Staring in to the abyss

Staring in to the abyss

In a new series on whisky in rock music,Lew Guthrie III looks at American alternative country rock band Richmond Fontaine

Whisky & Culture | 12 Jan 1999 | By Lew Guthrie

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Nashville is the home of country, the place that has done more to sully the genre’s reputation than anywhere else. Conservative, reactionary, predominantly white and male, the country scene has long been dismissed by many as the last bastion of redneck cowboy values.Travel out of Nashville in to middle America and the south, however, and there’s a beating heart of great country-tinged music that come from an altogether different place.Anyone familiar with British music magazine Uncut will know this terrain. It is populated by bands and singers that cast an eye to Woodie and Arlo Guthrie. They play a blue collar music, a white working man’s country soul.It’s rough and tumble bar music but it’s not racist. In states such as Texas it often adopts Spanish-Mexican guises, and elsewhere the ghosts of native American Indians hover over it.We’re talking about the sort of country music that Springsteen turned to on albums Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. It’s on nodding terms with Neil Young, and it’ll pass time with Johnny Cash.And it tells of a lost America, of the drifters and grifters trying to exist against the most appalling odds. Just as the like of Bukowski painted pictures of folk in the cities, so it is that the likes of Son Volt, Wilco, and Whiskey town are telling the stories of the white trash out in the country, struggling to survive.Richmond Fontaine are perhaps the most in your face of the new country bands. Their early albums were squalls of punk country anger, but the story really starts with Post To Wire, where their musical snapshots come in to sharp focus.Here pedal steel guitar and violin make for majestic landscapes, and among the human debris there are pearls of beauty, not least on the title track, which describes a couple clinging on despite the rigors of daily survival: “I don’t care any more who was right and who was wrong, and who was left and who was leaving I’ll overlook everything if you can overlook everything I know you’re worn out but I’m worn out too.If everyone screws up and I know that we both do Doesn’t it make sense, me with you?” Post To Wire’s a good entry point, but by The Fitzgerald, we’re in to an altogether bleaker world. The steel guitar is gone and we’re left with a stripped down, harrowing album that makes Nebraska sound like The Scissor Sisters.The Fitzgerald is the sort of hotel where drifters gather to feed, fight and fornicate in a depressing squalor. Here the only trusted friend is the whiskey bottle, and each resident lives in his own private hell, each one bumping in to the next.The Incident At Conklin Creek, for instance, describes how a father and son’s camping trip takes unexpected turn when they stumble on a body near some old mines. We’re in Raymond Carver territory here: “We stayed the night in a roadside motel Dad had a bottle of Old Crow and he finished it.As he lay passed out on the bed I knew I’d never sleep ‘Cause it could have been my dad or me What they ended up calling The incident and Conkin Creek” The growing sense of claustrophobia and doom are palpable on The Fitzgerald. Here your choice is the hotel room’s isolation and loneliness, or the edgy and uneasy company in the bar, gambling while downing whiskey, or striking up conversations with people you’d rather not know who remind you of yourself.Our narrator isn’t a drunk, though. He drinks to survive but the whiskey’s a friend. And it’s a night drinking that ultimately gives us a ray of light in this darkest of albums.Make It Back is the final track and describes the moment when you stare in to the abyss and decide whether you’re going down or not; the darkest hour before the dawn: 3am and the bottles are lined up in rows on the floor again Summer in Siam plays on repeat again, we never get sick of it Now that I’m home again, in the kitchen with you There’s no-one else I can talk to The lights are all covered and dim and there’s nothing but a gentle ease here Summer In Siam plays and you and me and our whole place, we’re okay. Now that I’m in your arms again Sometime whiskey helps you deal with things you’d rather not see. And let’s you leave the worst of them behind.Ableak, startling, alternative country classic.
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