and more recently Europe, for a decade. In the past 12 months VOL have begun to prick up the ears of Americana critics in Britain - most noticeably Radio 2's "Whispering" Bob Harris who has patronised the group on his late night show. When Cross Rhythms last spoke to Mallonee in February 2000, he was in the frustrating position of finishing VOL's most realised album to date, 'Audible Sigh', and having no label to give it the push it deserved. The singer/guitarist and his wife Brenda distributed the band's previous three LPs from their basement following the band's acrimonious split with Capricorn. Then, last summer, Nashville label Compass stepped in. "We thought 'Audible Sigh' was a good enough record not to consign it to thelO or 15,000 college indie rock records it would sell. We felt it needed a bigger hearing," Mallonee says. 'The new label is great. We're actually now on the radar musically. We're in stores that we weren't in before and we're on radio that we didn't have a shot at in the mid-'90s. A lot of people are picking the record up who didn't know about the last four records and saying, 'Yeah, I remember these guys. I thought they dropped off the map."' 'Audible Sigh' earned kind reviews in the major music glossies and last autumn's extensive UK tour reaped several sold out shows. "It's a really good feeling for us because we've worked on this for three years and seen it growing by degrees. Clearly Bob Harris has been a major component in that. He's a great fella."

The album and its studio predecessor To The Roof Of The Sky' are more country-flavoured than 1997s dark rock recording 'Slow Dark Train', thanks partly to Kenny Hutson's pedal steel guitars and, on 'Audible Sigh', producer Buddy Miller's Nashville sheen. But Mallonee isn't entirely relaxed with the alt country tag. "We have always been more of an Athens, Georgia garage band and we play as such. I used to tell people we're thinking person's roots rock. I got into the whole country thing through the back door. We got into it through people like Dylan and Neil Young - Dylan's 'Nashville Skyline' and Neil Young's 'Harvest' - and Robbie Robertson and The Band. None of those guys plays pure country, they just use it to their own ends." The ex-schoolteacher's literate lyrics hold the murky picture of human brokenness up to the Light, resulting in disarming grace. "You have to hear the bad news before the good news makes sense," he reasons. "The bad news is that it's not just an evolutionary kink or a few little bumps and scrapes that need bandaids. We're really, really sick and Scripture calls that sin. I can vouch first hand at just how deep and dark that stuff gets. But that's precisely why the good news makes sense." His group flirted with CCM in the mid-'90s when the compilation 'VOL' was distributed into Christian bookshops by Warner Resound. But Capricorn's insistence, against Mallonee's advice, on releasing the sex-themed single "Love Cocoon" for the religious market ended all that. And Mai, who stands behind the song ("It's a little bid bawdy but it's about conjugal bliss"), isn't too bothered about the exile that's followed. "I don't like the way CCM is set up in the States. I think it's completely bogus. Pop culture, religion and commerce are all stuck into the same mould so it's not really the music at all - it's the commodity that's created by these idiots in Nashville that are trying to sell Jesus to teenagers in the most trivialised and simplistic way sometimes.

"Matt Slocum's become a fine writer but Sixpence didn't start off that way. They were a cushy little youth group who played right down the line. A lot of those bands couldn't buy a gig at a regular rock club but they could fill a church with 1,000 people. Are they making music for Christians or are they making music for a lost culture out there that's forgotten? Stand up and say something of substance or don't say anything at all. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think there were 50 to 100,000 knowledgeable, intelligent, compassionate Christians who get what it is we do." Ironically, as VOL make headway in the mainstream, their four-year-old lineup (Mallonee plus bassist Jacob Bradley and drummer Kevin Heuer) consists solely of believers, unlike earlier incarnations of the outfit. "The funny thing is that none of us are worldly people. As individuals we're so boring. Jacob and Kevin have been believers for a long time. Kevin worships in an Evangelical Episcopal church and Jake and I go to the same church in Athens - officially Presbyterian but basically a small house church."

