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L ast night down at the Rialto, I caught the Knitters – a collective of veteran punk rockers lighting country music on fire for the sheer enjoyment of it all.

Anchored by Dave Alvin’s blazing guitar and a tight rockabilly rhythm section, the band’s true brilliance is the same as it is for X – John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s synchronized wail that slowly becomes another beast entirely, its own singular creature, born to breathe fire and shout heartache.

The music was tight and spot-on, a reminder that Woody Guthrie is god and good American music is all the damn same – it comes from counter-culture fringes, the subversive elements of sex and drugs right up front, but with an earthiness and an honesty and a wisdom that comes from living on the down side of the good life.

It’s true and good and right. And the punk shown through. The punk will always show through and always has. Until the 1970s, it simply went by different names and came from different places. It was Woody and the Carters, it was Charlie Mingus, it was boogie brothel piano and Robert Johnson’s devil guitar.

What X put on stage in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and what the Knitter put on the stage last night is proof it’s all the damn same. The Knitters did turns on Woody’s “Do Re Mi” and the Stanley Brothers “Rank Stranger,” as well as X screamer “Burning House of Love” and Knitters fave “Call of the Wreckin’ Ball.”

It’s the America that fell beneath the cracks and is better for it. It’s the America of Woody and Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. It’s the outlaws and the righteous, but more accurately and most importantly it’s the America that denies and abhors the power structure. It’s the America that doesn’t want the Machine of oilmen and bankers and war-mongers. It’s the America of Hunter S. Thompson and Edward Abbey.

So many of our greats and our legends have died, but more will rise, like John Doe and a host of others.

Last weekend, Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes were exploded in a mess of fireworks 150 feet above ground in the crisp Colorado air.

The celebration included the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cover of the Carter’s Let the Circle Be Unbroken. Another Carter tune reinterpretation became one of the cornerstones for the whole new alt.country movement. But look beyond No Depression to another Tupelo classic – their version of the standard Moonshiner.

Dylan – a Guthrie and Carter disciple himself – spun his own version of Moonshiner out of a put-on folkster image in the years before his words jumped out of his head and his pen kickstarted a new America.

Yesterday also saw new Dylan releases, priceless recordings dug out of some vault somewhere. They should’ve never been buried in the first place, but I don’t mind. This whole new release thing just serves to remind us all that the whole damn show is still being run by a bunch of crooks at the top.

The set includes the Vietnam protest song chronicling the disfigured soldier “John Brown” and song I’ve never heard called “West Texas.”

Which brings to our vacationing cowboy dipshit in chief. He may not be the evil incarnate of Hitler, nor the propagandized Mr. Magoo parody of the Chinese communist leaders, but there’s no greater symbol of a corrupt government sending its own sons and daughter to their deaths in an immoral war than the arrogant smug grin and cowboy chuckle of George W. Bush.

As Thomspon wrote in his last Rolling Stone piece:

“Your neighbor’s grandchildren will be fighting this stupid, greed-crazed Bush-family “war” against the whole Islamic world for the rest of their lives, if John Kerry is not elected to be the new President of the United States in November.”

Well, Kerry lost, but we can still kick and scream and end this fucking war:
“We were angry and righteous in those days, and there were millions of us. We kicked two chief executives out of the White House because they were stupid warmongers. We conquered Lyndon Johnson and we stomped on Richard Nixon — which wise people said was impossible, but so what? It was fun. We were warriors then, and our tribe was strong like a river.”

These days the tribe is strong as well – and right in our moral certainty that this war is both evil and stupid:

“While bumper-sticker patriotism may have anodyne effects on Bush and his followers, the retroactive ethical justifications for the invasion and occupation of Iraq are flimsy at best. And for so many on the left, the undermining of America’s moral strength under this administration is more of a “grave and gathering danger” to America than Saddam Hussein ever was.”

The voices are out there and they’re strong. Another example: I stumbled onto some writer I’d never heard of today, somebody who is either a nobody or a wise man, but he wrote something amazing just in the past week:

“It is also certain that a doctrinaire, intellectually incurious, unblooded and stay-at-home gaggle of technocrats led by a faux cowboy from Connecticut unwittingly unleashed this waterfall of blood. …
The war itself is over, the retreat will begin shortly, and Iraq will settle in to its own bloody reinvention over the next decade. And America, my country, will reel.”

The country will reel, but others will step up in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie and Dylan and the country greats and tell the real stories of this nation – the footsteps of the down and out, the longings and the imagination of the poor children.

There will be more anti-war songs and some will die away. There’ll be love songs and songs of screaming disillusionment. There will always be protest. There will always be an American spirit to the best of its music.

And even out of an unprecedented sadness and defeat, New Orleans blues will one day flourish like never before.

Originally published Aug. 31, 2005 at Catfish Vegas presents…

(Note: Long before I started freelance music writing, I would occasionally dabble in the same type of stuff. I’ll periodically dig some of the good stuff out of the past and re-post them here.)

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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