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The recent alt-country (or, more amusingly, y’all-ternative) phenomenon has refocused attention on the great male singers of traditional country music. Bands like Whiskeytown, the Old 97’s, the Bottle Rockets, and of course Uncle Tupelo offshoots Wilco and Son Volt are quick to praise George Jones and Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb and Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Hank Williams. But alt-country remains a boys’ cluband few female songwriters today credit Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, or Tammy Wynette as inspirations, despite their significance.
Maybe Neko Case can help change that. Case plays drums in Vancouver’s MAOW, a pop-punk trio whose ’96 full-length debut on Mint Records, the unexceptionable The Unforgiving Sounds of MAOW, was a fairly representative blast of Northwest indie-rock. Perhaps more importantly, however, Case is an Alexandria, Va., native instilled with a love of country music by her grandmother, who raised her on a steady diet of Jones and Cline. Appropriately, Case titled her captivating solo debut The Virginian. Also on Mint and credited to “Neko Case and Her Boyfriends,” it’s a small gem that shines with a sincere love of old-school country, capturing not just the style and affect of a ’60s Loretta Lynn record but the very soul and spirit.
Not only does Case have a mighty, walloping voice, which like Cline’s or Jones’ hits right where the sadness starts, her taste is impeccable. The Virginian, recorded with a slew of Pacific Northwest indie-rock all-stars and a number of well-known Canadian country musicians (who’d have thought?), wanders neatly through country, bluegrass, and gospel, and mixes a nice cross-section of Case originals with smartly chosen covers of songs recorded by Tubb, Lynn, Scott Walker, and the Everly Brothers.
After making her New York debut in September during the CMJ festival, Case spent a sunny late-summer afternoon busking in Washington Square Park with her friend Carolyn Mark, attracting attention for a knockout cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Howlin’ at Midnight” and discussing her teenage rebellion, which led her to punk rock, and her subsequent rediscovery of the country music of her youth. Punk helped her overcome her shyness and develop the confidence to perform, but country gave Case something to sing about.
“I wanted to hear some women singing. I wanted to hear some women playing something other than bass, which there wasn’t a lot of at the time,” says Case. “There were the Cramps and Xthank God for those bandsbut I had never really seen women singing and playing guitars much, except in country music. And Heart, of course. So one day I put on a Patsy Cline record and realized that was what I was missing. The women of country were songwriters and stars, and that was a great example for me. I’m just glad they were there.”
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The punk rocker in Case resists easy classification and detests easy angles. She’s quick to note that she’s just as pleased to share her Sept. 8 birthday with Peter Sellars as Cline, and mocks writers who seem amazed a punk rocker might like another genre of music or ask, “What has Wilco done for your career?” She can go on endlessly about what makes George Jones great, marvel over the first time she heard Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” and rave about the Everly Brothers’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. She speaks passionately about country’s cultural relevance, and disgustedly about the soulless drivel that is “new country.”
“Country music is just as valid as jazz or blues music. If our country hadn’t been so segregated, they would have grown up hand in hand, which they sort of did anyway. It’s been the eloquent, passionate voice of poor and rural people,” she says, “but it’s still the butt of everyone’s jokes. I’m sick of it. I go to art school with all these people who are supposedly really politically correct and on the ball and all that. You tell them you’re a country musician and they do the most ignorant, obvious response: ‘Well, yee-hah! You been on Hee Haw?’”
Case frets that what drives peopleespecially her own generationaway from country classics is the way Nashville markets upscale urban cowboys like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus.
“I don’t really care that much for the music, but I don’t hold it against the bands,” says Case, who cites Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, and Tarnation as new favorites. “What I don’t like is the angle of marketing new country under the guise that it’s way better than old country and it’s not hick and redneck, because old country never was, either. It’s really insulting to not only the musicians but the audience, too. You’d never hear Garth Brooks on TV saying, ‘Oh, Hank Williams was an old hick.’ That’s bullshit. It makes me so livid. Those people don’t give a shit about country music. All they want is money. They think about their audience as a demographic. I know I’m saying something completely obvious, but it makes me so angry.”
Something else obvious: Country radio programmers and Nashville major labels don’t have any guts. Case has star quality; all she needs is some promotional push and a little airplay. She understands full well, however, that Nashville probably won’t discover a record on the Vancouver indie-rock label best known for punk-poppers Cub and a collection of Lou Barlow’s four-track recordings. The country circuit takes no stock in her DIY ethic. So until Nashville takes notice, Case remains on the rock circuit she knows best, playing to people who don’t know Hank Thompson from the Thompson Twins, let alone Merle Travis from Randy Travis. She’s hopeful but not holding her breath.
“Is there a niche for me? No, probably not,” she admits. “But if I decide I’m going to get on new country radio, I’m going to do it. I’m pretty tenacious. But I’m not compromising, either. It’s going to be a while if I’m going to be on country radio. They don’t shove you on overnight unless you’re 14 years old.”
“I don’t know if it will happen. I’m sick of playing the punk-rock circuit, I’ll tell you that much,” Case sighs. “You play this bar in Edmonton to a bunch of jocks who hate you and are yelling at you because they want to hear Nine Inch Nails. I just want to play for people who want to hear country music. I used to worry about the label and feel really precious. I don’t anymore. I just want people to see me play. I want to be a country singer. I want to tour every month of my life. That’s what makes me happy, to play and sing for people.
“It means everything to me,” Case says. “The sincerity, the honesty. There is an instinctual cultural link that I was born with, I’m sure. It sounds corny, but everybody belongs somewhere. This is where I belong.”CP