The idea punk rock and country music could find common ground must seem pretty unlikely to most fans of popular music. However, it shouldn't really be too much of a surprise. If you think back to the early days of rock and roll when the music was still a hybrid of country and blues.
Rockabilly was simple three chord music which captured the imagination of young people because it was different from anything that had come before. It was music stripped down to the basics usually played by three to four musicians. It was fast and furious, full of energy and didn't sound like anything anybody's parents were listening to.
The 1970s saw rock and roll becoming a big business. Its rebellious nature had long since been tamed and neutered and the music was now safe for mass consumption. So when punk came along with its whiff of anarchy and revolution all wrapped up in three minute three chord songs, a new generation of rebellious teenagers had something they could call their own. It definitely wasn't the music their parent's listened to. It was raw, powerful and in your face in a way music hadn't been in years. However, you didn't need to look very closely to see the similarities between it and what had come out of Sun Records in the 1950s. Three or four musicians playing stripped down music at speed.
While the folks in Nashville might not like it, but Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Elvis have more in common with Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer than any of the rhinestone set who appear on stage at the Grand Ole Opry these days. Thankfully there are still some bands out there who understand this connection and one who I've just come across are the in your face named I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House. While the band's name might lead you to believe they're a bunch of good ole boy red necks who sing about the joys of bar fights and moonshine, listening to their soon to be released new CD, Mayberry, quickly dispels that impression.
Musically they're a hard driving rock and roll band who mix the earthiness of country with the anger and danger of punk. Their line up might resemble your average blues based rock and roll bar band; lead singer/guitarist (Michael Dean Damron) harmonica (David Lipkind) drums (Flapjack Texas) bass (Mole Harris) and second guitar (Jon Burbank), but you only have to hear one song to know they are not your average anything. In fact, it's pretty safe to say the average country fan would take one look at these guys and run away screaming with its tail between its legs.
It's not that their music is abrasive or they look particularly odd - no noticeable piercings, strange clothes or any of the so called badges of punk to be seen among them - but their lyrics will make quite a number of people uncomfortable. Starting with the opening and title track of the disc, "Mayberry", and with a only a couple of exceptions, each of them has something to say about the state of life in the United States, and the world, which doesn't jibe with the vision espoused by the family values/ National Rifle Association crowd.
The title of "Mayberry" is a reference to the name of the town in the old Andy Griffith Show but it's sure not a song of praise for small town rural America. Contrasting the idealized world of the television show with reality depicts the breadth of the gap between fact and fiction. "I saw my mama get beat again/he put her head right through the door/daddy always cleaned his guns in front of me/so I shut down my heart and I turned on my TV/so I shut down my heart and I turned on my TV/They don't make men like Andy Griffith any more/Mayberry is dead and gone"
If "Mayberry" doesn't raise people's hackles, and maybe it could be construed as wishing for a gentler, kinder America, which only ever existed in the minds of television executives and conservative politicians, there's no mistaking what's being said in "Bones", the disc's sixth track. "Go on now tell me about religion/why we all choose a side/got our flags and our weapons/tell me why so many die in your name/in your name.../we're all just bones in the end/all just bones". Of course some people may not be able to get past the first verse of the song where Damron address God directly without having an apoplectic fit, "If I'm made in your image/don't want to be a bit like you anymore/anymore".
The thing is, unlike other bands Damron and company aren't trying to shock people. No there's something far more powerful at work here. These are songs about disillusionment with the bullshit we're all fed about country, god and whatever way of life is espoused by the politicians in your neighbourhood. Sure he's singing about America, because that's where he lives, but the lyrics could apply to any country, any religion and any political system on the face of the earth. However, what makes them so potent is you come away from listening to their songs left with no doubt as to their sincerity.
Even a song like "My Guitar", a basic praise song to those musicians who influenced Damron, escapes being the sentimental tripe these types of things normally turn out to be. In part this is due to the style of music the band plays. Rough hewn rock and roll with its country and blues roots showing and not an overdub or electronic sound to be heard. While there are plenty of bands who do the same thing, these guys bring something extra to the table which elevates their sound into something special. It's hard to describe in words, but maybe its how the music works in concert with the lyrics and Damron's voice and delivery which takes them out of the realm of merely being another bar band.
Damron has one of those voices which can only be described as raw passion. There's nothing refined or pretty about it. He strains and pushes to reach notes and his voice sometimes cracks with the effort involved in getting the words out. However, this is no artfully constructed artifice nor some sort of affectation. Each word sounds like its being dragged out of his heart and spat out with all the passion of his soul. He's one of those rare singers who sound truly possessed by the spirit of his music and the need to sing his songs. It wouldn't matter if there were ten people or 10,000 in his audience, you just know he would sound exactly the same.
Punk rock isn't necessarily a few people on stage playing as fast as they can and screaming incoherently into their microphones. It's about the willingness to do things your own way and express thoughts others might not be willing to say. Rock and roll in the 1950s was something threatening because it challenged the established notions of what constituted popular music and encouraged its audience to express themselves in ways their parents didn't approve. In the 1970s punk did much the same thing and tossed the social/political content of folk music into the mix.
I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House might not sound like we've been told punk is supposed to sound like. Yet the spirit, verve and sincerity they bring to their music makes it just as dangerous and frightening to those who value conformity as anything Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Sex Pistols or The Clash gave us. If that ain't punk, I don't know what is. While Mayberry won't be officially released until early June 2013 the band is selling copies of the disc at gigs from now until then. For details about upcoming shows where the disc will be for sale check the band's web site.
(Article first published as Music Review: I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House - Mayberry on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted May 2013)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.