During my first trip to Memphis this past August, I thought I’d soak up a little culture, so my wife and I made our way down to Wild Bill’s, the kind of sticky-floored juke joint I had read about in numerous Peter Guralnick books but never experienced firsthand. After paying my $5 admission fee and quaffing a couple quarts of Colt 45, I proceeded to try and melt into the background, the better to witness real Southern culture, while the wide-bottomed women and nattily dressed dudes bumped booty to the sandpaper-gritty blues strut of the house band. Needless to say, Wild Bill’s didn’t disappoint: There were no camera-clicking tourists to be found anywhere. So why did I feel like a slumming frat boy?
All this came to mind as I was listening to the latest albums from Fort Worth, Texas, native Johnny Dowd and Festus, Missouri’s Bottle Rockets. Both take snapshots of alien scenes that unfold in the darkest corners of a forgotten America, yet make us feel as though they’re as tangible as an ice-cold long neck.
Fifty-year-old Dowd is your classic journeyman troubadour. The long, tall Texan made the proverbial day-labor vision quest as a younger man, drifting in and out of various odd jobs. He finally landed in Ithaca, where his gig as a mover provided enough downtime for him to twist his underclass revenge fantasies and noir-folk tales into the fractured narratives found on his two albums, last year’s Wrong Side of Memphis and the recent Pictures From Life’s Other Side. Those album titles are a tip-off—Dowd’s a grizzled, deadbeat poet who wants to peel the ratty trailer curtains back and reveal the nastiness within. His protagonists are embittered clock-punchers with control issues and really rotten luck. Most of them have been wronged—by jobs, Vietnam, mostly women. Or they’re just plain deranged. It’s hard to tell sometimes. Dowd’s wobbly, shock-theater arrangements hardly provide a measure of com fort, and his frightening quaalude-fog croak is more Iggy than Lefty. Other Side’s “Hope You Don’t Mind” is a spiky portrait of consuming desire that’s either the romantic pledge of a scorned lover or the ravings of a mad stalker—over a placid acoustic shuffle, Dowd murmurs, “I looked in your window last night, I hope you don’t mind.”
Mostly, Dowd’s men are dispossessed fatalists who feel too much and don’t know how to rein it in. And have mercy on the women who would dare cross them. On “God Created Women,” Dowd whips up a menacing, Weill-like waltz and plots the murder of a two-timing girlfriend. The poor dude with the tattered heart in “The Girl Who Made Me Sick” transmutes his hatred into obsession: “Unchain my heart and release your love slave.” Dowd leans hard on the devil-is-a-woman trope that is the wellspring of so much vernacular music, but so convincingly chilling are his doomsday scenarios that you wonder whether the other Johnny treated Frankie all that badly.
If Dowd is a would-be disgruntled postal worker, then Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman is the benighted next-door neighbor with his Trans Am up on blocks in the front yard who never suspected a thing. The Rockets’ front-dude is a political reactionary straight out of “Okie From Muskogee” who learned to play guitar from listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd records. On the band’s first three albums, Henneman and the Rockets chronicled the miserably prosaic lives of blue-collar blokes with sly humor and an appreciation for the absurdities that come with the struggle to keep one’s head above the poverty line. Henneman can get as crabby as Dowd, but his ire is more benign, and a lot funnier. Instead of going postal, he’s more likely to appear on Jerry Springer. On Brand New Year, Henneman’s the archetypal Caucasian curmudgeon, raging against the culture of cynicism on “I’ve Been Dying,” lashing out at the technology glut in the Luddite’s lament “Helpless,” and reserving a few japes for Stevie Ray Vaughn wannabes on “White Boy Blues.” The Rockets, meanwhile, use four square riffs and dual-lead lines to kick up some boogie dust in their wake—kinda like Georgia Satellites, but with real grime under their fingernails.
Just when you’re about to write off Henneman as a Confederate flag–waving reprobate, though, he’ll hit you with some sharply observed culture-vulture kitsch, like the album’s opening paean to Nancy Sinatra. Or confess that he’s just a tender pillow-talker who’s got “Love Like a Truck.” Henneman may have affection for guys who blow off dinner to watch Monday Night Football, but he’s liable to be reading The Baffler during commercial breaks.
Johnny Dowd plays the Knitting Factory September 16; Bottle Rockets play the Mercury Lounge September 17.