By Daniel Kohn
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Depending on how late it's getting and how many drinks have been chugged, certain names inevitably pop up when the conversation turns to Who Was the First Punk: Iggy Pop? No. Johnny Cash? No. Hank Williams? No. Lao Tzu? Wait—he was the first hippie.
A few salient facts quickly stand out. First, there's a reason intellectual punks don't have many friends. Second, there's also a reason why country icons (giving you enough credit to realize we're not talking about Garth Fucking Brooks) and their music resonate so powerfully with so many people who know that Milo went to college.
Fort Collins, Colorado-based Drag the River obviously realize that. The roots/Americana/don't-call-them-alt.-country band features and has featured members of well- and lesser-known punk bands like the Descendents, All, the Nobodys and the woefully underappreciated Armchair Martian.
With artists like the Supersuckers and Mike Ness having released country-tinged or outright country albums, and major acts like Ryan Adams covering Black Flag songs, country from punk bands and vice versa is well-established.
"Country's pretty punk," says Drag the River singer/guitarist Jon Snodgrass. "Country music is pretty heartfelt and honest, and so is punk rock. I can see people gravitating to that." It can even unite snotty brats with their shitkicker parents. "Sometimes if they're really cool punk kids, they'll bring their dad to the show."
Not all twang-punkers necessarily pick up on that honesty, choosing instead to focus on cowboy hats and matching bandannas. "I don't like that kind of thing, the wardrobe thing," Snodgrass says. "Shit, when any of us play in our other bands, we look exactly the fucking same. The only difference is the amps are smaller and the guitars are all wooden."
Sometimes the differences between the two worlds Drag the River inhabits aren't as pronounced as they might seem. "It's not hard for us to write a country song, because we don't try. If you put a pedal steel on any Armchair Martian song, and you play it with an acoustic guitar, it's going to sound like a Drag the River song," muses Snodgrass.
The differences are the little, yet most important, things. "You sell more CDs at the punk shows, because country people are more interested in buying booze," he says. "The toilets are worse in the punk places, but there's really good food in country bars."
The word "country" gets thrown around easily by people describing Drag the River, but it's not to be confused with, you know, that stuff. "I'm sure you guessed that I'm not down with any of that pop-country. I don't like any of it. Not a bit. Some folks are all right. George Strait, he's okay sometimes. If you don't look at Travis Tritt's hair too much, some of his songs are all right." But mostly, says Snodgrass, "it's for the lowest common denominator."
And radio-friendly punk?
"Yeah, that's not punk. It's just sad."
Maybe that's what's given rise to the nebulous and overused 'alt.-country.' Just don't call Drag the River that.
"It was fine when I first heard it, because it was an alternative to that popular country, but now it's a 'term,' like when people are talking about 'emo' music," Snodgrass says. "People have got to label things, and people call us alt.-country, and I don't like it. I'd rather be called a roots band."
Drag the River live up to both the country and punk legacies of hard living. Take their new T-shirt design.
"It's just a big disclaimer that Drag the River is not responsible for you losing your job the next day. There's more than one person that's told me they lost their job or would probably lose their job after a show. Sorry."
Having been to Orange County several times, the band knows what to expect in an area not usually associated with country music. To some extent, the way has already been paved by local punks gone country like Mike Ness.
"There's some people from Orange County that seem to like it," Snodgrass says. "And the Hootenanny's always going down there every year. I always wanted to play that."
Believe it or not, says Snodgrass, "No one ever makes fun of us anywhere we go being in a country band."Drag the River perform with Sue Paine & the Kings of the Universe, Pawn Shop Kings, Vena Cava, and Birddog at the Gypsy Lounge, 23600 Rockfield Blvd., Lake Forest, (949) 206-9990. Fri., 8 p.m. $8. 21+.