As the founder of the Knitters, John Doe is often credited as one of the inventors of alt-country. Just don't tell him that.
"Hogwash," says Doe when informed of his status. "No one band can be credited for anything. I mean, even the Beatles were trying to write songs like Gene Vincent."
While often lauded as the inspiration for the scene that congealed around No Depression magazine in the late '90s, the Knitters were hardly alone. The band Doe formed in 1984 as a tribute to traditional country music -- with fellow X singer Exene Cervenka, the Blasters' Dave Alvin, and bassist Johnny Ray Bartel -- was flanked by like-minded L.A. bands such as Green on Red and Rank and File, not to mention England's Mekons. "It was in the air," says Doe. And if alt-country (a tacky label, though still less rickety than "Americana") means people who were weaned on rock, playing country, the Knitters did not invent it -- Gram Parsons and the Band did it a lot earlier.
But the Knitters -- back with the The Modern Sounds of . . ., only their second album in 20 years -- were the first to do it without a sense of duty or (more important) a trace of hippie mush. "If I ever do a Grateful Dead cover, there are several friends who have been instructed to shoot me," says Doe. The marriage of L.A.'s two most influential bands at the time began as a vehicle for playing benefit shows, but quickly developed an identity of its own: thrift-store-cowboy music, more country than country and punker than punk.
"We were kind of introducing the punk-rock audience to country music," says Doe. The band's '84 debut, Poor Little Critter on the Road, had an effortless consistency. Cervenka was sassier than she was with X and as conversationally off-pitch as ever, foiling Doe's deep croon. Their voices rang together, as on X's albums, like one of the unmistakable country duos of the past -- just one of nature's coincidences, according to Doe. "I don't know how or why, but that's the way it was," he says. "Exene and I sang the way we did together, even before we were listening to George Jones or any of that other serious country stuff." And much of the album's bite, from the stark country waltz "Someone Like You" to a ripping goof on Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line" ("I got steers! I got giraffes! I got brontosauruses!") is supplied by Alvin's rugged guitar.
"It was liberating," says Doe. "It had none of the pressure that had built up on the Blasters and X by that time. With X, you had to toe the line and be the thing -- we had a style and a career, and sometimes you have to set a boundary so that a band has a particular sound, and then you want to step outside of it. With the Knitters, we could just fool around and goof off, and nobody cared. If you make a mistake, so what? Keep playing -- it's fun."
As you age, of course, your idea of fun tends to change. The new album, occasioned by what Doe describes as a "tipping point" ("We kept talking about doing it, and then finally, we did"), is a touch mellower than the original. There's a little less hillbilly grit and a little more folksy melody. It's a reflective tone that's well suited for a cover of the Stanley Brothers' "Rank Stranger," which the Knitters slow down into an aching ballad, as well as for the English traditional "Little Margaret."
Which is not to say that The Modern Sounds of . . . doesn't bare some teeth. It includes the only studio recording of X's "Skin Deep Town," a showcase for John and Exene's underappreciated role as punk's sociologists. Over a rockabilly beat, Exene spits priceless observations about beachgoers: "They're chasing after their adolescent season, 'cause winter is what they fear most/So when they see me wearing black, they nod at each other and laugh."
The album also includes a Dick Dale-inspired instrumental, a tart version of Flatt & Scruggs' "Give Me Flowers While I'm Living," and the return of Wreckin' Ball, Doe and Alvin's animal-stomping derelict from the first album. But gutsiest of all is a potentially silly, ultimately ripping cover of "Born to Be Wild." "It was kind of like an intuition," says Doe. "I just started fooling around at rehearsal, you know -- "Geet yer motor runnin' . . ." -- making it as hillbilly as possible and then realized, 'Oh, we could just do double-time in the chorus.'" But wasn't he worried it would sound like a wacky novelty? Doe cracks up at the thought: "You've got to be joking -- the Knitters are a novelty."
All his seemingly unfeigned modesty aside, however, Doe has been impressed that a whim of a side project has been so influential. Released in 1999, in the thick of alt-country's subcultural moment, Poor Little Knitter on the Road: A Tribute to the Knitters featured the movement's best and brightest, including Ryan Adams, Kelly Hogan, and the Old 97's. "We were all really flabbergasted," says Doe. "That's totally postmodern: doing a tribute record to a tribute record."
And as ever, Doe appears less than eager to make the Alt-Country Hall of Fame. "Dave and Exene and I and DJ, we all take our solo careers really seriously," Doe explains. "With the Knitters, you care, but it's a different type of caring. It's kind of like 'Let's go out and fuck around and have fun.' And there's lots of people smiling by the end of the show."
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