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There's a saying—attributed to no one, but probably uttered in the heyday of the Blasters and the Beat Farmers, if not Hank Williams—that maintains country music is where punk rock goes to die. While the evolution from punk to roots isn't an entirely new phenomenon (think X to the Knitters to Mike Ness), it is one that has regained popularity in recent years, and Tiger Army front man Nick 13 just did just that. He ventured from his signature psychobilly to an Americana-influenced sound with his solo album, Nick 13, released in June. After listening to the album, though, it's apparent Nick 13's career is far from dead, and he assures fans that the same goes for Tiger Army.
Nick 13 identifies rockabilly as a conduit from punk to American roots music. "Orange County is one of the places [where] a lot of people have followed the musical path that I have," he says. "You start out at a certain age being punk, and you follow some of those influences backwards, and you get exposed to 1950s rockabilly, which is definitely roots music by itself."
For Nick 13, the soul-baring lyrics and heart-pulling slide guitars of country are the glue that binds country to punk. "That's the connection between punk and midcentury American hillbilly music," he notes. "Even though they may not seem to be similar on the surface, they both share that pure emotion."
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His solo album was almost a decade in the making, but "it took me longer than I expected it to," he says. "Now that it's finally done and it's finally out there in the world, it feels like a big accomplishment." The idea can be traced back to Tiger Army's first album, also self-titled; one of its tracks, "Outlaw Heart," boasts the band's signature, psychobilly swagger.
"When I recorded that song, I didn't think people would like it because most of our audience was coming from the world of punk, and I didn't think they would appreciate a country song," Nick 13 says. "It surprised me that it turned out to be one of people's favorite songs on the record, and it was one of my favorite songs, too. Just hearing that pedal steel guitar—I feel it brought it to another level, and it kind of gave it a transcendent quality."
Even though fans had suggested Tiger Army release an entire album in the vein of "Outlaw Heart," Nick 13 felt it best to differentiate his rootsy songs from the band he describes as aggressive and energetic. "I didn't want to confuse people and have them think that this is what Tiger Army are now," he says. "It's a part of who I am."
But he wants to assure Tiger Army fans that the band, who have developed a near-cult following, aren't going anywhere. "There is going to be another Tiger Army album one day that will contain the energy people expect," he says. However, he warns fans that their appearance at the Pacific Amphitheatre on Saturday may be one of the last in Orange County for a while. Nick 13 was hesitant to say whether fans could expect a fourth Octoberflame, their annual Halloween concert series at the Grove dating back to 2008. They're working on it, but due to touring for his new album, it may be too much of a stretch.
"This year is our 15th anniversary," he says. "We can't go by without at least one show in California."
This article appeared in print as "Punk As a Stetson: Tiger Army's Nick 13 walks the well-worn path between punk and country with his new album."