Mallonee is a compulsive songwriter who pens up to 60 tunes a year, some, quite literally, in his sleep. To keep fans up to speed, the band recently released the 'Electromeo' EP through their website and Compass have them signed for three more albums - one of which could be the frontman's first solo effort. "I would like to work more on songs similar to the quieter tunes on Roof Of The Sky' that were very stripped down -just acoustic guitar, maybe cello, piano, some mandolin. They tend to be a little more morose so it might be a very short record because it might be the eternal downer! I'm also tending to write more pop stuff now and being over here (in Britain) has helped us a lot." Whatever follows, you can be sure Mallonee won't be losing much sleep over units shifted or business lunches. "I don't want to leave people with the impression we've got an axe to grind with CCM because, to be honest, I don't think about it that much any more. I'm a believer and I think God gives you a 24-hour day to glorify him and do the best you can. Sometimes you get to stand on a big soapbox and sometimes a small one. It just doesn't matter."

The Amazing Pilots
Youthful Northern Irish outfit The Amazing Pilots are charting a quiet but steady course towards success. The level headed quartet have taken less than 18 months to re-locate to southern England, release an impressive mini album, help score a short film and land tour support slots with lain Archer and Vigilantes Of Love as well as a Greenbelt mainstage spot. Singer/guitarist Paul Wilkinson has tweaked many a worship album as a sound engineer at ICC studios in Eastbourne. But his group are flint-faced in their determination to rock the boat on the pub and club circuit rather than serve a purely Christian audience.

In true Monkees style, the Pilots share a house in Eastbourne. "We agreed to properly make a go of it in October '99," Paul says. "Jono (Johnston - bass) was living in Belfast, Tim (Millen - keys) was in Dublin, Phil (Wilkinson - drums) was in Glasgow and I had come down to Eastbourne a year before. It's good because our weird style doesn't adversely affect anybody else in the house. I'm a sound engineer and the others have a variety of weird jobs - Phil sells electricity, Jono's an interior designer and Tim hasn't got a job at the moment." The band's "weird" style is an intriguing mix of Flying Burrito Brothers-brushed country and lo-fi rock. When on stage, jangling guitars bustle to the fore while on their EP, 'Graduate Blood', the Pilots resemble a slowed-down Teenage Fanclub. "'Graduate Blood' was released for our Irish tour in June of 2000," explains Paul. "We decided to try and make a record that would sum up the first stage of the band. It's all quite downbeat and acoustic. Quite dark and gothic or evil. It felt like a late night record. It's personal and very fragile material. We have ended up not playing a lot of it live which doesn't worry me." The title track is a reference to the sad transformation of idealistic youngsters into career-chasing moneymakers. "A big thing that Christianity teaches is accountability and honesty and that's quite a challenge in songwriting. A lot of 'Graduate Blood' and stuff we're playing live is quite confessional. The title track is about looking at life from the starting point and being disillusioned with the amount of people selling out. To me that's graduate blood.

"I found myself doing it. If I wasn't so thick I might have sold out! 'Is the world any better off for me being here or am I just wasting air?' The Pilots contributed to the soundtrack for Life After God, a film based on the Douglas Copeland novel, which premiered in London last autumn. They have also recorded a number of tracks with Irish songwriter lain Archer (who they've backed to great effect on stage) and are now lining up their debut full album.

It's clear that the group still have a healthy dose of the idealism they lament the death of on 'Graduate Blood'. Several gigs in near-empty venues and bouts of heckling from drunken audiences have not quashed their spirit or sense of humour. "We did one gig in the middle of the Irish countryside," Paul smiles. "This guy who wasn't in control of himself was shouting 'Roger Waters' at us and asking for Pink Floyd covers. We struggled to find something in our repertoire that came into the genre." He goes on, "I hope our faith gives us confidence to do braver things. I would like to think that the industry and the structure of music would be scared of Christian artists before Christian artists are scared of them. A lot of the time it seems the other way round." It's more likely to be the Pilots' attitude and God-given talent that wins over audiences and promoters rather than John 3:16 sermons from the stage. "I think Christian people who are in bands whose personal gifting is evangelism do have a responsibility to do that. Those who are in bands whose personal gift is something else don't," Paul says. "If I felt that was what I had to do I would do it. I would feel very desperate if I had no hope in my life beyond my earthly existence. So I do have a longing to talk to other people about how they feel about that. But I also find it hard to put it into a song because its so complex and intensely personal. I just hope I have the guts to do exactly what I'm called to do which, up to this point, is just write honest tunes."

