Spinning Yarns: The Knitters, including onetime X band mates John Doe, Dave Alvin, Exene Cervenka and DJ Bonebrake, were making country punk when country punk wasn't cool.
White Punks on Dogie
John Doe and the rest of the Knitters head for Moe's Alley this weekend, their pioneering cowpunk legacy in tow.
By Steve Palopoli
These days, you can't throw a rock without hitting a punk band that plays country music. John Doe has two pieces of advice for them. The first is to write the songs that they feel, regardless of what genre the music might fall into. The second?
"Don't wear a cowboy hat."
Take it from a man who knows. Doe is best known as a singer and songwriter for the best punk band to come out of Los Angeles, X. He also has released several solo albums, including three in the last four years. But his most unusual project is undoubtedly the Knitters, the roots-rock band also populated by his X band mates Exene Cervenka and drummer DJ Bonebrake, along with singer/songwriter and former X guitarist Dave Alvin. After recording the second record no one thought they would ever make in 2000, the on-again, off-again Knitters are on again, and come to Moe's Alley on Sunday.
Back in 1985, when the Knitters released their first record Poor Little Critter on the Road, there weren't so many punkers who were openly professing their love for country music. Social Distortion had yet to record Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," sparking an influx of all things white trash into punk rock.
"At the time the Knitters came up, it was Rank and File, and Gun Club sort of fit in there," says Doe.
That's a mighty small pool of peers. Rank and File was the Los Angeles band started by Chip and Tony Kinman, formerly of the punk band the Dils (who recorded two immortal songs, "Class War" and "I Hate the Rich") and driven by the guitar of Alejandro Escovedo, formerly of the Nuns and now stubbornly unclassifiable as a solo artist. The Gun Club, who gave the world the album Fire of Love and the song "Sex Beat," could theoretically be called a crossover band, but really they were just crazy.
Even the Knitters might have never started if so much pressure hadn't arisen out of the success of X's first two hardcore albums, Los Angeles and Wild Gift, and the band's increasingly diverse follow-ups, Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World. Though Alvin's band the Blasters was less well known outside of Southern California, it was breaking up and he was preparing to launch a solo career.
"When the Knitters started, it was to keep Exene and Dave and I from losing our minds," admits Doe. "Now it's more for enjoyment, and to make a living."
The oppressive side of the pressure on Doe can be heard on Ain't Love Grand, the record X put out in 1985. Sleek and commercial, it is the band's least fun album. Its flipside was Poor Little Critter on the Road, a rocking but laid-back and loose set of roots-rock. Some of the songs, like the trailer-park anthem "Call of the Wreckin' Ball," were also downright hilarious, not a trait for which X will ever be remembered. That's no doubt part of the reason the Knitters were considered somewhat a novelty, certainly a one-off.
Almost 25 yeas later, they seem more like pioneers. In 2005, after touring on and off between stints of X and the members' solo careers, they released a second album, The Modern Sounds of the Knitters, to a world no longer puzzled by cowpunk, alt.country, No Depression or any of the other labels for the Knitters's sound.
Even Doe was more comfortable with the Knitters sound, having realized in the '90s that he didn't have to try to be Johnny Cash or George Jones to make meaningful music. "The mistake I made when I did my first solo record was I thought the punk rock stuff I had done was not as valid," he remembers.
Now, the Knitters do what they want, when they feel like it. And Doe has no trouble figuring out when it's time to get the band back together: "When we make the phone call and say 'hey, let's do this,' and everybody says yes instead of no."
THE KNITTERS play Sunday, Jan. 25, at 8pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $18 advance/$20 door, available at www.moesalley.com and 831.479.1854.
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