Warning: Some Language
On Friday (5-12) a Lincoln, Nebraska-based artist named St. Christopher Webster, who along with his solo material also performs with his band The Motherfuck’n Saints, put together a 20-minute dissertation on why the underground roots scene is dying (see below). Even though St. Christopher and his band are mostly associated with punk rock, he’s also been lumped in with underground roots because of the country influences to some of his music, and because Hank Williams III, or Hank3, once took a shining to the band and helped to expand their fan base.
Saving Country Music also very much grew out of the underground roots movement, and was started as a fan organization called “Free Hank III.” Just like Saving Country Music, St. Christopher Webster was hugely influenced by Hank3’s album Straight to Hell, which recently celebrated its 10 year anniversary. Using the album’s anniversary as a jumping off point, St. Christopher tried to explain why underground roots has landed into the poor shape it is in today, where the number of fans has fallen sharply, and artists and events are folding left and right. Yet a few performers and fans are holding on to the dream that they are going to “make it” somehow as part of the scene, or even be able to put together sustainable careers despite the overwhelming evidence that this is not in the cards.
“In the 1980’s, Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats saw success in reviving the rockabilly sound,” St. Christopher starts off explaining. “In the 1990’s, Split Lip Rayfield, The Supersuckers, Nine Pound Hammer, Nashville Pussy, and Reverend Horton Heat toured relentlessly and gained a cult following in the post punk alternative era … In that era Rick Rubin was recording Johnny Cash covering Soundgarden, Danzig, and Nick Cave songs. This was all going on when Social Distortion was covering Johnny Cash. The link between classic country and rock & roll was alive and well.”
St. Christopher goes on to explain how the underground country punk / roots scene began to form.
“The later 90’s became a quagmire of bullshit rap metal and agro nu metal nonsense. This caused music lovers to start delving into older music in different genres … The underground punk and rock [became] more accessible and easier to get due to technology … These tools made it easy for you to get your shit out there. Unfortunately the deluge of garbage started to flow as soon as the flood gates opened and the tidal wave has not subsided. You would think that a peek into the globalized world would make people more informed. You would think it would make intelligent, creative people connect, and broaden the realm of their craft. It did quite the opposite. Now people could more easily conform to trends. Anything from the way they dress to the way they sound was molded quicker. Scenes don’t breed creativity, they breed conformity.”
What St. Christopher Webster is talking about is how underground roots became a hotbed for knockoff Hank3 acts—something Saving Country Music has been saying for many years. St. Christopher even brought up a review Saving Country Music published for a band called the Honky Tonk Hustlas. Though St. Christopher says, “…the guy that writes for that website Saving Country Music, he has the writing skills of about a special needs 5th grader at best,” he does give the Honky Honk Hustlas review credit for being correct in its assessment of the band being nothing more than a Hank3 knockoff.
One thing that is curious about St. Christoper’s take on underground country/roots is the timing. The Honky Tonk Hustlas review, for example, was posted by Saving Country Music over half a decade ago. Over 3 1/2 years ago, Saving Country Music posted about many of the same issues with underground roots raised in St. Christopher’s video in an article called, “Why Underground Country Music Is Dying (A Treatise)“. The case can definitely be made that underground roots ostensibly died a somewhere around 2012 or 2013, and only through the relentlessness of a few bands and organizers, it still remains clinging to some version of life, and barely getting by for better or worse. But that doesn’t take away from what St. Christopher Webster says as being incredibly true, and critically important to say, especially coming from an artist.
Though his commentary is quite scathing, he tries to give some credit to the few festivals and organizers still trying to hold on to hope, while still pointing out the inherent problems with the “scene” that only continue to grow worse over time. He says about the few festivals,
“…the unfortunate reality is some were more about the party, more about the style, more about the selfies, than about the substance of the music. Period. Same thing with these quote unquote record labels. Just because you can make a Facebook page or set up a website doesn’t make you a real record label. You have to make fucking records.”
St. Christopher Webster continues, “In conclusion, here we are in 2016. I’m sitting back and watching this scene die a slow, painful death.”
The problem with the underground country and roots scene at the moment is not just Hank3 parody acts. If anything, that was the problem years ago, and natural selection has mitigated that issue. The problem at the moment is the infighting between artists, scenesters, and quasi organizations who try to promote shows or operate so-called record labels that has resulted in many fans and artists leaving the scene.
There is no true organization behind anything in underground country, and the plan for sustainability for most of the artists seems to be to get the attention of Shooter Jennings and hope he somehow launches them to superstardom, when Shooter’s dealing with contraction in his own career. There are just as many fans left in the underground as there are artists. At many of the events, artists make up 50% of the crowd, or more. As St. Christopher points out, Hank3 has pulled a total disappearing act himself, but that could be partly to blame on all the scensters whose plan of action for their careers is to ride the coattails of the next artist ahead of them, and bite them in the back if they don’t help. Hank3’s disappearance also has to do with a very simple issue: Hank3 recently had to move his base of operations.
Saving Country Music delves into more of the reasons behind the underground country malaise in the “Why Underground Country Music Is Dying” article mentioned above. But none of this means that the influence of underground roots peaked with Hank3’s Straight to Hell, or that all the efforts that have been expended by underground artists and fans has been for naught. In fact the argument can be made that these efforts have influenced the very top of mainstream country at the moment, and in very substantive and positive ways. One can argue that the influence of underground roots is coming into full bloom as we speak.
