Secular Urban Liberals, Beware “Country” Music!

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*The Gleam* and *Gee as in Jesus*
*12.29.05*
*The Triple Rock Social Club*

A funny thing happened on the way past the Triple Rock. A little birdie, ensconced in the A-list of the _City Pages_, told me that the night’s show was going to be good, and that I had best step inside. Playing that evening were “The Gleam”:http://www.thegleamusa.com/, the headlining act glowingly mentioned by some country music fans I’d met at a recent Liquor Pigs show, and a group I hadn’t heard of, Gee as in Jesus. This latter band was the focus of the weekly paper’s recommendation, and the description, I am now ashamed to say, intrigued me. It told of clever allusions to and deep reverence for old-time music, regaling with tales of sweet harmonies, electric banjos, and the often-invoked name of the Son of Man.

Most importantly, Gee as in Jesus was praised for covering the Louvin Brothers, and I acceded that anyone who would make their name covering this brilliantly performed, feverishly devout music at least deserved to be given audience for making the attempt. The Alabama-raised country duo gained great acclaim in the 1950s with their note-perfect harmonies and secular songs like “When I Stop Dreaming,” “Hoping That You’re Hoping,” and “Cash on the Barrel Head” and decisively influenced later country and pop family duos including Jim & Jesse and the Everly Brothers. But since their demise in the early 1960s, the Louvins had become increasingly known for their gospel and religious songs, most famously “The Christian Life,” covered by Gram Parsons and The Byrds on _Sweetheart of the Rodeo_ (1968). Under the direction of the highly unstable Ira Louvin, these songs often took a manically conservative and fundamentalist tone—consider, for example, “Broadminded” (“That word ‘broadminded’ is spelled S-I-N/I read in my Bible, ‘they shall not enter in’”), “The Family Who Prays,” and “Satan is Real.” While Charlie went on to have a successful solo career in the country music world, Ira self-destructed, becoming an alcoholic and eventually dying in an auto accident with his fourth wife and new duo partner, Anne Young, in 1965.

With primed expectations, then, I watched in horror as Gee as in Jesus began with a tuneless, unfunny rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” before plunging into their first song “Satan Loves You Just As Much As God.” Thus began the tiresome schtick that was repeated ad nauseam for the remainder of the set—fast bluegrass-ish songs with hammy scream-singing and repetitive lyrics, in what were, at best, mediocre performances. At times they could be mildly amusing and, despite the bad balance, the sound of the electric banjo with wah-wah pedal was compelling. But generally the whole affair was odious. And yet, while listening to their covers of Louvin Brothers’ classics, including “The Great Atomic Power” and the uncoverable “Satan is Real” (with its long, wild sermon in the middle), I realized that the crucial issue was not that I found the performances unenjoyable. Far more troubling was that Gee as in Jesus crudely mocked the rural religious and musical traditions they claimed to uphold and, more importantly, the audience _loved_ it.

This observation startled me, because it made me realize that the crowd was not truly grasping the seductive and terrifying power of the conservative, rural gospel music on display that night. The cheap theatricality of Gee as in Jesus created a palpable shield between the original sources of the band’s aesthetic and the audience, preventing those in attendance from experiencing the immediacy and, to use a much-maligned word these days, _authenticity_ of that quickly disappearing rural life-world. But then to what was the crowd reacting so strongly? In part one might blame ignorance, and that such music serves as a poor but adequate substitute for good country music, of which listeners have been deprived since the rise of corporate country radio. Still, there seems to be another dynamic at work. To oversimplify, one might argue that the audience consisted largely of secular urban liberals, and that the ethos of the entire event affirmed their values and sense of superiority over present-day conservative cultures, which many of them still find uncomfortably close—in their families, in the small towns of their childhoods, or in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.

I can’t speak for the members of Gee as in Jesus—who reputedly hail from Indiana—as they may be over-clever bohemians, country folks, both, or neither. They clearly enjoyed what they were doing, which does count for a lot in my book, and holding them to a false standard of authenticity in the most inauthentic of music genres would not be fair. But the audience’s strange catharsis that I perceived told me a great deal about the present mental state of many liberal and progressive urbanites. They appear, to my eyes, embattled and bitter about the ascent of the far right, and understandably so. More problematically, however, they seem unwilling to face the possibility that in order to transform the balance of political forces in the state and nation, they will, in part, have to learn to become sympathetic to their antagonists, so that they might win them over to more progressive positions.

