From the outside looking in, one may look at the lineup of The Muddy Roots Festival for example, and wonder how a throwback legend from Texas like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, a hillbilly punk freak from Tennessee like Joe Buck, a golden-throated singer from Michigan like Rachel Brooke, a crazy hellbilly songwriter from the Pacific Northwest like Bob Wayne, and a blues legend from Mississippi like T-Model Ford could all be booked right beside each other and it work seamlessly.
This illustrates the dramatic sonic and geographical diversity that goes into creating what we know now as the underground country roots, or “Muddy Roots” world. Below is a list of the disparate origins of Muddy Roots music that came together from a mutual understanding and appreciation of the roots of American music, and the epicenters where this music originated from and/or is thriving today.
The revitalization of Lower Broadway in Nashville.
In the early 90’s, lower Broadway street in downtown Nashville comprised the last bastion of old buildings that symbolized what Music City used to be. Overrun with dirty bookstores and titty bars, and The Grand Ole Opry’s original home The Ryman shuttered, young cowpunk and neo-traditionalist musicians like BR549, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Hillbilly Casino, Greg Garing, and Joe Buck and Layla, commandeered lower Broadway and revitalized the strip into the tourist destination it is today. Emmylou Harris‘s legendary concert with the “Nash Ramblers” in 1994 also breathed new life into The Ryman, and later Hank Williams III would cut his teeth in lower Broadway venues like Layla’s Bluegrass Inn.
The fierce appreciation for country’s roots combined with an independent, punk mentality is what revitalized the most historic portion of downtown Nashville, and created the foundation for the blending of country, blues, and punk that Muddy Roots music would spring from.
Not just Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, and especially Tompall Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” renegade studio in Nashville is the origin of the Outlaw spirit behind underground country roots, the “Do It Yourself” attitude to not allow labels to arrest creative control from the artists and to always respect the elders and traditions of the country genre while also allowing the music to innovate.
Underground country and Muddy Roots is very much a construct of the “post punk” music landscape. As punk music and scenes began to become stale or gentrify, punk artists and fans looking for the raw approach to music, and many times raised on traditional country and bluegrass, began to turn back to their own roots and put down their Flying V guitars for fiddles and banjos. This is where some of the fast, aggressive approach to roots music comes from, on both the country and the blues side, as well as the DIY spirit, and the grassroots approach to scene building and album production.
After Hank Williams III’s stint with the punk metal band Superjoint Ritual is when many punk and metal heads found themselves listening to country music again. In 2006, when Hank3 recorded his album Straight to Hell at home on a consumer-grade machine and put out an album with a Parental Advisory sticker on the front through one of Nashville’s major labels, many barriers were broke down and parameters set for how Muddy Roots music would evolve.
North Mississippi Hill Country Blues & Deep Blues
One of the reasons both country and blues music can work right beside each other in Muddy Roots is because in many cases they are both being infused with punk, just like artists Scott Biram and The Black Diamond Heavies do. Many times the infusion is with a very specific type of blues from the North Mississippi Hill Country, brought to the attention of the rest of the world by Fat Possum Records in the early 90’s, just about the same time lower Broadway in Nashville was being revitalized by young country punks.
One of the first events that put these like-minded blues and punk blues musicians all in one place, and included a few country-based artists as well was the Deep Blues Festival put on by Chris Johnson in Minnesota starting in the mid 2000’s. Deep Blues fest was where the relationship between blues, punk, and a deep appreciation for the roots of blues by young white musicians was codified.
In a similar way to infusing both country and blues music with a punk edge and mentality, rockabilly artists in the early 90’s like The Reverend Horton Heat pioneered “pyschobilly”, a punk version of rockabilly. Just like their blues and country counterparts, they were neo-traditionalists, staunchly educated in and preservers of the roots of the music.
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Part and parcel with the sonic diversity of underground country roots is the geographic diversity. Unlike many other past music movements that sprang up in specific geographical areas (or maybe in a few general areas, like East Coast vs. West Coast), Muddy Roots has epicenters all across the country as illustrated in the map below.
1. Tennessee (Nashville)
As explained above, Nashville has played the most vital role in the formation of underground country roots, from the Outlaw country music movement in the mid-70’s, to the revitalization of lower Broadway beginning in the mid-90’s, and today with the Muddy Roots Festival just an hour east in Cookeville, Nashville and Tennessee remain the major Muddy Roots epicenter, including the up-and-coming east Nashville, home to many venues supporting underground musicians, and the home of Hank Williams III, arguably the most important musician to the formation of a country music underground.
2. Austin, TX
As the”Live Music Capitol of the World” and a huge music town, Austin follows only Nashville in it’s importance to Muddy Roots music. Home to Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Scott Biram, Dale Watson, and many other underground roots musicians, as well as one of the epicenters of the original country music Outlaw movement and a lot of independent music infrastructure, Austin is a vital epicenter in underground roots.
3. The North Mississippi Hill Country
It’s not just any old blues that builds the nexus between blues and country into that unique underground roots concoction, it is a specific type of blues from the north Mississippi Hill Country. Fat Possum championed the sound of artists like RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T Model Ford, and many others beginning in the early and mid 90’s. That sound has since been picked up and combined with punk by artists like Scott Biram, The Ten Foot Polecats, Restavrant, and The Black Keys to form what is more commonly referred to today as “Deep Blues”.
