But in the backwaters of the nation's rural-aspiring young, the plague that grunge unleashed runs rampant. They wield electric guitars and edgier tempos than traditional country musicians. They espouse a kinship with Patsy Cline and Hank Sr. that the Nashville establishment has supposedly abandoned. And almost all of them suffer from a crippling self-awareness that strangles much of the music before it takes its first breath.
Not until I heard Smelling Salts, the second CD from North Carolina's Trailer Bride, though, did I understand what I'd been missing all this time: The problem with Todd Snider, Whiskeytown, Wayne "The Train" Hancock, almost every insurgent country artist, is that they're not scared enough.
I heard a bootleg, not long ago, of the 1997 What the Folk Festival, a benefit for the Memphis Food Banks hosted and partially organized by Snider, one of the leading lights of the No Depression movement (named for the magazine devoted to the alt-country explosion). A blistering performer and facile lyricist with an ear for the sticking phrase, Snider took the stage to howls of enthusiasm. Backed by his crack band, the Nervous Wrecks, he tore into one of his signature tunes, "My Generation (Part 2)." That track, perhaps even more than Snider intended, sums up the state of contemporary American pop.
Snider's "Generation" begins with an admonition from a father about how the Woodstock generation changed the world. Then Snider kicks into a fast, furious and quite funny tribute to his own peers' attitudes and accomplishments: "We were raised up in the hallowed halls/half a million shopping malls/and there ain't any price we're too proud to let our parents pay." String the lyrics together on paper ("We'll buy anything from Diet Sprite/to one thousand points of light") and they look like a scathing indictment, even a call to action.
The devil, though, is in the tone. That 1997 performance comes complete with sing-along sections, dramatic buildups, pregnant pauses, an audience roaring approval as Snider chants, "My generation should be proud." So is Snider castigating his contemporaries for their nihilistic materialism, or celebrating them? Is the audience castigating or celebrating itself? The music itself is treated almost as a joke: Who can take the grand stage gesture or the heartfelt vocal or the impassioned lyric seriously now that the Masked Magician has revealed the secrets of the trick?
I was in Seattle in the early '90s, when grunge broke nationally. And I remember seeing Soundgarden perform before an adoring, flannel-waving crowd. Late in the show, Chris Cornell whipped his shirt off, stared into the audience and yelled, "I love playing in Seattle, because you guys get the joke!" Then the band blasted through "Big Dumb Sex," with its chorus of "I'm gonna fuck fuck fuck fuck you fuck fuck fuck FUCK you FUCK you." For the first time in my life, I felt a flickering nostalgia for big, dumb, early-'80s metal, complete with big hair and dry ice and exploited women. By declaring himself and his audience too smart for the music he was playing, and announcing that any expression of passion was at least in part self-mockery, Cornell drained the music of its mulish misogyny, its rigidly adolescent perspective and its reason for being.
MOST NO DEPRESSION ARTISTS SNARE THEMSELVES in the traps grunge laid. They either fail to abandon themselves to the music, like Snider, or they go for to-the-letter impersonation, like Wayne Hancock, who arranges his songs to sound just like Hank and stays neoold-time right down to his nickname. Over the past few years, there have been excellent albums that fall under the alt-country banner. Memphis' Pawtuckets and Detroit's Volebeats have both produced several discs' worth of gently hurtful country-rock reminiscent of Gram Parsons or the early Jayhawks. Cheri Knight, the former Blood Oranges vocalist, has become an increasingly restless and creative writer and arranger, draping her thoughtful tunes in Celtic and Middle Eastern trappings. Whiskeytown has delivered a pickup-truckload of workmanlike, occasionally stirring pop-country.
But what makes Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight" so haunting, even now, is the sense that the singer believes she may not get back. Something about the way words like "moonlight" linger on Cline's lips suggests a creeping ethereality, a feel of the world winking out. Hank Williams' drawling declaration that "There'll be no teardrops tonight" holds no promises about tomorrow night. In country music, even more than in most pop forms, the loss of the lover (or drinking habit, or car, or faith, or homegrown tomatoes) has to hurt. Otherwise, what possible excuse is there for all that whimpering?
Even before singer Melissa Swingle opens her mouth, Trailer Bride sounds fresher, stranger, more contemporary than virtually all its contemporaries. "Wildness" bucks and kicks on a barely controlled slide-guitar line and upbeat-driven rhythm, while "Graveyard," which is about walking in one, glides on a bluesy whisper of a riff, mustering so much quiet menace that it could almost pass for goth, except for its guilelessness.
But Swingle is the key. Her lyrics involve moonlight, beatings and buzzards, as well as the de rigueur jealous lovers and lost souls. Her voice is throaty like Patsy's, but her delivery is closer to Hank's, all flat expressionlessness that doesn't mask the yearning -- for love, self, peace, God. She can sing about abusive relationships and sound like a survivor, and she can sing about wanting to save her songs for the front porch and sound scared to death. In "Porch Song," the narrator's mother admonishes, "That's a pretty good song, but you ought to be singing for Jesus." The singer responds, "I know I should, someday I just might/hope Jesus will forgive me tonight," and in that moment, mischievous playfulness, fear of death, hunger for sex and love of music tangle together into the sort of gloriously complicated epiphany I'd forgotten country music could manage.
Whether the emergence of Trailer Bride signals a way out for No Depressionstyle music or simply the arrival of a blazing and singular talent remains to be seen. Regardless, Smelling Salts serves as a startling reminder that archness is not necessarily a sign of intelligence, that getting the joke can deny you wonder, that getting found might get you saved, but getting scared can get you art.