Wild Country: Punks on the Prairie
by Max Sparber
If I had my druthers, I'd make a cowboy movie with nothing but punk covers of cowboy songs. In every other way, it would be a regular cowboy movie, but for the punk music. It might even be a singing cowboy movie, except he plugs in an electric guitar and races through a three-chord, screamed version of "Back in the Saddle Again." I just think that would be exciting.
I can't do that yet, but I can certainly assembled punk covers of country songs and dream about such a thing. There are more of them than you might expect, many of them presented unironically. Many punk rockers simply seem to have found kindred spirits in the country world, and it's not surprising: Both types of music tended to address themselves to the working poor and the outsider. Additionally, country had more than its share of snarling, barbed songwriters who could pack a whole lot of attitude into the fewest number of chords possible. Here are a few of the best:
"Rawhide," Dead Kennedys (1978)Dead Kennedys, the ferocious San Francisco hardcore band, produced a version of Ned Washington and Dimitri Tiomkin's theme to "Rawhide" that's a genuine barn burner. Featuring swirling guitars and manic drumming, the song stars with overboard cowboy accents and howls, but never seems satiric.
Instead, the band really seems to find the song thrilling, and communicates it: When Jello Biafra sings "Hell bent for leather," he doesn't sing it, but chews it off, like he's barking out the most important words he can think of.
"Stand By Your Man," Wendy O. Williams and Motorhead (1982)Properly, this cover should be classified as a metal cover, because, well, Motorhead. However, the guitars sound lifted from a Ramones recording, and with vocals by Wendy O. Williams and instruments breaks that are atonal noise, this genuinely sounds like the most punk rock recording on this list.
It also feels like the most openly ironic, with Williams literally shrieking for much of the song. This cover isn't a cover of the Tammy Wynette classic; it's an assault on it.
"Tumbling Tumbleweeds," Meat Puppets (1982)Seemingly constructed entirely out of feedback and inarticulate hollers, Bob Nolan's classic cowboy song is still recognizably in there. The Meat Puppets version is weirdly lovely, if shouty, its elements combining in a way that are strangely dreamlike.
"Take This Job and Shove It," Dead Kennedys (1986)The Dead Kennedy's pretty much throw out Johnny Paycheck's melody, racing through a sung/shouted version over West Coast punk power chords. But, boy, their version captures the original song's white collar rage, highlighting the singer's outrage while minimizing the original song's hints of powerlessness — Paycheck occasionally indicates that the chorus is something he wishes he could say, but probably won't. The Kennedys have no problem saying it. In fact, they scream it.
"Ring of Fire," Social Distortion (1990)Social Distortion was never a band that shied away from country music, and several of their albums could fairly be identified as "cowpunk," that subgenre of punk that explicitly drew from country influences.
Their cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" finds the punk heart at the middle of the song. Nothing about its arrangement or instrumentation here is country, but instead features churning rhythm guitars and a booming rock drum part, as well as turnarounds that sound lifted from the Bobby Fuller Four version of "I Fought the Law."
"You Are My Sunshine," Leatherface (1991)90s British Punk band Leatherface tackles Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell's iconic, plain-spoken, absurdly sweet country song and provides a straightforward punk version: The guitars are loud, the vocals hoarse and frequently shouted, and the drums beaten within an inch of their lives.
Nonetheless, the never lose the essential sweetness of the song. It just feel like punk rockers found this song, liked it, and felt it might make a good punk rock song. And, by God, it does.
"Sunday Morning Coming Down," Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2006)The whole conceit of San Francisco's Me First and the Gimme Gimmes is that they do punk covers of mainstream songs, and their 2006 release "Love Their Country" is nothing but country songs. It's all pretty terrific, but their selection of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" is inspired.
The song was always sung from the point of view of a hard partier who is so ill-at-ease with the rest of the world's Sunday morning calm that he desperately wishes to be stoned, and Me First highlights the song's unexpectedly lovely melody, contrasted against a jackhammer beat and alternating, slashing guitar parts. The results are pop punk, and perfect.