Happily, a semblance of reconciliation between the urban and rural took place that night when The Gleam mounted the stage. The three-piece indie-rock/country-punk band from rural Chisago County has that rare combination of musical talent, excellent songwriting, and a sound and sensibility that seem powerfully honest, even meaningful. Take, for example, the twangy boogie riff, bouncy bassline, and straightforward three-chord progression of “Fat and Stoned,” in which the music trundles along as if in an old, beaten-up automobile, while the riders shout (in tune, even with harmonies), “Living the high life, laying low/Everybody’s yelling, ‘Go, go, go’/And I sit around getting fat and stoned.” In a single chorus, The Gleam’s music poignantly evokes one of the most important and under-discussed dichotomies in American modernity—the contrast between those ambitious souls who strive at all costs to compete in the great capitalist rat race, and those who sit it out and prefer to hover beneath the radar. And while to some degree one can map this divide onto continuums of class and race or of rural, suburban, and urban experience, the dialectic of go-getting and dropping out can be found in every position on the scale. Although the observation is somewhat gleeful in “Fat and Stoned,” a darker comment on being trapped in a nowhere-land—and a dead-end job—can be found in “Carousel” (“Tomorrow work starts again/And slowly my head’s spinning round and round/stuck on this carousel”).

The band, consisting of Zachary Johns (guitar, vocals), Timmy Wreck (bass, vocals), and Johnny Bon Bonnie (drums), has quickly gained notoriety in this area, in part through the promotion of Jack Sparks on the “Other Side of Country” show on WMGT 1220-AM, as well as DJs on KFAI and The Current, and the writers at the _City Pages_ and elsewhere. To its credit, The Gleam seems to be very much a local act: although the band appears to identify with country music and the Southern sensibility, their music, their look, and even their drawly screams sound very authentically small-town _Minnesotan_ to me. As such, The Gleam would seem perfectly positioned to become another national export from the state, especially if they continue to produce songs as good as those on their _The Chisago County E.P._ (“SMA Records”:http://www.smarecords.com/, 2004). (Judging from newer efforts like “Gypsies on Highway 61” and others performed at the show, this would seem to be the case.) In discussing The Gleam’s prospects after the concert, Zack self-effacingly described the band as being “a bunch of hicks” and found it disconcerting that people were paying so much attention to them “all of a sudden…it’s weird.” Almost against their will, The Gleam are slowly being drawn away from the dead-end lives they lament and celebrate in their songs, and one only hopes that the outcome, whether successful or not, will not take too much of a toll on their lives.

While chatting with Zack and some of the other bandmembers and followers backstage, I was able to get a better sense of his personality and small town background in the following story, told by a friend named Luc. Apparently, when Zack was twelve years old, he would hunt illegally on grounds owned by Luc’s father, who wanted the hunting to stop and admonished Zack. Zack then retaliated—first by putting a deer’s head in the family’s mailbox, and then eventually by leaving an entire dead faun in the ditch in front of Luc’s house. Luc mentioned the incident both to relate Zack’s stubbornness—an aid to possible success—and that the affair inspired Zack’s first song, “Faun in the Ditch.” It was a perfect example of the kind of behavior characteristic of so-called “rednecks” and “hicks” that could have both horrified the vegan pacifists and amused the urban sophisticates in attendance. And if, on the flipside, the playing up of one’s rural background is a smart marketing strategy, its very effectiveness would be predicated on the hardening of an artificial distance between (rural) artist and (urban) audience.

Fortunately, the band seems content to get drunk and play loud rock and roll, in the process communicating powerfully with listeners and having a good time. Ultimately it seemed to me that Zack’s struggles with potential success were points of continuity, rather than divergence, with the admiring audience members at the Triple Rock. I don’t know the political leanings of the band members, although judging from their lyrics they seem aware and critical of the strange environment in which Americans presently find themselves. Perhaps to the extent that urbanites like myself really listened to the messages The Gleam had for us that night, we took a few baby steps towards a significant political act.

For more information, see:
“www.thegleamusa.com”:http://www.thegleamusa.com
“www.smarecords.com”:http://www.smarecords.com

The Gleam are playing at The Nomad on Saturday evening, January 21, 2006.

Posted 1.17.06

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