When Jason & The Scorchers ripped through a blazing version of "Lost Highway," or, more recently, when John Doe (formerly of the punk band X) recorded Merle Haggard's "I Just Can't Hold Myself In Line," they came closest, perhaps, to identifying the meeting place between punk and country: alienation and self-destruction are indeed common themes of both.
Angry Johnny and the Killbillies, a western Massachusetts band who recently released their first CD, Hankenstein on Tar Hut Records, also manage to make convincing "country punk," music that understands both traditions and combines the common elements. Some now label this type of music alternative or insurgent country.
The CD closes with an uncredited, ragged cover of "Frankie and Johnny" which serves notice that murder and mayhem - principal themes of Angry Johnny's music - are nothing new to country music.
Hankenstein includes such standard country instruments as guitar, harmonica, fiddle, mandolin, and lap steel. Its songs are certainly more twisted than standard country fare (in the first song a jilted lover chainsaws a man to death, the second is narrated by a corpse who has shot himself in the head, the third by a man killed in a car wreck...and so on).
But the themes are, as Angry says, country themes: "We've got drinkin', bar rooms, cheatin', killin'..."
"You know, I kind of like the lyrics. The songs kind of write themselves, actually. We recorded about 75 of my songs, and then had to whittle 'em down. And I wish, kind of, that we had included more of my heavy songs. 'Cause the guy in No Depression (magazine), you know, called us 'corny.' And I guess you can't blame him for that. But you need a sense of humor; I mean, otherwise you're The Smiths and who the heck wants to be The Smiths?"
"Sometimes I write a couple of songs a day... I drive a truck every night, back and forth to Boston, so I'm out on the road there, and I try to write something. You know, something usually goes wrong with the love of my life that day or that week, so it gives me plenty of material. What else are you going to write about if you're not writing about getting your heart busted?"
If punk music was originally intended to make rock 'n roll "dangerous again," as many of its practitioners claimed, is the purpose, then, of this curious hybrid "country punk" to return country music to its "dangerous" roots as well? Angry Johnny thinks so.
"We're the rightful heirs to Hank's throne," he claims. "Not (the current crop of Nashville acts). They're not doing anything he was doing. This is what Hank would be doing now if he had a little bit more electricity at his disposal. You know, I guess he had the best drugs there were. You could hear Hank singing our song 'Whiskey' but I bet you couldn't hear him singing Garth Brooks' 'The Dance,' you know what I mean? Even his kid doesn't do anything cool."
Invoking Hank, of course, saying that "he woulda done it this a-way," as Waylon Jennings put it nearly 20 years ago, is in itself a subgenre of country music.
Angry Johnny put a cartoon of Hank on his CD's cover - a green Hank, with Boris Karloff-like sutures across his forehead and wrists.
"I absolutely love Hank Williams. All the bozos down in Nashville would take such offense to this cover, I bet. They would call it such sacrilege..." Perhaps so.
But Angry's appreciation of Hank is sincere. He reveres other country icons as well.
"I love Johnny Cash. I love, I have this excellent old scratchy 45 of Roy Acuff, 'Wreck On The Highway,' one of the greatest songs ever written. You know, when I was a kid, my dad had this weird kind of record collection, but he had these old Tex Ritter albums...I love all the old '50's stuff, rockabilly stuff. It's real to us. I would never make fun of it. Sometimes I'm playing, like a Marty Robbins tape to somebody, or Johnny Cash, and they start making fun of it. But I would never do that. I love it."
He stumbled onto the "alt-country" scene more or less by accident. He explains that "...15 years ago I was in a real shitty punk rock band, I mean I couldn't play...I played worse than I play now, if that's imaginable."
The country element in his music has been around "a good six, seven eight years... when we broke up the first band and I wasn't doing anything, I was doing a lot of solo tapes, just playing acoustic. When I got back to playing with people, I think I brought the country stuff with me, and...I don't know where it came from."