Sunday, March 14, 2010

Suburban Home Records

Growing up as I did in the East End of Henrico County, Virginia I have had a complex relationship with country music. For most of my life it represented everything I stood against. Racism, ignorance and the leering macho horseshit of my fellow residents. The twang of the slide guitar was a surefire sign that I was about to be fucked with by a bunch of hormone addled teenagers in a pickup truck that were drunk on Budweiser and vicious pack mentality. There was copper in my mouth every time I heard a Southern accent in a song.

    You see, my parents are The Gay. I don't know if you're familiar with America or not but there's a large chunk of our population that has a problem dealing with the fact that gay people exist. It's one of those things I've just never been able to understand. Something about some old book or something. More than that, I was kind of a weird kid with too much book smarts and no sense of how to blend in or when to shut my trap. I was a teenage gladiator stuck in a suburban arena with country music as the backdrop to my own grapple with puberty. So I was left with this association of country music as being a harbinger of terrible things to come. Mind you, what I considered country at the time was just Pop With A Twang and the same mindless drivel that vapid morons use to fill in the spaces between mouth breathing and pummeling anything different than them. Alright, I can admit to some remaining prejudices. The illusions of memory and the bitterness of adolescence take a very long time to work past. It helps to have some contrast.

    Flash forward 5 years to the Tower Records at Willow Lawn. Here now is a young clerk stocking Jazz CDs late at night, all alone in the room. The shuffling playlist has been going on for about an hour, he hardly notices the time or the music as it floats around him. His hands reach into the understock and it happens. The rolling waves of spectral, haunting, tear inducing beauty roll over him. It's powerful enough to knock over a few CDs and he leans on the bin to steady himself. He looks around, wondering where this sound has come from, what confluence of powers led to something so gorgeous? Staggering under the weight of a thousand emotions he makes his way to the CD player and reads the name; Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball.

    I had my contrast.

    I had never heard anything remotely like Emmylou. No one ever spoke of her to me, no mention whatsoever from fans of country music. Nothing. Was it some deep mystery, reserved for this moment of transcendent beauty? I still don't know how I managed to avoid her works for so long. It was the beginning of a new perspective on country music. From that album I came to know what I had been missing. The giants like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn all the way to newer artists like Sleepercar, Mary Gauthier, Jim White and Tift Merrit. It was nothing less than a revolution in tastes. I felt like an ass for missing out on so much incredible music. But hey, you can't grow if there's nothing left to learn.

    So we've grown closer now, country music and I (I've had some damn good nights with Johnny Walker and Johnny Cash ya'll). Recently though, things had been a bit stale. I'd gone through the 30's forward, gotten familiar with Lost Highway, fell in love with Calexico and worn through my Neko Case records. It was almost time to move on, not forever but I could tell things were getting a little stale. Then the indomitable Ian Graham dropped Suburban Home Records in my lap. I discovered the G-Spot of country music. Suddenly things were hot again. I was excited every time she got near my ears. Thoughts of moving on vanished.

    The name Tim Barry rings clearly in every ear in Richmond. Avail was a big part of putting RVA on a map that didn't just say: Civil War Battlegrounds Hereabouts. "Dixie", shitty weed and PBR tallboys at the river made up a good chunk of high school for a lot of RVA kids my age. This isn't about Avail though. This is about Tim. He writes in a way that is so raw and personal that it's sometimes uncomfortable to hear. "Church Of Level Track" will drop you to the floor, pick you back up, slap a beer in your hand and send you home. The first time I heard him play it live I welled up with tears. It's serious shit and it has a physical impact on the listener. Is it country? Does that even matter? There's some recursive post-post-hardcore-post-folk-post-punk-retro-blah blah tag out there for what he's up to but it really doesn't matter. I call it country. He pours his blood into his songs, doesn't worry about complex arrangements and uses fiddles, dobros and slide guitars so I call it country. Tim isn't trying to impress you and I find that leaves a very large impression.

    If this wasn't enough then Suburban Home has another massive dose of reality for you; Austin Lucas. Austin pulls his entire life out of the murky depths of memory and filters it through a poetic asceticism that leaves nothing superfluous at the edges. "Go West" is an amazing song and is a good example of this ability. He reminds me that well written music can be intelligent without succumbing to the dangers of needless verbosity and overly complex schemes. Look at the arrangements and later work of Leonard Cohen. There is nothing inaccessible about his poetry; it's not glossed over with too many classical references, not so tied into his inner mythology that it's not available to the reader. This is the same way I see Austin Lucas. I'm interested to see how he evolves as a songwriter. If my instincts are correct then this man has a long and extremely influential future ahead of him.

    There's this perpetual struggle between artifice and authenticity in culture. I invariably find myself on the side of authenticity. How the hell do you know if something is authentic? Well, does it seem right? Do you look at the guy and say, "Yeah, I think he's being honest."? That's the best criteria there is. Why choose authenticity? Because it is the harder path, but much more rewarding. I see these guys, I listen to their music and I can feel their soul coming through the speakers. That's the personal connection I love about music like this. It's not relegated to one form, to one person, to one style or era. It's out there in every kind of music and it brings me no end of joy to find it in a style I have so frequently maligned and misinterpreted throughout my years. I love to be proven wrong.

    If country music is going to survive the endless barrage of clone stamped Nashville pop stars, orchestrated over produced $10,000 boot wearing assholes, fucking retarded music and every other plight that can befall a genre; it is going to need more people like Austin, Tim and the folks at Suburban Home. The best part about it is that they don't have to do anything out of the ordinary. As long as they continue to write, record and play their music they help us all fight the endless tide of committee approved culture. This is the true strength of indie music; it isn't here to change the world, but it does anyway.


pooplips said...

i really enjoyed your story.

Amber Dawn said...

I like this a lot. I'm not familiar with Suburban Home (though perhaps I should become so) but I had a similar, though less extreme, experience of growing up around twanged-pop "country" music and the charming folks who listen to it and then eventually discovering some of the greats. Thanks for sharing!

Jess Gulbranson said...

Once again, I am reminded of how wonderful a writer you are.

Just as a strange parallel, my experience growing up in Lancaster County, VA, at right around the same time. Nobody listened to country. Even the shitty pop country. That was your parents' music. If you lived just outside of Kilmarnock, or deep in Lively, you listened to rap. If you were the more stereotypical redneck kid, you listened to some spectrum of rock, starting at around Ted Nugent and ending in Slayer. I ended up occupying most of that spectrum, leaning towards the heavier, even though a lot of my friends who lived 'in town' and had money listened to U2 and shit.

The only country anyone I knew listened to regularly were David Allen Coe's "Underground" albums, but my maternal grandfather was big on Johnny and Hank and Patsy so they were always there in the background, and it took a long time to cast off the 'pop with a twang' kneejerk reaction (somewhere around "American Recordings") and listen to that wide open world of real country music. Sigh...

Nate Allen said...

Tim's fantastic. We can't wait to see him again soon!