4. Michigan – (Detroit, Flint)
On the surface maybe one of the most unlikely epicenters for country and roots music is also possibly one of the most vibrant. The home base for artists like Whitey Morgan & The 78’s, Rachel Brooke, The Goddamn Gallows (Lansing), as well as a vibrant local scene with bands like Some Velvet Evening, Michigan has grown just about as many underground roots acts as anywhere else. To grow good roots bands you need support, and events like the legendary “Honky Tonk Tuesdays” at Club Bart in Ferndale created the community and collaboration that have allowed Michigan roots music to thrive.
5. The Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin)
The Upper Midwest is the proving ground for many early and influential Muddy Roots bands, including the Gothic country stalwarts Those Poor Bastards from Madison, WI, the premier punk/bluegrass .357 String Band from Milwaukee, and Trampled by Turtles from Duluth, MN. When you throw in Michigan as an Upper Midwest state as well, the region becomes one of the strongest in the country for roots music.
Minnesota was also the scene of the crime for the original Deep Blues Festivals, and is the home of Chris Johnson, the founder of Deep Blues, and the owner of Bayport BBQ, a blues-based venue near St. Paul. Along with Weber’s Deck in French Lake, MN, they make Minnesota an Upper Midwest roots haven.
6. Arizona (Phoenix)
It only seems appropriate that one of the places where Waylon Jennings began his legacy from would years later become an underground country epicenter. The original home of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records, and a must-stop for touring bands going to or coming from The West Coast, Phoenix feels like home for many, and is home to artists like Ray Lawrence Jr. , Junction 10, and “Valley Fever” every Sunday night at the Yucca Tap Room. Hillgrass Bluebilly events are where many underground roots artists would meet for the first time, sparking collaborations on albums and tours that created a coagulating effect in an otherwise spread-out movement.
7. The Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is like a factory for underground roots talent. Bob Wayne, Larry & His Flask, McDougall, James Hunnicutt, Hillstomp, and Brent Amaker are all from there, and the list goes on and on. And then when you start digging deeper, many artists who are now based out of other places originated from there, like some of the original members of BR549. Both Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson did time in the Pacific Northwest early in their careers. And we can’t forget the punk world’s Eddie Spaghetti and the Supersuckers started doing country side-projects in the late 90’s and collaborated with Steve Earle.
Bluegrass is big in the area, and there seems to be a kindred spirit between the rainy west and the deep South because of the rural life and landscape, and because many of the original settlers of the Northwest were originally from the South. With a population that tends to support the arts and music, and many specific neighborhoods and venues and festivals like Pickathon that cater to the roots scene, the Pacific Northwest is one of underground roots’ biggest power players.
Montana may look like a lowly outpost on the map, but it played a vital roll in the formation of underground roots in the mid to late oughts, specifically with a promotion company called Section 08 Productions putting together the “Murder in the Mountains” tours. By bringing together artists from all around the upper part of the country like Rachel Brooke, JB Beverley, .357 String Band, Bob Wayne, Slackeye Slim and others, they were one of the first to take the theoretical underground roots scene, and give it some substance. Section 08 Productions has since morphed into Farmageddon Records, and is still based in Montana.
9 – California
California has always been the force in country music just behind Nashville and Texas, and that counts for underground country and roots as well. Where California played a key role in the formation of underground country was the interjection of punk influences and the transition of punk fans. Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Jon Doe and Exene Cervenka from the band X doing country side projects in the 80’s and 90’s is what led to the punk/country nexus. The Devil Makes Three from Northern California were one of the very first bands to bring a punk attitude to string music, The Pine Box Boys from San Francisco were one of the pioneers of Gothic bluegrass, and Los Duggans from LA were an important Deep Blues band.
10. North Carolina
Boasting some great music towns and big time roots music labels like Rusty Knuckles, Ramseur Records, and Yep Rock, North Carolina can make the case for itself as having the best music music scene and the most infrastructure right behind the big boys of Nashville and Austin. It also doesn’t hurt that one of the most successful roots acts in recent history, The Avett Bros., call North Carolina home.
11. Chicago, IL (Bloodshot Records)
Chicago will always be a big important part of underground roots as the home of Bloodshot Records. Bloodshot was one of the first labels to put their money where there mouth was in 1994, being “drawn to the good stuff nestled in the dark, nebulous cracks where punk, country, soul, pop, bluegrass, blues and rock mix and mingle and mutate.” As home to artists as important and wide ranging as Justin Townes Earle, Scott Biram, and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Bloodshot Records’ impact and influence will always make Chicago a roots epicenter.
12. Central Florida
The scene in Central Florida is young, but burgeoning. Being the home of artists like the legendary Ben Prestage, Lone Wolf OMB, The Everymen, and many more, Florida is primed to become one of the underground country and roots hot spots.
13. Lawrence, Kansas
As a college town with a music school, Lawrence, KS is one of the best mid-sized music towns out there. Lawrence brings the support for live music, and not just for the usual college-town indie rock fare. It is home to bands like the long-running Split Lip Rayfield, and the high energy Calamity Cubes, and some of the coolest music venues you can find, like the Jackpot Music Hall, 8th St. Tap Room, and The Bottleneck.
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Other important epicenters: Little Rock, Arkansas, and specifically the legendary Whitewater Tavern. Bloomington, Indiana, a big music and roots town, and home to Austin Lucas, Davy Jay Sparrow, and many more. And Denver, CO, home to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club amongst many others.