We are here to talk about Cowpunk in the 1980s, but we’ll begin with a caveat. This is a totally personal take on the story of cowpunk. It’s my version of the history, of what cowpunk is, of how and why it started and who was good (and not so good). It’s an outsider’s view and a biased one at that. I never saw most of these bands, never went to any of their clubs and I only visited California 30 years after the fact. Pretty much everything I knew about these bands (they were ALL bands – safety in numbers or collective responsibility perhaps?) came from, or started in the pages of the NME. Also, when the name cowpunk was coined and became used semi-regularly (1979 seems to be year zero) it was only really as a way to differentiate this stuff from the mainstream of country music. The music it delineated was largely indistinguishable from what others were calling twangcore, insurgent country or even plain old alt-country but Cowpunk is what we are going with here – for good reasons that will become apparent.
As such a signifier of difference, it represented a rebellion of sorts. A rebellion with a limited end-game perhaps. One that simply sought to differentiate itself from the mass produced, mainstream sounds of country music at the time. Positioning the practitioners of cowpunk as independently minded, non-conformist purveyors of country oriented music. Noisy oiks who didn’t give a fxck for Ronnie Milsap, The Bellamy Brothers, Barbara Mandrell or Don Williams. Early in the life of country music there was no need for such an insurrection, it was itself fundamentally anti-establishment, on the side of the outsider. But as country music matured and was co-opted into the mainstream as a commercially viable form of mass entertainment then it was neutered to suit popular taste and those who were uncomfortable or constrained in this space felt the need to make clear their difference; their authenticity or ‘realness’. This is something that perhaps began in the 1960s with Bakersfield or maybe the 70’s with the Outlaw movement but has continued on ever since, a long and proud history of unruly outsiders kicking against the pricks.
What we see as today’s incarnation of this rebellion though is too easily read as whining about not getting an even break – usually, as the whine goes, because ‘real country, like the kind we make, is ignored nowadays’ (AKA: ‘someone else has got famous, not me’). As the first track on an inexplicably feted record from last year has it “it used to be about honest song, before the dollar sign took its place”. Let’s not embarrass this band by naming them, or encourage a rush of complaints along the lines of “you’re so wrong, Mxxxxxxxxe Bxxxxxxxe are the real deal”. Let’s just say they are about as authentically non-mainstream as Midland yet both (and many others) still manage to employ all the tropes of being an ‘alternative’ to the anodyne, emasculated stuff clogging up the charts. Thus the antidote to bland commodified country has itself become codified – it seems like it is country and not pop that is eating itself! The point here is that you have to pick your insurgence carefully, sometimes it’s real and sometimes it isn’t. The cowpunk stuff was unquestionably real and still is for that matter. Nothing could be so weird, so manic and so unhinged if it was genuinely shooting for a majority audience.
This is a story of country music and punk rock and how they got together in the 80s, or perhaps how they finally made their relationship public after many years of keeping it under wraps. In truth they have never been totally separate items. Early country had an attitude that the much later punks would have been proud of, it was rudimentary, based around tight knit local scenes and foregrounded the social concerns of the outsider and the underdog. As such it was rebellious, it came from and reflected the underbelly. As did punk in the late 70s, of course. Perhaps these two seemingly oddly matched partners didn’t want the world to know about their relationship, about all the things they had in common and before cowpunk they certainly hadn’t given themselves a contrived compound couple name like Brangelina or TaCo (nope, me neither). As with all boundless relationships eventually it has to come into the open and the emergence of cowpunk was their coming out, a glorious public affirmation of the splendour they created when conjoined.
In the late 1970s country and rock music are both in a bad way. The Nashville Sound / Countrypolitan hegemony has reached its bloated, string laden and over-produced apotheosis. The promise of the Laurel Canyon hippies has dissolved in a fog of drug induced torpor and tune free self-indulgent exhibitionism rules the rock roost. Denizens of both scenes, who are bored and alienated from the music being made in their name, are desperately searching for an alternative. Both disaffected groups turn their back on the music being made and return to the origins of their music, rediscovering the rebellious outsider streak and generating the energy and excitement that was at its core. With country and punk experiencing such similar circumstances it is little wonder that they end up turning to each other, recognising in each other the disaffection and longing that has fuelled their (re)discovery of their pasts, be that primordial 60s garage or hard-core honky-tonk and rockabilly.
This meeting of the minds (bodies and souls too) came from both sides at the same time and nowhere was this more pronounced than in Southern California where the music was anchored in a foundation of traditional American sounds. Cowpunk wasn’t restricted to California but it offers a perfect microcosm of what went on – punk bands playing on country bills and vice versa, bands and artists having country/punk alter-egos (X and the Knitters for example), cover versions of songs from the other genre. People from both scenes gradually started to realise what was happening and that they were part of something. The name cowpunk was a perfect encapsulation of the sound, the attitude and the scene in general but it was never deliberate or worked out, as can be seen with all the other names that were floating around at the same time. This confusion of designations tends to obscure the specific nature of cowpunk, which we are here taking to represent music with the swing and swagger, the harmonies and the twang of classic country and the high speed tempos, rabble rousing delivery and riffing of punk rock. Some of it sounds like punk rock with a pedal steel, some of it sounds like country music with punk rock electric guitars and some is a perfect mix of the two.
