Dixie dregs: In real life, Drag the River are not sepia-toned.
The Old Main Drag
Punk lifers Drag the River confound the die-hards with their deep-South twang
By Paul Davis
The blue-collar twang of country music and the three-chord immediacy of punk rock have always appealed to the downtrodden and the working class, so it's only natural for a small cabal of punks exploring the intersections of punk and country. But the resulting genre has always been a woolly, wounded, poorly defined beast, with the equally unfortunate pejoratives "alt-country" or "cowpunk" applied to it. Every band that dared to step down that dusty road has been setting itself up for a career of confused looks, offended glares (or worse) and extreme skepticism from die-hards in both camps.
You don't need to explain this to punk lifer Jon Snodgrass, who began his career in the underground faves Armchair Martian. Snodgrass has been touring the nation for the past decade with Drag the River, a light-hearted--but in no way ironic--country side project he formed in 1996 with All's Chad Price. Gradually, this extracurricular activity evolved into the main gig for these two Missouri-bred punks-for-life.
"You know back when the whole alt-country thing was going on, I hated all that genre stuff," recalls Snodgrass, whose group is now based in Colorado. "This has always been going on--X did the Knitters back in the '80s. It's just honest music."
In the past decade, Snodgrass has grown accustomed to responding to shocked fans of his old band and confused journalists, offering up a sarcastic stock answer for his and Price's move toward country. "My funny answer used to be that we liked to do it because the amps were smaller, it was just a really easy load-in at the club. We didn't have to bring the big trailer, we could bring the little trailer."
The wizened and slow, whiskey-sippin' country of Drag the River is often so contemplative that the band's punk-rock background was indiscernible on past releases. But the influence of '80s punk icons like Husker Du, the Replacements and the Clash continues to have a strong impact on the songwriting of both Price and Snodgrass, who refers to those bands with the same reverence he shares for the Hank Williams Jr. records from his childhood. "Chad and I are both from Missouri and that's what was on the radio--that and rock. When I listened to college radio stations I discovered Husker Du, but the Beatles, Bocephus and the Clash were the first things I listened to."
After a decade of confounding their punk fans with straight-ahead country, Snodgrass and Price have returned a bit closer to their rock roots with Drag the River's new release It's Crazy. "We try to make every record sound different," says Snodgrass. "This one has some of the most rock & roll songs we've ever done, but it also has some of the most country songs we've ever done too."
No matter the semantics, the style of music that Drag the River plays seems destined to appeal to a particular niche in the underground. Referring to the band's loyal but small Santa Cruz following, Snodgrass jokes that "it's little, but we've got a little following in big towns too, so it's consistent!"
But like their sonic brethren and occasional tour partners in Lucero (the twangy four-piece that has converted hardcore kids to country as Against Me's perennial opening band,) Drag the River has found that new converts to its sound come from the unlikeliest of places.
"There's always different groups of people coming across this stuff and saying, 'Y'know I really like this,'" Snodgrass says. "It's the kind of music they might have made fun of when they were 16 or 17, but it's good honest music. I don't like to listen to the same thing all the time, and who does? I'm actually kind of sick of country music right now, even though I still love it! We got this new pedal steel player a year ago and everywhere we would go he would play these records I've been listening to all my life all the time, and I was saying, 'Can we listen to some Jawbreaker right now? Something different?'"
Drag the River performs Sunday, Feb. 18, at 9pm at the Blue Lagoon, 923 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, with Tim Barry of Avail. Tickets are $5 at the door. For more information, call 831.423.7117.
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