ee Wee may be gone - as Honky Tonk Confidential mockingly laments, in bluegrass style, on their new album "Your Trailer or Mine?" - but country music's sense of humor isn't. While a host of Top 40 country recording artists are relying on one catchy hook or a few clever rhymes to prove their wit and insight, this Washington D.C.-based country band spins yarns whose humor and satire are pervasive.
"In D.C., there's a rich tradition of political satire, from Mark Russell to the Capitol Steps to the Pheromones, and people appreciate it if it's well done," says HTC writer, bassist and vocalist Geff King.
HTC is hoping to spread the satire beyond the city's beltway with their new album. Though some numbers are regionally inspired - "That Depends (On What You Mean by Lonesome)," for example, has links to the Starr Report (namely Clinton's contingent definitions of "is") - songwriter Diana Quinn, who also sings and plays guitar, emphasizes their intended universal appeal. "I think it's a broad audience" that the band envisions, says Quinn.
There are limits to local inspiration, however: "I'm not sure we would write an Enron song," she confides.
The group formed about five years ago when Quinn was playing in a blues band. Mike Woods, HTC's electric guitarist, vocalist and dobro-ist, approached Quinn about starting a country band.
Quinn's response was, "Okay - I'll be in your band if you'll be in the band that I want to form."
That band was a '60s-style girl group that continues to perform and is known as the Fabulettes. (The band was formerly titled the Towering Bouffants, until an out-of-court settlement with a similarly named group - Quinn is loath to provide many details.)
"Your Trailer" is actually the band's sophomore effort. In 1998, they released an eponymous debut, which went on to win a Washington Area Musicians Association Award as well as accolades from the press.
HTC's recently released aural document employs a variety of musical styles, from bluegrass to Bakersfield, Western swing to loping waltz to tackle Midwest hotel-room murder, excessive consumption of alcohol and a series of questionable events taking place in a trailer park. The musical musings were recorded by King, Quinn and Woods along with Bobby Martin on pedal steel guitar and Dave Elliott on drums.
The 16 songs detail longstanding opinions members have held regarding Top 40 country ("Hit with a Bullet"), falsification of the cowboy image ("Cowboy, Whatcha Got on Me?," and "Big Hat, No Cattle"), the moral demise of Pee Wee Herman (the aforementioned "Pee Wee's Gone") and technologically informed enthusiasts of rural life ("Hi-Tech Redneck" - no, not the one George Jones sang. This one actually predates that one).
The opinions expressed in lyric and liner note are anything but equivocal, especially concerning the dreaded waters of mainstream country. So what's the band got against the glossy sound of Hat Acts, anyway?
King's take is that "country music is just a metaphor for what's happening with popular music as a whole. The people who do the work of making music...all work for some big corporations who aren't selling music anymore."
When he tries to listen to a country station, he says, "I get this weird kinda sad and complacent feeling. Now and again I hear a fiddle or a steel guitar and say, 'Oh yeah - this is the country station.'"
Woods shares a similar take, also pointing to a bland, generic sound in radio country: "If you just remove the steel guitar and the lead vocal, you could replace (it with) Eric Clapton or Mark Knopfler."
States Quinn simply, "The major labels are still in their quagmire." She sets her sights on smaller labels and musical tributaries to return the integrity to country."
"Alternative country is alternative to what they call ‘country' on the radio," she says. (King suggests radio country music change its label to "conservative contemporary.") Quinn describes alt.-country as a "do-it-yourself movement, the way punk and new wave was a do-it-yourself movement."
Alt.-country is not, however, spared HTC's wry scrutiny. In the album's liner notes, the band describes King's "Check-Out Time," a macabre yet uptempo narrative in which Woods delivers convincing Haggardesque guitar riffs, as having "all the ingredients for the perfect alt.-country song: a car, a death, a motel room and references to the Midwest and Merle Haggard."
In fact, most songs are filled with the band's unflinching, at times downright sassy, commentary. In "Cowboy, Whatcha Got on Me?," a song about the artifice of the urban cowboy co-written by Quinn, she sings "your jeans are much too tight/and your chromosomes ain't right," followed by her disclosing to women listeners that this type "stuffs a big banana down his pants (‘Ew!' sound effect here)."
Not exactly cryin'-in-your-beer material, which is how the band likes it. Quinn, who says she is tired of "weepy, mopey" country songs, notes that the band "has a pretty good outlook on life. We're not really tragic figures," she adds.