For the past 15 years, I’ve been booking, hosting and performing at Sleepless Nights, an annual Gram Parsons tribute held in San Francisco. I’ve come to learn that Parsons fans have different reasons for loving the guy. Some appreciate how he influenced the Byrds and the Rolling Stones. Others are drawn to his wild ride through life, and death – after his untimely passing at age 26, Parsons’ road manager stole his casket from the airport and set his corpse ablaze in the Joshua Tree desert. And there are other fans who believe he invented country rock. What still excites me today about his recordings are all the rabbit holes he gave us to explore. Digging through his discography led to my personal discoveries of Emmylou Harris, Tom T. Hall, Dan Penn, Judy Henske, Fred Neil, George Jones, Buffy Sainte-Marie and the Louvin Brothers.
A few years after getting into the country artists who influenced Parsons, I started reading about some of the bands that Parsons inspired. This eventually led me to the subgenre of country punk. What’s country punk? Well, it’s not quite the Supersuckers, nor is it someone’s dad wearing that shirt of Johnny Cash flipping off the camera. Country punk (or cowpunk) is so much more than that. Like a lot of underground music, country punk had its origins origins in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. At its foundation, much of this stuff is punk, post punk, power pop, new wave or rock with some of that Los Angeles-born, “Paisley Underground” guitar jangle. Needless to say, the subgenre gets its name from incorporating salient elements of country twang, blues tones and rockabilly rhythms. It should also be noted that country punk predated the whole Americana/alt country scene by a decade. But it totally seeded the soil of such roots rockers as Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, Whiskeytown and then Ryan Adams, Neko Case, Drive-By Truckers and almost everyone else who has ever combined twangy guitars with distortion pedals. Nobody really knows who the first country punk band was, but the movement sparked when underground musicians began discovering and sharing classic country records. This inspired bands and artists who were looking to try something different from the neon MTV trappings of the ’80s.
Any true underground music tribe has its own companion film. The punks have Suburbia. The mods have Quadrophenia. Goths have The Hunger. Cowpunks have Border Radio. Borrowing its title from a Blasters song, this 1987 indie film has been added to the Criterion Collection and features such staples of the subgenre as John Doe, Dave Alvin and Rank & File’s Tony Kinman. It also boasts a cool country punk soundtrack including the Gun Club, X, the Flesh Eaters, Chuck Prophet’s old band Green On Red and Tex & the Horseheads. Border Radio is a great opportunity to hear some essential country punk, but so is this mixtape that I just made. Some standout songs on here include Jason & the Scorchers’ incredibly catchy “White Lies” – it’s basically classic power pop gussied up in a bolo tie and cowboy boots.
Social Distortion’s 1988 gem “Like An Outlaw (For You)” blends brooding Johnny Cash inspired darkness with Ennio Morricone’s haunting spaghetti western soundtracks. The Gun Club’s 1981 raucous recording of “Sex Beat” is one of those perfect moments in punk that inspired a small population of people to start their own bands. There are also a few newer cuts in there to keep things fresh. Check out Elle King. She’s not really country punk, but a couple of her songs sound uncannily inspired by this stuff. Not to be overlooked: Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio,” one of the very few country punk songs that hit the pop charts. With its creamy, chorus-drenched guitar and an unapologetic new wave take on cowpunk, this song represents what the genre might have become had more of these bands climbed out from the underground. And by blending Byrdsian folk rock with hints of cosmic twang, “Lights of Downtown” by the Long Ryders might be responsible for turning even more people onto Gram Parsons than any of the band’s cowpunk contemporaries.