From one chord wonders to three chords and the truth: 10 artists who went from punk to country

I like to think that I’ve come to know Ramona well. Indeed I’d probably go so far as to say I’ve got a bit of a crush. Who wouldn’t carry at least a small torch for someone identifying as a ‘no-show Jones in Skateboard world’? It feels like she’s had a journey similar to mine, like we’ve made the same moves, thrashed around in the same mosh-pits, and used the same cheap eye-liner, badly.

I’m guessing she’s not a Yorkshire lass though cos I never saw her in the 1-in-12 Club, the Fenton, the Fforde Green or the F Club back in the day and lately she’s been conspicuous by her absence from the Trades, 7 Arts, Brudenell or the Live Room. In fact she remains a bit of a mystery all round.

Come to think of it, all I really know about her comes from the stories heard in songs sung by the likes of Robbie Fulks and BR549. She used to like ‘Every Kind of Music but Country’ then experienced the same kind of epiphany as me, one that sent her ‘Hillbilly Nuts’, sacking off punk rock in favour of Hank and Emmy-Lou in the process. Now though she lives happily with a boot in each camp as a ‘Punk Rockin’ Honky Tonk Girl’.

So Ramona, this one’s for you and the rest of us out there who’ve crossed the tracks – perhaps never to return. Let’s all put aside our preconceptions and our misplaced factional loyalties to share in a few minutes of transformative punk to country action. Not betrayal, dumbing down or selling out… just fast, loud and funky, hillbilly whine infused, twangcore crossovers.

Let’s keep it light though; no pseudy / clichéd navel gazing about the genres’ shared roots of outsider status, rebellion, solidarity with the working man and woman blah blah blah. No interrogations of the well documented, decades long connections between punk and country, covered in detail by both camps (see Saving Country Music and ‘Vive le Rock’ for instance). Definitely no snooty mocking of the ‘devil, whiskey, cocaine, trucks, dirt roads….’ cliché merchants who are really just rubbish at punk and country. Not even a tongue in cheek rehashing of famous stories of punk/country collisions like Ely supporting the Clash, Cash covering Nine Inch Nails, Jack White producing Loretta, the emergence of ‘cowpunk’, or even Escovedo (in the Nuns) opening for the Pistols’ at their last ever gig.

Before we start then let’s establish some basic rules for the journey – all of which we will of course break, in the true spirit of our pioneers:

These are artists who began their careers making punk rock records and at some point down the road started making country ones.

We are not interested in one-off songs or tongue in cheek country side projects. These are artists who have adopted the full country ensemble not dressed up for a one-off fancy dress party.

As part of the adoption of the country mantle we value original material over country covers.

Oh and, of course, ‘good country’ only; no ‘bro’, ‘hat’ or ‘pop’ acts.

NO Hank III and NO banjos… (definitely not breaking this one…)

Defining what is ‘punk’ or ‘country’ is entirely at the writer’s discretion – all queries, comments or raging disagreements should be raised through the proper channels.

Let’s get to it then, a celebration of those who have traded in their safety-pin T-shirts for Manuel suits and made the change with a guitar in hand, a pain in their heart and a tear in their beer.

X: Let’s begin with X who are the 9th (or is it 11th?) best band in the world and, with their first new record for 27 years due, inspired the completion of this long-mooted piece. The X punk / country / roots web is a tangled one indeed. Many bands, many records and many U-turns giving many musical directions. Along with the original LA punks X and their country alter-egos the Knitters there are the Flesheaters, Auntie Christ, the Eyes, John Doe, Exene Cervenka and DJ Bonebreak  solo and collab’s galore. All we need to know is that they were uncompromisingly punk, unapologetically country and constantly brilliant.

The Knitters 

The Supersuckers: Always the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. We’re all adults though, right!? So we can handle the unreconstructed badass trailerpark attitude and the most limited acquiescence to ‘appropriateness’ possible. Everyone needs a dose of this in their lives occasionally – some of us more often. Lead ‘sucker Eddie Spagghetti is the country driving force in the band and his solo work is also worth a listen.

