Even taking rock 'n' roll and soul into account, perhaps no pop music has devolved or been more bastardized over the decades than mainstream country. It may seem odd to some that the co-leader of Los Angeles' (arguably) finest punk band should be responsible for one of the best country albums of this decade. But John Doe's Americana roots were obvious at least as far back as the 1985 debut album by the Knitters, an X offshoot whose name was a pun on Pete Seeger's legendary original group, the Weavers, and who recently reunited for Southern California's huge Stagecoach country festival. This album is the best thing he's done with the form to date. Doe obviously remembers when country music was the domain not of the cosmopolitan set but of the working class, of farmers and factory laborers; when its lyrics had to do with sin, with cheating hearts and broken spirits and not bombing the Middle East to kingdom come. With Country Club, at least sound-wise, and figuratively speaking, he returns the music to its "beer garden" jukebox roots of yore.
Doe's teamed up here with the Sadies, a Toronto-based real country quartet, who bring along the twang as well as the mandolins and fiddles. With the exception of one original and a couple of Sadies-composed instrumentals, the album is mostly covers of country classics associated with or written by, among numerous others, Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette and Willie Nelson. Pretty lofty ambition when one considers how well-known a few of these tunes are — but it's a genuine pleasure to report that it all works, even the original by Doe and his former partner, Exene, which fits nicely amid such entertaining and esteemed company.
Traditional as it all is, though, the musicians don't copy so much as they strive to make these gems their own. "A Fool Such As I" may have Hank Snow's original in mind more than Elvis' later rockin' version, but it really sounds like neither in the end. "Take These Chains from My Heart," meanwhile, owes little to Hank Williams or Ray Charles but can proudly stand alongside those two versions as one equally as good. It's virtually impossible to remove the beauty from Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," of course, but Doe's stark version is especially pretty. There's even a local connection via a fine cover of Bobby Bare's "Detroit City," although its subject matter, much like the lyrics to the Haggard cover — which reminisce about a time in country music "before Elvis and the Vietnam War" — illustrates that this kinda music is sadly a relic of the past. Wonderful stuff, nevertheless ... and not so much as a second that'll make the listener think of Toby Keith or Garth Brooks.
John Doe & the Sadies play Monday, May 11, at the Pike Room, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].
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