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Story by Thomas Calkins
For those of you who might not be aware, a major paradigm shift in Country music has occurred in the years just prior to the formation of the .357 String Band. As a reaction to the transformation of mainstream country into a banal and unidentifiable form of light pop (or perhaps in spite of it), an entire counter culture has sprung up, reclaiming ownership of the music of their grandparents. Maybe even their great grandparents in some cases. What's most curious though is that the whole isn't pulling it's numbers from some kind of musty preservationist society. It's pulling from underground punk, among others. Although it makes no sense to simplify the broad base of support that the .357 String Band has built, it's not really overreaching to say that many in the movement are more fundamentally connected to Black Flag than Bocephus.
In a way though it makes perfect sense. There's always been a kind of philosophical divide in punk, between the gutter and the art museum. Groups like The Fall, Gang of Four, or Talking Heads are probably more at home on a college campus. That's not a condemnation by any means, just an observation. On the other end of it though is all of those forms within punk that appeal to, dare I say "working class sensibilities." Many of the narratives in underground punk are essentially based around the survival mentality, (the ability to continue to maintain individual identity in the face of overwhelming forces) the misunderstood outsider (you don't get it, you don't get me, stay away), or the hunt for cheap thrills (I'm drinking). The life of "the Rebel" - plain and simple. Sure, there's more to it than that, but if you take those themes away, you've ripped away much of the story.
Many of these ideas are not exclusive to punk by any means. In fact most of them owe royalties to the music and people of Appalachia. A people with a troubled history with governments that sought to use them as a 'buffer" against the warlike natives, whether in Kentucky or Northern Ireland. Calling on them for loyal assistance when it was most convenient, neglecting them when it was not. This is to saying nothing of the many documented abuses of the Appalachian people at the hands of the coal mining industry. No wonder the rebellious nature of the music rings true with so many of us today.
Maybe the only ideas slightly different to many in punk are the religious elements, which have been whole heartedly embraced, not cast aside as one might think. Though some of it might be slightly tongue-in-cheek ("..satan is real, working in spirit...). Outside of the lyrical themes involved, the speed of bluegrass translates very well for many. Not all of it is break neck, but the far end of the speed limit is high. Some of the differences lie in the Scots-Irish scale that one needs to know in order to really pull it off, and maybe the circular structure of the song forms (many songs lack bridges and the common breaks of rock music), not to mention the increased importance of vocal ability. One could get away with being a bad singer in this form, but you' d be exposed as a hack much quicker. Harmonies are always tricky regardless of the style of music and are so integral to any type of bluegrass. All of these points might actually be a pull factor for many; it's a real challenge.
The .357 String Band rises to this challenge, and in many ways a continuation of that back and forth movement within music. They're contributing to the eternal process of breaking down traditions, and reassembling them in a way which reflects our times best. Like using a set of antique tools to carve something new, as opposed to hanging them on the wall like knickknacks to be admired. Not that the boys are doing it in a way as premeditated and obvious as I am making it out to be, (I just happen to be overstating the whole thing). Certainly they aren't the first to head down this path, (the Pogues, X, the Gun Club, etc.), but they own it in a big way, which is no small feat.
What is likewise no small feat is the fact that the boys have been doing it for six plus years, and it only seems to be growing. I mean, they've been able to take this thing overseas. They've been able to take this thing to the Turner Hall level. They've been able to move it from Riverwest to Rome.
They're out there slapping and claw hammering at lightning speed through the countryside, headed south bound or jumping the pond. Hitting the harmonies and hitting the bottle. And what's best about it for them, no damn drum set to haul.
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