Circa '85, Los Angeles' punk-centric music scene carried a heavy whiff of what at least one suspicious young scenemaker referred to as "that hick shit." For almost every din-loving nihilist (the Germs' Darby Crash, say, or Henry Rollins and Greg Ginn of Black Flag), there was a traditionalist in plaid conjuring modern visions of forgotten pasts.
One such shit-kicker was Dave Alvin, a working-class romantic whose band, the Blasters, played a twangy R&B that sat well with the local punks, not to mention John Mellencamp, who once wrote a song especially for the band. During their heyday, the Blasters often shared a stage with X. The bands were kindred spirits: Both appreciated classic country for its bent-note beauty and lyrical honesty.
In '85, Alvin joined X's John Doe, D.J. Bonebrake and Exene Cervenka, as well as upright bassist Jonny Ray Bartel, to form the Knitters, an acoustic side project that paid tribute to the sounds of old-time country. The band made one recording, "Poor Little Critter on the Road" (1985), and then quickly disappeared.
In essence, the recently released "Poor Little Knitter on the Road: A Tribute to the Knitters" is a tribute to a tribute band, but it's also a labor of love. The compilation is a product of Bloodshot Records, a shoestring Chicago outfit that is to insurgent (or, if you prefer, "alt-") country music what the label Rawkus is currently to cutting-edge rap.
The original Knitters record was by no means a crowning achievement for any of the musicians involved; it was a tossed-off collection of mostly re-worked X tunes and assorted covers, a few of which the band failed to treat with reverence. But the record was profound in other ways. For starters, it made the point that American guitar-based music, regardless of its presumed origins, is inextricably linked to the music of the hills. And perhaps more significantly, the Knitters demonstrated that country music made independently of Nashville could be a decidedly punk-like pursuit.
"Poor Little Knitter" suffers few of the original's shortcomings. The songs are arranged in the same sequence as the '85 release, but the interpreters pounce on the source material -- X songs and the original singers that X was covering -- with the intent to make their own versions definitive.
In the Knitters' hands, "The Call of the Wreckin' Ball" was a fun approximation of a back-porch drinkin' song. After hearing Robbie Fulks sing the same tune, you may never let your daughter go out with that unshaven mechanic. Whiskeytowns David Ryan Adams is a gifted songwriter whos found a way to kick his hyperbole habit by singing about someone elses demons. Whiskeytown doing the Knitters doing Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" rivals anything the band's ever released
Cervenka was an indomitable presence in both the Knitters and X. Her deep coyote whine is and was unmistakable. In retrospect, she can be seen as a kind of missing link between Patsy Cline and Corin Tucker. So it's fitting that "Poor Little Knitter" doubles as a showcase for a clutch of talented barroom chanteuses. Foremost among them is Freakwater's Catherine Irwin, who joins the Sadies for a sing-along rendition of "Walkin' Cane." Even though she only gets a few bars of solo time, Irwin compiles years of regret into every exhausted note that she breathes. Kelly Hogan and the Rock*A*Teens, aided by live-sounding production, make "Someone Like You" sound so timeless that it's surprising to learn that it was written in the '80s.
In "Poor Little Knitter"' liner notes, Bloodshot co-founder Rob Miller writes about how hearing the Knitters for the first time was the beginning of the end for him. From then on, country music, at least the kind that the Knitters tried to conjure, no longer sucked. To use Miller's word, it "rocked." In the process of honoring that youthful awakening, Miller's helped give an erstwhile footnote its own short page in the history book.