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By Mike Seeley
For a country-music guy, Mark Stuart did one helluva punk rock thing: he made a swear word an integral part of his band's name. Granted, "bastard" may not be the worst expletive in the book, but it's enough to forever banish him and the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash from family-friendly country radio.
The name is also more than a joke; it's a statement of purpose. Stuart and the Bastards play "outlaw" country (or "insurgent" country, for all you regular readers of No Depression magazine), which makes up the tastier half of the ever-widening cultural divide that has marked country music since the '60s. Play any variation of twangy music these days, and you're branded as either "Nashville" or "outlaw."
To be considered "Nashville" is not a good thing, quality-wise. The tag has become synonymous (at least in smarty-pants critic circles) with the kind of bland, country-pop crapola produced by such gruesomely well-scrubbed, perfectly-manicured acts as Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and Billy Ray "Mullett God" Cyrus. Sure, the Nashville machine may be responsible for transforming country from a regional, Southern music into a worldwide phenomenon, but look (and listen) to what popular, as-played-on-the-radio country has become . . . yecchh!Good luck finding grungy-looking vets like Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson around the dial anymore, or even their sonic stepchildren such as Steve Earle.
Despite their cheeky name, though, the Bastards really had no choice but to be outlaws. For starters, they broke Unwritten Nashville Rule Number One, which dictates that if you want to be part of the system, you've got to be a local; the Bastards grew up in San Diego's small-but-lively roots-rock scene and had no desire to uproot themselves to the wilds of urban Tennessee. Plus, they play a bit louder than ordinary country bands. "We're like a rock & roll band that plays country," says Stuart. "No fiddles, no mandolins, no hoo-hah, just guitars, guitars, guitars."
All the same, though, this is still country music. The Bastards' songs on their latest CD, Walk Alone, are mostly about truckers, loneliness and woman problems—good, driving tunes that Stuart wrote and delivers in his rich baritone of a voice. That's no great upheaval from the decades of country's honky-tonk tradition, but, says Stuart, "We're not reinventing anything. We're trying to make it sound fresh and give it a good edge."
The outlaw tag hasn't sold a lot of CDs yet, but it has worked for the Bastards in other ways. They've opened for Haggard, played at Nelson's annual Fourth of July picnic and even got belated permission from Johnny Cash to use his hallowed name. It has also given them free reign to terrorize the evil manufacturers of corporate country, just like the punkers they're not.
"Country takes itself too seriously," Stuart says. "It needed some danger put back into it." Amen to that, brother.The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash perform with BR5-49 at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Wed., 9 p.m. $16. All ages.