The Urban Hillbilly Quartet
We try to make music that doesn't suck." It may be a simple mission statement but it's one that Minnesota ensemble the Urban Hillbilly Quartet have stuck to since they first jammed in 1995. Led by multi-instrumentalist (14 at the last count) Erik Linus Brandt, the Urban Hillbillies cook up a thick gumbo of rock, country and folk that can veer from REM-pop to calypso hoe down in the space of two songs. Brandt formed the "group"out of those early jam sessions in his St Paul hometown. Four albums later, the outfit are on the verge of something big, having recently put their careers on hold to tour America. Mainstays include Sena Thompson (fiddle), Jeremy Szopinski (electric guitar) and Greg Tippett (bass) but extra Hillbillies usually cram the stage at gigs. "In October we did our first national tour and went out to New York City and back. This is one big country. Bands in England have nothing!" exclaims Brandt.

"Were making an immense sacrifice. We have all switched our jobs to temporary ones. I was a high school teacher and now I'm a substitute. We want to be able to look back later in life and say we tried. Making it is lalmost irrelevant." The singer even turned down a recent invitation from Bill Mallonee to become Vigilantes Of Love's accordion/ mandolin player. A self-proclaimed musical visionary, Brandt's exploration of different stylistic avenues has grown more adventurous with each album. Debut LP living In The City' was released by the relaunched Fundamental label (once home to the Butthole Surfers) in 1997. By the time of 1998s 'St Paul Town'the band had pinned down an alt country sound strongly influenced by Uncle Tupelo. 'Beautiful Lazy', out the following year, represented a giant leap forward, stretching from the lolloping funk of "Blood On The Door" to the homespun folk of "Amy's Ring Waltz". A collection of live and unreleased tracks, lanky But Macho', followed hot on its heels.

"We started off very folky, wanting to be like Uncle Tupelo," Brandt says. "But I've always had an interest in Middle Eastern music and jazz. If I feel like putting calypso in a song it goes in there. We're just trying to follow the muse. People come up to us after shows and say they love it because they never know what's going to happen next. That hits us hard in record stores because they don't know where to put us. We belong between the cracks." Brandt's lucid lyrics mix humour and hope and also reveal the singer's deep reliance on God. In 1994, shortly after he became a Christian, Brandt moved to St Andrews University in Scotland to study. The period proved key to his faith and musical development. "One of the most intense spiritual times of my life was living in Scotland. I felt the Christians I ran into were very real. Christians in Britain face persecution in some way or another that you never see in America. I could connect with people who felt shy and reflective but once they opened up it was amazing - they were making sacrifices. I had lots of talks with people starting at 8pm and finishing at 4am. That just wouldn't happen in America where there's a high degree of superficiality." While in Scotland, Brandt hooked up with influential Christian roots band Eden Burning who proved an inspiration. "A friend of mine put me in touch with them and I still exchange emails with Paul (Northup). I was really sad that Eden Burning broke up. They pushed things to the limit," he reflects. "We are similar to them in the way we evade a lot of categories and we're not trying to play churches all the time. We're supposed to go out into the world."

Although you're more likely to find his group performing in a club than a chapel, Brandt does share his talents on Sundays. "I play the piano behind the worship band. We go to the House Of Mercy which is a traditional church for people in contemporary Christian society that cares for arts community people. The Willowcreek model and mega-church can be valid and great for people but not for this guy. A lot of worship music in these big churches turns me off. We do a lot of country gospel tunes, even some Hank Williams and old hymns. We have a bluegrass band but they would never call themselves a worship band."

Artistic integrity is key for Brandt. "I prefer the Bill Mallonee and Bruce Cockburn approach. They're doing their thing not necessarily to crave hits or operate in the CCM world in Nashville where they put Jesus in every other line. I'm repelled by superficiality."

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.