By Dave Kenney
Something weird is happening to country music. No, new country hasn’t gone techno. Instead, country music has some unusual new members–punk rockers.
One such member is Chicago’s Neko Case. Formerly of the Vancouver punk act Maow, Case’s country influences came full circle with her solo album, 1997s The Virginian Playing traditional country and rockabilly, Case and back-up musicians aka Boyfriends make a case for dead honest country. They also prove country and punk aren’t so far apart.
"There’s no difference," Case says. "Same attitude, you play the same clubs, it’s hard to make records and you don’t make any money. They’re exactly the same."
On Case’s latest record, Furnace Room Lullabies, elements of punk often power her boasting rockabilly rants. "Mood to Burn Bridges" features surging, rollicking guitar that mixes melody with mayhem. "Whip the Blankets" is a chaotic bedroom anthem that coasts with Case’s twangy, June Carter-ish bellow.
"It’s definitely not the happiest record," laughs Case. "The feeling is kind of end of the day where you let everything go."
She’s not kidding either. Lullabies focuses on pain, longing and loss. Here Case wanders from relationship smuck-ups to funeral farewells. "No Need to Cry" has a vintage Patsy Cline sound with Case crooning for her lover’s return. "We’ve Never Met" is especially poignant with her and Ron Sexsmith lamenting the bitter present backed by sparse steel and acoustic guitars.
Sexsmith is just one of the many "Boyfriends" appearing on the album. Lullabies features The Local Rabbits, David Ryan Adams (Whiskeytown), Brian Connelly (ex-Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet), Travis Good (Sadies), Joel Trueblood (Untamed Youth), and Kevin Kane (Grapes of Wrath) just for starters.
Proud of her band, Case sees no reason to really branch out towards doing duets with others.
"I’ve been blessed with working with some great people," she says.
Still, playing moody ’50s style country is a job in itself. Case often gets pigeonholed with the term alternative country. This makes her cranky.
"It’s only country music," she says. "It’s not big a deal. It’s not like it’s a political movement of any kind."
While country might not challenge the establishment, it still faces resistance. Shania might be everywhere, but Case sees herself somewhat limited to the college crowd.
"I feel like I missed the boat on a lot of things that used to be available to those who played country music," she says. "If you were Loretta Lynne you could drive around the country giving your records away and get radio play in major markets.
"It’s not that I’m great enough to do the great things that were done by the people who inspired me."
Case in point. The video for "Timber" from The Virginian was deemed too country for MuchMusic and too violent for CMT. And despite being a critic’s darling, Case is still chasing stardom.
"People think that just because they see your name in the paper that you’re famous."
Neko Case will be playing with National Dust Thurs., March 30 at the Republik.