Juneau gets a taste of outlaw country

Virginia-based Cracker to play Marlintini's Feb. 20

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2004

It was a combination of resources, fate and luck - in the form of an open tour date that Juneau resident Gene Nelson noticed on the Internet - that brought Cracker to Marlintini's during a four-stop Alaska Solstice Tour in Dec. 2002.

But it simply took a glimpse of Mendenhall Glacier to convince the Richmond, Va., five-piece to add Juneau to its annual itinerary.

"The group consensus is that Alaska's the most beautiful state in the union," said guitarist Johnny Hickman on Tuesday from the band's tour bus, 15 minutes before a soundcheck at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore. "The first time we came up it was just out of curiosity more than anything else. It was wintertime, but it was clear enough that we could see the glacier and enjoy the scenery. We always seem to have a great response up there, so we're making (Alaska) a yearly thing."

Cracker missed 2003 by a few weeks, but if their last show in Juneau (a performance that rolled on for more than two hours) is any indication, that could soon be forgiven. The band plays at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20 at Marlintini's. There's no opener, and it's a 21 and over show. Tickets are $22.50 in advance, $27.50 on the day of the show and available at Marlintini's and Capitol Records.

"We're a little crispy around the edges right now, a little fried," Hickman said. "Three shows in Alaska is just about enough, but I'm a little sad we're not playing Homer." (The band stopped in Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks and Homer on its 2002 run through the state.)

In terms of radio airplay, Cracker has never been huge. They mix alternative rock, Southern rock, punk and country with bits and pieces of ska, brass, hodgepodge and singer David Lowery's sometimes-smug, other-times-wistful, usually declarative style of phrasing. It's won a cultish group of fans and college-radio devotees, and it includes enough pop hooks for an easy hit, but perhaps it's too scattershot for a mainsteam audience.

Anyone who was listening to punk in the 1980s or who has had the curiosity to trace the roots of the "alternative revolution" of the mid-1990s will remember Lowery's old band, Camper Van Beethoven. That group formed in Santa Cruz, Calif., and put out two of the best albums of the mid-1980s, "Telephone Free Landslide Victory" and "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart." Songs like "Take the Skinheads Bowling" and "Where the Hell is Bill?" put Camper Van Beethoven alongside Husker Du and The Replacements as true documentarians of the era. But as with Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven never conformed to any set sound and eventually petered out in 1989.

Cracker formed almost immediately, as Lowery tracked down Hickman, a fellow attendee at punk shows up and down Southern California in the early 1980s.

"David was this very cool guy around 19 or so who would come by with all kinds of great albums from England," Hickman said on his Web site, www.johnnyhickman.com, of their meeting. "He turned me on to a lot of music, and we half-formed a band called the Estonian Gauchos. We played one gig in his parents' back yard before the Redlands cops shut us down."

Cracker's debut self-titled album had a song, "Happy Birthday to Me," which was omnipresent on college radio for a few months in 1992. The second album, "Kerosene," went platinum on the strength of the first song, the MTV-hit "Low." The third album, a foray into British-pop called "The Golden Age," came out three years later. At that point, the band's lineup switched, the members drifted into other projects and the group's priorities seemed to change. Not to say they don't rock, because they often do. But the band seems content to make itself happy within its own rules.

"We've always considered ourselves a semi-hip band," Hickman said. "We're not unhip or overly hip. We just play music that feels right to us."

Lately, that's meant "O' Cracker Where Art Thou?" a bluegrass album of Cracker hits as played by the band and Leftover Salmon.

And it's also meant outlaw country. Not the stuff that they play on The Nashville Network, but the Merle Haggard songs you hear in the kinds of places where time stops and people slip off barstools, forever.

"Ironic Mullet" is the band's seventh album and came out in the fall of 2003. It includes tracks from Ray Wyllie Hubbard, Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam, Allen Terry, Ike Reilly, Hank Williams Jr., and of course, Haggard. There's also a closer, "Ain't Gonna Suck Itself," that Lowery penned especially for Virgin Records, the group's former label.

"We like the people that are a little too rock for country, and a little too country for rock," Hickman said. "People like Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson and Joe Ely."

"Our belief is that there's always been a country album hiding in Cracker," he said. "This was one of the funnest albums we've ever made."

The Yoakam song, "Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room" off the 1991 album of the same name, prompted Yoakam to send a congratulatory note to Cracker's manager.

"These songs tend to be outlaw country, the kind of songs that the alt-country audience tends to ignore," Hickman said. "We share an audience with these people, and we like some of the same bands, Son Volt, Wilco and Whiskeytown, but sometime we're not on the same end of country."

"Songs like (Haggard's) 'Up Against The Wall Redneck Mothers' have clout," he said. "Right now, we have a redneck mother for a president. He's not unlike the protagonist in the song. He's sort of going through life with this air of superiority and looking down his nose at everyone else and everything he doesn't understand."

Camper Van Beethoven plans to put out a new record this fall. Cracker will release its next album sometime in 2005.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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