Life After Freak Folk and Alt-Country

Black Dirt Records rekindles rural Bohemia.

Just about everybody and their mama hates on freak-folk these days. But I got to admit, the idea of forcing psychedelic pills down folk music's throat totally rules. It's just that most of those freakers are bearded Benedict Arnolds. Sure, there's some Anthology of American Folk Music worship going around. But for the most part, these new indie-hippies really only obsess over U.K. sounds.Me? I prefer homegrown. Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band are cool and all. But I want to hear a new generation of earthy weirdos dive drugs first into outlaw country, stoner bluegrass, and cosmic American music. Of course, right about now you're muttering But dude, what about them Drive-By Truckers and Ryan Adams? Meh. Americana/alt-country can boast some classic moments over the past two decades—Souled American rocked. Yet nowadays the genre has essentially merged with mainstream Nashville blah. And that's just way too normal for these ears.Luckily, over the past couple of years outer-limit musicians have once again started flirting with country jams, from Dark Meat and Hush Arbors to Appalachian wanderers like Jack Rose and the Black Twig Pickers (both of whom sprouted from the drone/noise group Pelt). Another promising development now lies planted in the rich soil of rural upstate New York, about 80 miles northwest of the big shitty. There, in the grand tradition of Bearsville Sound Studio and Records (y'know: the Band, Karen Dalton, Bobby Charles), this guy Jason Meagher has turned his basement into a studio and label headquarters, both of which are named after the region, Black Dirt.A member of the No-Neck Blues Band, Coach Fingers, and D. Charles Speer and the Helix, Meagher ditched NYC for the country in 2005. "The first thing I did was make a pilgrimage to Bearsville," he admits, phoning from the road, somewhere among the gentle hills of Kentucky, where Speer and Jack Rose just played a gig in Lexington. "At this point, it's basically just a Chinese restaurant. But you read those stories about all those guys playing music undistracted and really just for themselves. And it's nice to be able to offer that removed-from-the-city vibe for other musicians."Black Dirt is off to a kick-ass start. Although the operation has only dropped three albums to date, D. Charles Speer's second album, After Hours, is one of them. And it's the country-rock album of 2008, hands down. Speer is Dave Shuford, Meagher's No-Neck mate, who doses rambling honky-tonk with raga-boogie and a cracked lysergia reminiscent of mid-'80s Flaming Lips. But Shuford and company know their twang. Speer's shambolic rendition of Gary Stewart's "Single Again" will slay you: "Born to lose/Dying to win/Only thing I'm running from/Is the alimony man/Because I'm single again."Now, the thought of dudes from an experimental noise project like No-Neck crooning about whiskey and women might not make much sense on the surface of things. But the fact that they're outsiders not bound by tradition allows them to redefine country-rock in ways most alt-country bands would never even consider. Not only that, Shuford and Meagher have been honing their aesthetic for several years. D. Charles Speer wasn't the first No-Neck spinoff to get all rootsy. That was The Suntanama, which released two formative LPs on Drag City in 2002 and '03."I basically relearned to play music traditionally during those Suntanama years," explains Meagher. "Back then, none of the hipsters liked Neil Young. D. Charles Speer recently played a show, and they were playing a Bobby Charles record before the set. It blew my mind. People's ears have changed to detect the bizarre elements of traditional music and not just taking it at face value. And for Suntanama, we were just a few years too early. People were just writing it off as Southern rock."Compared to After Hours, Black Dirt's other two releases—Carter Thornton's Ten Fingers for Forefather and Virgin Spectacle, an album from this curious little group called Pigeons—sound downright avant-garde. Yet both are clearly touched by the studio's evolving aesthetic: detecting the bizarre elements of traditional music, as Meagher puts it. Thornton, from New York by way of Austin, explores blues-folk guitar. I could lump him in with fellow travelers Jack Rose, Layne Garrett, Sir Richard Bishop, etc. But that would overlook the fact that the acoustic guitarist's style is less inspired by world music than by post–Crazy Horse noise-rock a la the Siltbreeze and Flipped Out imprints.As for Virgin Spectacle, well, it's full of cracked calliope/circus jams with this girl Wednesday Knudsen chirping and squealing in French. She's pretty fuckin' maniacal. And in keeping with the Big Pink–jam session atmosphere Meagher is going for, Thornton jumped into the fray, pumping Pigeons full of acid-blues guitar. By side two, the only tag appropriate is "distorto yeh-yeh from hell." That said, this music drifts, dreams, and trickles in languorous ways that only occur in rural American settings.And you know what? Weird shit happens in the country, too.music@seattleweekly.comFor more info, visit www.myspace.com/dcharlesspeer  or www.blackdirtmusic.com.

 
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