The selection below gives a full range of sounds and artists and records that were huddled under the cowpunk banner. I’m going to be contentious in some of my selections too. These are all my cowpunk but they may not be yours, or anyone else’s for that matter. It was (and still is) most definitely a thing but nobody at the time had the definitive scorecard and still nobody does. Cowpunk is all over cyberspace now and, for example, some of the playlists on Spotify feature a bunch of these bands and then a whole host of bands who should never be anywhere near such a list (Lone Justice, The Blasters and The Gun Club – great, but never here…).
There is also an excess of first albums here, possibly because it is difficult to maintain this level of intensity and weirdness beyond that first power surge. This could be why it is possible to see the emergence of ‘Americana’, with its own set of rules and tropes, as a catch all for every alternative. One which has been nicely co-opted into the mainstream as a less threatening home for all the outsiders, outlaws and others that were one day, may years ago, cowpunks.
But the commodification of the y’alternative is a story for another time. Today we can just enjoy a selection of noisy, trash talking renegades, cow-punking it up with the best of them…
Number 10: Jon Wayne ‘Texas Funeral’ (1985)
We will begin with some wilfully obscure oddness, allied to a cover of a Haggard country classic. The Texas Funeral LP was originally released in 1985 to a flurry of silent apathy despite containing 7 of 12 songs with ‘Texas’ in the title. Its origins remain shrouded in mystery and it has developed a singular cult status in the intervening years. This track was actually on the Third Man Records re-release from 2012, not on the original.
Number 9: Tex and the Horseheads ‘Tex and the Horseheads’ (1984)
Texacala Jones sings poignantly about a drug addict mother who abandons her kids (probably) whilst Mike Martt, Smog Vomit and Rock Vodka bash away in a rudimentary but supremely catchy way. 8 songs, 25 minutes, one epiphany. Tex is still knocking ‘em dead in Austin apparently.
Number 8: Blood on the Saddle ‘Blood on the Saddle’ (1984)
Released in 1984, the band is Blood on the Saddle, the (debut) LP is ‘Blood on the Saddle’, the song is ‘Blood on the Saddle’ and the label is … you guessed it, new alliance records. They did have a decent-ish career (7 or 8 albums) but they had to get much more proficient, slower and far less exciting to do it.
Number 7: Rank and File ‘Long Gone Dead’ (1984)
Born of true punk, The Dils, sounding like classic pure country. YouTube says: “Rank and File was an American country rock band established in 1981 in Austin Texas by Chip Kinman and Tony Kinman …” LastFM.com says: “Rank and File was an American punk rock band established in 1981 in Austin Texas by Chip Kinman and Tony Kinman …”. And there you have it.
Number 6: Leaving Trains ‘Kill Tunes’ (1986)
Yeah I know, you won’t find this lot on any other cowpunk list west of nowhereville. Well they’re all wrong. Just listen and you will hear why. It evens namechecks Arizona. Plus we’re all suckers for fake applause right? Even if it is the most desultory 2 seconds ever committed to tape.
Number 5: The Mekons ‘Fear and Whiskey’ (1985)
It’s not entirely a US phenomenon either. Lots of punks in Leeds in 1985 and lots of cows in the Welsh valleys. Hear Langford begin the epic journey that eventually took him to Chicago, Bloodshot Records and The Waco Brothers.
… and ‘Psycho Cupid – Danceband on the Edge of Time’ invents Dry Cleaning and the rest of the talky post-punk elite 40 years ahead of time.
Number 4: The Leroi Brothers ‘Protection from Enemies’ (1985)
At last, something that sounds almost like a traditional roots rock record. Wailing mouth harp – ‘mojos’, ‘honeys’ and ‘voodoo’ in the lyrics, a four square beat, choruses and a middle eight. Added angry vocals and a pervasive ‘don’t give a shit’ feel bring the punk.
Number 3: Evan Johns and the H Bombs ‘Rollin Through the Night’ (1986)
More almost meat and potatoes rootsifying here. Johns plays on the previous record but left the Leroi’s to make this debut. Clearly the Brothers country rock testifying wasn’t anywhere near unhinged or downright out of control for him. He puts all that right on this record.
Number 2: Meat Puppets ‘Meat Puppets II’ (1984)
Kirkwood, Kirkwood and Bostrom just about make it to the end of this track from their second album. They manage to speed up the rudimentary rockabilly beat as they go then Curt blasts an absolute killer solo, in much the same way he still does nearly 40 years later.
Number 1: X ‘Wild Gift’ (1981)
We go almost famous for the final / top Cowpunk album. Released in 1981 by the scene’s godparents. Produced by Ray Manzarek and given major label patronage this was their second and best LP, a touchstone for anyone who wants to know how country and punk could possibly get on.