Pickin' With the Knitters
DJ Bonebrake may now be eligible for AARP—he even had the card for a year, but he never got around to using it—but the drummer for famed LA roots-punk band X hasn't slowed down a bit. In fact, he is absolutely shimmering on a caffeine buzz now, joking about his early years in a guerrilla Dixieland band that would burst in unannounced to Valley massage parlors and remembering reverently when he played with both Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker in one wild night. And when he talks about drumming for the Knitters—his countrified band with X's John Doe and Exene Cervenka, as well as Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin and bassist Johnny Ray Bartel—it's not like he's talking about a side project. Instead, he lights up like a bonfire in the Tennessee backwoods.
"I love to rock with the best of 'em, but you can't do that every day!" he says and laughs. "Like anything else, you follow a thread. You find one author, they mention someone else, you go off in your own direction. Like, 'Hank Williams—I really like that! Merle Haggard! I'm gonna try something like that!' You're always searching. I've got friends who say life is short, but life is long. There's a lot of time to do this stuff!"
And according to the band's bio, he has spent a lot of time with the Knitters. Like . . . more than 80 years? As writer Chris Morris tells it, the Knitters were hobnobbing with the Carter family in some remote Appalachian clinch in the '20s, fighting with the Kingston Trio for folk-chart supremacy in the '50s and even watching curiously as Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. About all that's missing is a fender-bender somewhere in the deep South with John Lomax's field-recording Ford sedan or a wild night riding lawn mowers to the liquor store with George Jones.
Of course, it's not all exactly true. The Knitters released their much-loved debut album, Poor Little Knitter On the Road, on Slash in 1985. And as drummer DJ Bonebrake tells it, it pretty much goes back to renowned lesbian folk singer Phranc starting a folk-y open-mic night and asking her pals from X, "Why doncha come up and sing?" (Although Cervenka had to cancel her April solo tour because of problems with her multiple sclerosis, X publicist Melissa Dragich reports that she is now "doing much better" and is ready for the Knitters tour as well as X's upcoming June tour.)
Within the two Knitters full-lengths you'll find country, folk and roots songs that sound like they just wandered in from the old world. They've got the stark, simple music that inspired Dylan and the Kingstons; the smart, snappy hillbilly sing-alongs that recall the Maddox Brothers and Rose; and even Nashville-style poor-me ballads that would've undried every eye in the Opry. As Spin magazine tells it, they pretty much invented alt-country. But Bonebrake is much more modest. To him, that's just a fancy way of talking about the people who said, "John Doe thinks it's cool? Well, that's a cool song!"
He explains, "[Country] wasn't accepted as much when we started. It was like, 'What are you doing that stuff for? Why do you wanna play hillbilly stuff?' But there's an arc to all these types of music. Jazz can turn into easy listening. Like people who say, 'I like jazz! I like Kenny G!' And they've never heard Charlie Parker. Same with country—it can become this real poppy thing. But then if you go back, it's like, 'Oh—Merle Haggard!' You listen, and you're like, 'Wow, that's amazing.' There's a story, I think, in the Charlie Parker movie [Bird] in which he's listening to country on a jukebox, and [his band] is like, 'Why are you listening to that stuff?' And he just says, 'Listen to it, man—listen to it!'"
It's that essential power and purity the Knitters go after—that force from the original source. Even their new(-ish, for a band that releases albums once every 20 years!) Steppenwolf cover starts with a Charlie Feathers-style, "Wellllllllllllllllllll . . ." that seems peeled off some old Sun Records 45.
As Bonebrake says, if you just do punk rock all the time, you might never let Hank or Merle into your life. And besides, you gotta be careful: "Your joints get stiff!"
This article appeared in print as "Knit Picking: Drummer DJ Bonebrake on how the Knitters made it cool for punk rockers to like country."
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