An Alternate Country Grammar

Consider, then, St. Louis as country hotbed.


A city perennially betwixt and between, St. Louis makes an ideal hotbed for country music.

That assertion might well nonplus those who pigeonhole the Lou as nothing more than Nelly’s hometown. With all due respect to the hip-hop hierophant behind Country Grammar, however, many other sounds resonate hereabouts—and many of those sounds involve the genre once defined by the late, great Harlan Howard as “three chords and the truth.”

Consider, then, St. Louis as country hotbed. In that consideration, appropriately enough, the city’s often infuriating indeterminacy, which has helped to relegate it to the status of a metropolitan also-ran during the past century, has made it a prime locus for fostering such music. In a nutshell, the metro area still retains enough of its rural roots to inhabit the traditional content of country, while enjoying sufficient urban amenities to satisfy formal demands of mass production, promotion, and distribution.

From a sociopolitical perspective, this seems apt, given the probable (or, at a minimum, possible) reasons for country’s continuing popularity. In Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, his 2002 tome on the genre and the working class, scholar nonpareil Bill C. Malone discusses the attraction of that genre in terms of its abiding authenticity: “This taste for ‘authenticity’ in music may have been part of a larger quest made by baby boomers to reconnect with the simpler, hands-on culture that was being lost in America’s rapid acceptance of technology and in the flight to homogeneity in suburban shopping malls and neighborhoods.”

The firestorm impact of technology (with its myriad corporate ramifications) and the homogenizing effect of suburbia: surely few other factors have more defined St. Louis in the past four or five decades. To be sure, other cities have suffered the same or similar depredations without, perhaps, embracing country to such an extent. Also to be sure, St. Louis has never had the reputation for fostering that genre enjoyed by Nashville, Bakersfield, Austin, or even Springfield, Missouri (which once might have rivaled Music City, a recent two-part article in The Journal of Country Music argues). That said, a quick review of the evidence suggests Nellyville has nevertheless acquitted itself respectably.

By way of example, the Country Music Foundation’s monolithic Country: The Music and the Musicians notes in passing that a Grand Ole Opry–style radio program entitled the Old Fashioned Barn Dance originated circa 1930 from none other than the self-styled “voice of St. Louis,” KMOX. The same source reports that as early as 1931, a trio called the Vagabonds decamped from St. Louis to Nashville to perform on WSM, “where they became, next to Uncle Dave Macon, the Opry’s most popular act.” Over time, various country artists have been born here as well, among them songwriter and guitarist Kenneth Ray “Thumbs” Carllile (now all but forgotten) and producer, songwriter, and musician T-Bone (né John Henry) Burnett.

Somewhat more recently, the Gateway City also gave the world the Kendalls, who rose to prominence during the ’70s with the Grammy-winning single “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” and other works. (Notably, just this past February, the surviving half of that father-daughter duo, Jeannie Kendall, released her first solo CD, an eponymous effort from Rounder Records.)

More recently still, the metropolitan area has produced such country-oriented performers as Belle Starr, the Bottle Rockets, Chris Mills, Nadine, the New Patrons, One Fell Swoop, Raven Moon, Bob Reuter, Son Volt, Wagon, Mary Alice Wood, and (an almost obligatory reference) Uncle Tupelo, and even newer acts have begun to attract attention of late: Fred’s Variety Group, Magnolia Summer, the Roundups. Regarding the alternate country grammar being codified even now hereabouts, these and other musicians number among the grammarians.

Abetting that codification has been the tendency of certain local venues to cultivate authentic country from here and abroad; in particular, Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, Frederick’s Music Lounge, and Off Broadway support performers in the genre, as do the Pageant and the Sheldon Concert Hall & Ballroom. With such programs as Keith Dudding’s Down Yonder, Fred Gumaer’s Mid-Day Jamboree, and Kip Loui’s The Back Country, meanwhile, FM radio oasis KDHX remains a strong source of music for devotees of that genre.

Finally and perhaps most signally, for the past seven springs, St. Louis has hosted Twangfest, a nationally heralded celebration of Americana that runs this year from June 4 to 7. Regarding this last proof of the city’s sub rosa devotion to country, of course, cognoscenti will mark an irony: Twangfest 7 will rock St. Louis roughly concurrent with Nashville’s annual Fan Fair. The former will feature acts like the Rockhouse Ramblers (profiled in this issue of Playback St. Louis); the latter, Brooks & Dunn. “A word to the wise guy,” quoth Mr. Burroughs.

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