FEATURE: Uncle Jordan’s Secret Vault: They Invented Alt-Country

themekons-fearandwhiskeyHere’s one you probably haven’t heard, unless you’re awesome. Have you ever wondered what would happen if you combined punk and country? A lot of cool things, as it turns out. The relaxed, rural noodling of the Meat Puppets certainly fits the description, as does the sharp-edged roots act known as Uncle Tupelo. The Mekons, from Leeds, U.K. (of all places) are a lesser-known punk-country act that marries The Clash to Gram Parsons in an extremely interesting way. Their seminal (at least to me) album, 1985’s Fear and Whiskey , is an unjustly overlooked masterpiece and a great place to become acquainted with their sound. Very technically speaking, Fear is credited with inventing the “alt-country” genre, but when you’re so “alt” that nobody’s ever heard of you, it’s kind of hard to credit you with anything. Let’s put it this way: not a lot of people heard it, but the right people heard it. Shane MacGowan of the Pogues has definitely heard it. Jeff Tweedy and Billy Bragg have probably heard it.

The country aesthetic is certainly there from the start. “Chivalry” and “Trouble Down South” invoke an endless dusty trail. The band may be English, but the vibe is all Wild West. This sense of open expanses is one of the reasons this album is so excellent on road trips. Gradually, the overdriven guitars of punk rock begin to seep in to this sepia country world. On “Hard to be Human Again,” the band delivers their most straight-forward rocker with call-and-response vocals reminiscent of Strummer/Jones.

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By the time the Mekons get to “Last Dance,” a sublimely beautiful song with an excellent violin hook, you’re in love with them. Abrasive, well-worn, authentic and brief, Fear and Whiskey is a near flawless record from a band that somehow stayed out of the public consciousness for the last 30 years.

Check it out, okay?

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