Pee 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.
Nor do members worry that lighthearted lyrics will compromise their success. "I don't think I'd mind if we got typecast as a funny band," says Woods.
Neither does King. "I don't worry about humor trivializing my music," he says. When asked whether the humor carries an agenda, King's response is "the only agenda to the humor is to get people to lighten up and have a good time."
That's not to say, however, that Quinn and the boys merely yuck it up. Two notable deviations from the comical include Quinn's earnest "I Don't Believe in Angels," about the loss of a close friend, and King's tender lullaby to his daughter (don't be dissuaded by the title), "Daddy's in a Honky Tonk Downtown."
Serious, too, is the band's musicianship. Not only are Quinn, Woods and King capable of seemingly effortless harmony, but every member is an accomplished instrumentalist. Drummer Elliot has shared the stage with Danny Gatton and is the only full-time musician in the group. Martin bent steel in the Cold Steel Benders before playing in HTC. Quinn notes that "It's really hard to find a great steel guitar player, let alone in Washington, D.C.," but she feels she's found one in Martin.
King moved from clarinet to harmonica to guitar and "finally picked up the bass fiddle" during his senior year of high school. Stints in bluegrass bands in college and over a decade in country rock bands followed. "Then," says King, "I needed a real job and couldn't get one, so I went to library school at University of Maryland."
Woods says, "My family was kind of musical," and "I insisted on getting myself some guitar lessons." His musical influences progressed from the Beatles and Stones to Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad and eventually to bluegrass. Then the dark days came. "I went directly from playing bluegrass to playing Top 40 in a motel band," he says. "We were a remarkably unsuccessful band," he is almost happy to admit; the reason, he explains, is that they wouldn't play enough disco.
Quinn, whose relationship with Woods extends beyond the musical stage, remarks that he "can just about play anything" and do it tastefully. "That's why I chose him for my group and my boyfriend," she adds.
For her own part, Quinn has been immersed in music since her crackers-and-juice days: "It all started when I was six and my father (who played banjo) told me I was going to take guitar lessons," she says. Her instructor, Sophocles Papas, was in fact acquainted with none other than Andrés Segovia. Quinn says that she had the opportunity to attend a master class taught by Segovia, but decided to be "the generalist" instead. Her interests turned to Medieval music and the lute in high school, and by college she was in a bluegrass group that called themselves the "Rocky Mountain Oyster Shit Kickin' Band."
Out of college, during "the very beginning of the punk movement," Quinn founded the punk/new wave band Tru Fax, which still performs, but "only occasionally," she says. As if all their musical experience weren't varied enough, members of HTC also hold distinct, atypical day jobs for musicians. Martin is a master diesel mechanic. King, described as "the world's loudest librarian" by his bandmates, is, he explains, "the boss of a small information center at EPA headquarters." Quinn says Woods is "an out-of-work computer programmer," but he prefers the term "consultant."
Quinn herself is a writer and producer at the Washington bureau of CBS news. Asked whether or not she appears on TV, her answer is "Well, the back of my head might." She says that she's "yelled more questions" at political figures than she'd care to remember. Quinn's father was a correspondent for NBC news for over 20 years, and, after hearing stories about his work, Quinn decided that his would be "a really cool job."
"I've been in the business since '79," she says; she began at NBC radio. Since she's been in bands all the time she's been in broadcasting, Quinn says, "I really had to keep a dual personality." Because of her work, she adds, "I've never been able to dye my hair the color pink I'd like." Juggling a demanding job, three bands, and a musician boyfriend can't be easy, and Quinn admits that certain domestic sacrifices must be made: "You should come over and see what my house looks like."