Knit Wits

Welcome the first positive example of country music for punk rockers

Without the Knitters and their 1985 album, Poor Little Critter in the Road, the musical genre today known as alt-country or Americana might not otherwise exist. Now, 20 years later, the Knitters have finally gotten around to making their second album, The Modern Sounds of the Knitters, and taking the show back on the road.

Two decades ago, members from two Los Angeles bands--punk rockers X and rockabilly group the Blasters-- did a little twangy moonlighting to help kick-start a back-to-the-roots musical revolution.

"Well, 'help' is the important word there because there were a lot of other bands back in those days doing similar stuff," said John Doe, who sings and plays guitar in the Knitters and also is founding member of X.

"I can think of Rank and File, Tex & the Horseheads and Green on Red in Los Angeles, but also groups down in your area, like Howe Gelb and Giant Sand, even back when they were called the Giant Sandworms, and the Kirkwood brothers ... in the Meat Puppets," Doe recalled, waxing nostalgic for the mid-1980s.

"I think the Knitters were a little more straight-up country than some of those bands, but we were all bringing roots-type sounds to a new audience."

On that first Knitters album, the band covered country classics such as "Silver Wings" and "Rock Island Line," as well as performing a few choice originals. Along with Doe, singer Exene Cervenka and drummer D.J. Bonebrake hailed from X, while guitarist Dave Alvin came from The Blasters. To this mix, they added upright bassist Johnny Ray Bartel.

"I think we were among the first positive examples of country music for the punk rock audience," Doe said.

"Prior to that, it was probably more often thought of as that old fuddy-duddy music, that corny old stuff. What we do is corny, too, but it's fun to do. And just because something is corny doesn't mean it doesn't have meaning or significance."

The gentlemanly 51-year-old musician and movie actor spoke with the Tucson Weekly last week by phone from his hotel room in Nashville.

The relationship shared by punk rock and folk music is tighter than many casual listeners might think, Doe observed.

"Punk rock is like folk music, and folk music is like punk rock. In both, you're playing to an audience, and what you're playing is sort of about their lives, but it's also an exaggerated version of their life. And in each there's a lot of fooling around on stage, or I should say just playing the music for the joy of music."

Which is one way of saying that generally musicians playing punk and folk styles don't create music with the ultimate goal being a commercial product.

So, one is tempted to ask Doe why it took the Knitters a whole generation to make a second album.

"Busy, busy, busy. And we just didn't feel like it. I guess it was a little bit of 'whatever.' We had the idea at the time, and never found time to do it again until now."

Truth be told, Poor Little Critter in the Road was intended as a one-off, a novelty that ended up having far more impact than its makers ever intended. That its songs hold up so well today is a testament to the timelessness of the music, and of the band members' vision.

That recording was even honored in 1999 when Bloodshot Records released the tribute CD Poor Little Knitter in the Road, on which several rising alt-country stars covered songs from Poor Little Critter in the Road. Among the artists celebrating the Knitters were Trailer Bride, Whiskeytown, Robbie Fulks, the Handsome Family, Devil in the Woodpile, Catherine Ann Irwin and, well, the Knitters.

The Knitters, therefore, are one of a handful of bands to be honored with a tribute after only one album, and the irony doesn't escape Doe.

"I think that in order for it to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, it had to be proven that, and this is a very postmodern thing to note, is that it was a tribute to a band that was playing a tribute to early country music. To which I helped contribute, if that's not too many 'tributes' for you."

As with X, the music of the Knitters benefits from the inventive harmonies and call-and-response vocals of Doe and Cervenka, one of the most pleasurable singing duos in the last 30 years of popular music.

Doe says he and Cervenka also appreciate their unique singing partnership. "It's something you can never take for granted," he said.

"There're several moments in every show we play live when Exene just knows where I am going or I know where she's going, and I just think, 'How did she know I was going to do that?'"

Their modus operandi is not unlike that of a pair of hip-hop MCs performing staccato variations on each other's raps. Or, to cite a more classic example, seasoned jazz instrumentalists improvising on each other's riffs.

"Yeah, I've always thought it had sort of a jazz improvisation aspect to it," Doe acknowledges.

The Modern Sounds of the Knitters marks a return to a successful formula. Old songs and new are injected with a robust hillbilly flavor--it's like the Carter Family or the Louvin Brothers hopped up on jet fuel. Tunes made popular by the Stanley Brothers and Porter Waggoner share space with a rollicking version of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild." Vintage X songs ("In This House That I Call Home" and "Burning House of Love") also get traditional country makeovers, too.

Doe admitted that one X tune perfect for a country setting is the pointed cultural critique "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts," which didn't make the cut but has a found a place in the Knitters' live sets.

"Maybe we'll put it on the third Knitters CD in 2025," he mused.

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