Social Distortion: Main man Mike Ness was another California transplant and part of the late 70’s / early 80’s LA punk scene. Social D (you do call them that, right?) never got their due, perhaps in part because of Ness’ early adoption of a country stance which was scorned by SoCal hardcore movers and shakers’. He definitely deserves more recognition for his uncompromising commitment to the core elements of both punk and country – an occasional smile might help though Mike!

Mike Ness

Screamin’ Sirens: Screamin’s Sirens were endearingly tinny-sounding punks, almost the embodiment of the lazy cliché about punk rocker’s lack of musicality. They were fun though. Rosie Flores left the band, grew up and made really, really good country records – with the odd rockabilly frisson to hark back to earlier days.

Mekons: Yes sure we could have picked a later song than Chivalry, one where they sound even more country but ‘Fear and Whiskey‘ is where the change began, for me if not for them. But actually for them too I think – as well as approximately 50% of the entire Bloodshot roster – where  Langford’s punk-2-country legacy is perhaps greatest of all.

Against Me: And talking of Bloodshot, they released the country tinged debut of Against Me leader and singer Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers. Lots of important backstory here but too much for now so just marvel at a thrilling transformation from shouty ‘right on’ punk rock to shouty ‘right on’ (alt) country oddness.

Nine Pound Hammer: ‘There’s always been a country element to our music’ they may protest. Sure but it was pretty well hidden and never twanged right, until much later.

The Dils & The Nuns: An actual punk-2-country BOGOF. Two punk bands split and three members come together to produce one ground-breaking Alt-Country band; that’s Chip and Tony Kinman + Alejandro Escovedo = Rank and File. Even the NME loved ‘em back in 1983, so they must have been good. Quite a lot of decent stuff produced after Rank and file capitulated in 1987 too, if memory serves.

The Dictators: Their three late 70s / early 80s LPs are absolutely fundamental to East coast punk rock with their ‘junk-generation culture and smart-ass sensibility’.  The influence from these records is manifold and continues today. The best punk-2-country connection and the one we are interested in here is Dictators’ guitarist & songwriter Scott Kempner forming and leading the Del Lords, one of the absolute great lost roots-rock bands of all time (watch this space…).

Foo Fighters: Foo Fighters, Punk? A stretch too far for some perhaps but not for Grohl himself, who in the early days of the band at least was very clear about their punk heritage. The Foos themselves have not moved on that much in a 20 plus year career but their current guitarist Chris Shifflet continues to make some great pure country-sounding records of his own.

Honourable mentions also to:

Steve Kidwiller – NOFX/Speedbuggy, Gregg Zilinskis – Dead Hippy/Blood on the Saddle, Ryan Adams – The Finger/Whiskeytown, Brian Fallon – Gaslight Anthem/Solo, Jesse Malin – D Generation/Solo, Frank Turner – Million Dead/Solo & JB Beverley – Murder Junkies & Little White Pills/Wayward Drifters

(With thanks and apologies to Chuck Mead and Tim Carroll)

Author: Guy Lincoln

I’m a waning academic and hesitant PhD student taking on reviewing as a way to engage with something more meaningful. I’ve loved this Americana stuff since before it was even alt-country, so it’s time to see if I can communicate this feeling beyond my affective imaginings (I'm trying to escape from pseud's corner too!).

2 thoughts on “From one chord wonders to three chords and the truth: 10 artists who went from punk to country”

  1. Guy, I love you more with every article. This is simply a brilliant piece. It really resonates with me having made that journey from skinny orange-haired teenager to fat and thinning middle-aged guy in a checked shirt.

    1. Thanks Clint, much appreciated.

      I’m just pleased that I’ve managed to sneak The Dictators, Social D and The Nuns on to A.UK!

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