Of course John Howie Jr. wants to meet in a singlewide down a Chatham County dirt road. For two decades, after an adolescence and early adulthood spent making punk and indie rock, he has been delivering variations on hardline country music. He has performed at the Grand Ole Opry and opened for George Jones.
Howie is tall and lanky, soft-spoken and quick to laugh, but his music carries serious weight. His new LP, Everything Except Goodbye, closes with a heart-rending ode to Matt Brown, late drummer for Howie's band The Rosewood Bluff and, previously, The Two Dollar Pistols. The album lacks some of the roadhouse rollick of its predecessor, Leavin' Yesterday, and heads instead in the high-lonesome direction of a man who's lost a longtime friend.
While his girlfriend and fellow songwriter, Sarah Shook, walks with his son, Dario, to watch ducks through binoculars, Howie and I sit down in a sparsely furnished room: just two chairs we've brought from the kitchen and a cabinet housing a stereo. We listen to records—some of them, it turns out, familiar to Howie from his late father's collection—and discuss what makes for good (and bad) country music.
WILCO, "PASSENGER SIDE"
From A.M., 1995
Right on the heels of Uncle Tupelo's ugly split, the Wilco debut introduced a band rooted in honky-tonk but reaching toward rock.
JOHN HOWIE JR: That record is the reason the Two Dollar Pistols worked with [producer] Brian Paulson. I saw them at SXSW, I think, in 1995. I was down there, and this record was not out, but I had the same music lawyer that they had at the time, Josh Grier, and he had given me an advance of it. They were playing, and he took me to see it.
I remember going to SXSW that year and seeing bands like The Derailers and Dale Watson and sort of going, "Oh, wow, there are a lot of people out there who are not much older than me who are playing this music, this country music, that's based around honky-tonk," as opposed to being based around radio country music.
CARTER FAMILY, "WORRIED MAN BLUES"
This traditional tune's heavy dose of woe makes it a touchstone for country.
JH: A friend of mine just gave me a Carter Family box set because he and his girlfriend didn't want it. He likes country music, but he couldn't get behind this. I gladly accepted it as a gift because I only have records and I didn't have any CDs—nice to have it.
Indy week: It seems like it's claimed almost more often by the old-time and bluegrass-related folks.
JH: To me, it was the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, who was around that time. And I like him better because his music is obviously more blues-based and, thematically, it deals with subjects that I'm more into hearing about and certainly singing about. But, in their day, that was country music. Jimmie Rodgers had more influence on the kind of country that eventually went on the radio. But that's really cool sounding music.
BILLY RAY CYRUS, "ACHY BREAKY HEART"
From Some Gave All, 1992
This early-'90s mega-hit and its counterparts by stars such as Garth Brooks helped catalyze today's pop country landscape, which Howie despises.
JH: Oh, that's Billy Ray Cyrus. Gosh, it actually doesn't sound that bad compared to some of the things I hear right now coming out of Nashville. It's not anything that I would want to hear, but if I had to choose between that and Blake Shelton, I would choose that.
IW: In this, in Blake Shelton, in anything else, what have they lost that you miss?
JH: I can do a laundry list of that. Let's just get down to basic greed. You've got people, Garth Brooks selling 8 or 9 million copies of his albums. At that point, why would you go back? If you start making that kind of money, I think any pretense of art is going to go out the window. Blake Shelton: He's like the Fabian of now. There's no substance to that to me, whatsoever.
BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT, "HOLOGRAM BUFFALO"
From Motion to Rejoin, 2008
This is Howie's first exposure to this California duo's mantra-based, deconstructed Americana.
JH: That's a really nice, swampy kind of Tony Joe White groove they have going there. I like that it doesn't sound particularly precious. It sounds like they're willing to be edgy.
LYLE LOVETT, "ROAD TO ENSENADA"
From Road to Ensenada, 1996
Lovett's take on country favors jazz elements and wordplay to twang and sharp edges.
JH: My dad loved all those Texas singer-songwriters. He was obsessed with Guy Clark. Lyle might be my favorite—such a good singer, such a good songwriter. It's like poetry at times, and it seems effortless, not like he's trying to impress you with how articulate he is.
IW: He's not afraid to be a goofball. The first lines are "There's coffee on the table/viva Mexico."
JH: Exactly. My dad had his first album when I was in college. I remember taping that from him and thinking, "This is crazy. What am I doing? I'm 18, 19 years old and I'm taping one of my dad's records." But it stuck with me.
STEVE EARLE & DEL MCCOURY, "TEXAS EAGLE"
From The Mountain, 1999
Earle and McCoury's collaboration just barely preceded the post-Y2K bluegrass resurgence.
JH: That was a big favorite of my dad, too. That CD was in his truck when he died. Their voices, man, that works. I don't like everything Steve Earle's done by any stretch of the imagination, but I respect him a lot as somebody who's relentlessly followed his own ideal.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, "STATE TROOPER"
From Nebraska, 1982
Though not a country record, this nervy, claustrophobic Springsteen LP hinges on the same dedication to songcraft.
JH: I'm glad that someone had the sense to say, "No, this stays the way it is. We're not going to do this with the band." This is daunting, threatening the way it is.
IW: Neil Young releases a bunch of crappy records and a bunch of good records. Tom Waits, the same—he hits and he misses. But if Springsteen misses, "Oh my god, what a hack!"
JH: Of those guys, since The Rising, he's been the most consistent of all of them. I didn't like Working on a Dream very much, but I loved Wrecking Ball, I loved The Rising, and I loved Magic. That was a potent record. So I don't get that, either. It kind of doesn't make any sense to me.
When I was 15 and "Born in the USA" was out there, I remember my dad saying, "You ought to listen to the lyrics. He's not saying what you think he's saying," but I didn't have any time for anyone that successful. I wanted to listen to Public Image Ltd. and the Ramones and guys that were obviously angry. Subtlety? Are you out of your mind?
WILLIE NELSON, "HANDS ON THE WHEEL"
From Red Headed Stranger, 1975
This track from Nelson's masterpiece concept record is poignant, personal and somehow comfortingly lonesome.
JH: That was probably my dad's favorite record. Waylon and Willie, those were his guys. He was the target demographic for those dudes—very defiant, independent spirit, but with this traditional bent. When these guys started making those kind of records in the '70s, he was waiting for that. That was his movement.
IW: Is there defiance in modern country?
JH: No, it's the lowest common denominator. It's as dumbed-down as dumbed-down can get, infuriatingly so. Obviously, if music makes somebody happy, there's good in it, but to me, it's empty. It's so weird to think that this was categorized as the same thing as Blake Shelton and those guys, that this was in the same section of the record store.
IW: What does this record do for you, personally?
JH: Kind of everything. It has musicianship, obviously. It's got songwriting. It's got a stylist behind it all. It's essentially cheesy—but he's not afraid to be a kind of tender guy. [At this point, Nelson sings "And I feel like I'm going home."]
IW: That's so tender, what he just said.
JH: Exactly. And it's not hackneyed—it's very legit sounding. It doesn't sound like 10 people spent all day trying to come up with a line that a woman at Walmart was going to hum for the rest of the month.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gone country"