One of the other problems with underground roots is how myopic the perspective is of the artists and fans. Their compass still revolves around artists like Hank3, Shooter Jennings, and The Reverend Horton Heat, when independent country and roots has dramatically shifted more towards Americana, and is even being represented in the mainstream. This is somewhat evidenced in the timing of the comments from St. Christopher Webster, and how they seem three to five years too late, though still correct in his assessment. Few underground artists have any idea who the producer Dave Cobb is, even though he got his start with Shooter Jennings, or what Thirty Tigers is, even though it is one of the fastest-growing distribution outlets in the business, and embodies the DIY spirit more than any other outfit in music at the moment.
Believe it or not, you can draw a straight line between underground roots music, and Chris Stapleton becoming the most successful country music artist in the last two years in regards to awards and album sales. Let me explain how:
Before Sturgill Simpson began his solo career, he was in a band that infused a punk attitude with bluegrass styling called Sunday Valley. Sunday Valley formed in 2004—two years before the release of Hank3’s Straight to Hell, and was very much an underground country band, at least in style. The band got its start opening shows for Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, which is another one of underground roots’ founding projects, a band that toured with Hank3 and benefited from his rise in popularity, and one of the few outfits that continues successfully today.
Sturgill Simpson’s manager, Marc Dottore, was Shooter Jennings’ manager before he signed up with Sturgill. Marc had watched the success of Shooter early on, and the success of Hank3 and Straight to Hell, and knew there was a massive appeal for an artist that could embody a true alternative to the mainstream, and lead country music out of its current malaise. When Shooter Jennings began to become more experimental with his music and went off the country music reservation, and Hank3 began to disappear for long stretches and in some ways became a parody of himself, this appetite for an alternative, underground country music star only grew.
Sturgill disbanded Sunday Valley in April of 2012, and began his solo career. Then his second record, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, became an overwhelming, massive success for an independently-released album, and began to reshape the paradigm in all of country music by getting the attention of the mainstream. Zac Brown decided to put Sturgill on his tour as an opener. Keith Urban and Jake Owen publicly pronounced their love for Sturgill and Metamodern Sounds. And according to Chris Stapleton, listening to Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is what directly inspired him to record his breakthrough, blockbuster album Traveller the way he did, using independently-minded producer Dave Cobb (who produced both of Sturgill Simpson’s first two records), and to record the album live in the studio, just like Sturgill had done, and even recorded his album with some of the same players.
Sturgill Simpson, and eventually Chris Stapleton, finally filled the gaping hole in the country music world for a true, authentic alternative where artists like Hank3 had paved the way, but stopped short of filling the gap themselves. Jamey Johnson is another whose early records were produced by Dave Cobb, found some success, but then suddenly pulled back.
As Sturgill Simpson said recently, “A guy like me or Jason [Isbell], we can kick down doors all day but we’re not going to be the ones to walk through them … Chris Stapleton is a friend of mine. That guy is a phenomenal talent … because he’s in the inside, he’s in a better position to orchestrate change more so than anybody like Jason or myself or a lot of others could, and I think that’s a great thing. ‘Cause it has to move forward.”
Of course in the underground, artists like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton are heavily criticized by some, if the artists and fans even know they exist. But Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, which is the reigning Album of the Year from the CMA’s, the ACM’s, and the Grammy Awards, was recorded like any underground country record: live in the studio with his own band and his own sound, and no record executives calling the shots.
There remains many talented artists who are wrapped up in the whole underground country and roots scene. My advice to underground artists has always been that if you want to find success, or at least sustainability in your music careers, then you’ve got to get away from the underground. As I said in a recent review of a underground artist named Jeff Shepherd:
We’re seeing this upsurge and new support across virtually all sectors of independent country and roots music, from Americana, from Texas country, to the east Nashville scene, to bluegrass. But the one segment still lagging drastically behind is the whole underground country punk scene that is saddled with constant infighting, and a contraction of both new artists and fans. The few fans left will still show incredible support for their favorite acts. If a tour vans breaks down, fans will rally and get them to the next gig no matter what the obstacles. The problem is, the acts still can’t afford vans that don’t break down, or can’t afford to fix them when they do.
We’re not talking about trying to win major mainstream awards like Chris Stapleton has, we’re just talking about talented people who should at least be able to afford health insurance finding the support they need to continue their careers. But the underground will never afford that. Meanwhile you’re seeing dozens of artists that sound and look exactly like underground roots bands—artists like John Moreland, who used to play in punk bands previously, Shovels & Rope who’ve been on late night television shows and Austin City Limits, and Margo Price, who recently played Saturday Night Live, finding success with their independently-released music like never before. They’ve been able to make it in their careers because 1) Their music is worth hearing, 2) They’re not saddled by the stigma and infighting of the country music underground.
Sturgill Simpson’s career exploded because he stayed away from the underground when he went solo, but remained independent. Chris Stapleton got his start playing in a bluegrass outfit called the Steeldrivers, and a Southern rock band called the Jompson Brothers. These artists have way more in common with the underground world than they do the mainstream.
St. Christopher Webster is completely right. The underground has become all about public image on Facebook and social media as opposed to the music. The best bands and artists are not rising to the top, and are not getting heard by people outside of the “scene.” And great music is getting stifled.
A site like Saving Country Music’s name is mud in the underground, because underground fans think Saving Country Music abandoned them to start covering mainstream artists like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. But the truth of the matter is, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Shovels & Rope, Shakey Graves, and John Moreland rose to the top with music that embodied the independent spirit of underground punk and roots, and the principles set out in Hank3’s Straight to Hell, and Saving Country Music simply followed them. Unfortunately for a host of reasons, many of which are self-inflicted, it was the underground that was left behind in an upward movement that has now reached the very top of American country and roots music.