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Tony Balbinot strums his surf-blue electric guitar and looks pensively into the lights above the stage in the DNA Lounge. Behind him, the bass player, a wiry woman in high silver boots and velvet pants, falls into a bluesy vamp, her fingers walking lazily over the tall neck of her stand-up bass fiddle. Dressed entirely in black except for a silver crucifix, which glints blue and rust in the dancing stage lights, Balbinot seems a vision of infamy -- a dangerously pompadoured roadhouse demon just this side of an Oly binge. His hand jangles archly over the face of his guitar as he steps to the microphone.
"I grew up in a small town in Illinois," he begins, his low Midwestern drawl settling into the space between the drums and bass. "Chillicothe it was called. Sat between the Illinois River and Highway 21. One stoplight on Main Street -- not a whole lot happened there." He pauses, letting the picture of a nowhere town in Middle America take full form in the minds of the Thursday night crowd.
"I was standing one afternoon outside the Dairy Queen watching Little Eileen lick an ice cream sundae. She was a sight." Balbinot's guitar rattles in agreement. "In the reflection in the window I watched Mark Baker's gold Olds 98 make a U-turn on Main and slide up behind me at the curb. He rolled down the power window and called me over. 'If I ever see you even looking at Little Eileen again,' he said, 'I'm gonna stomp you into the ground.' " The guitar twangs low and menacing. "He was the baddest, meanest mother in Chillicothe. I told him, 'Hey, man, everyone knows Little Eileen is yours; shoot, I wasn't doing nothing.' Four days later ..." The band grows quieter, leaving the low nasal twang of Balbinot's voice alone downstage. "There I was -- the biggest piece of white trash in Chillicothe, Illinois -- driving down Highway 21 with Little Eileen cuddled up on the back of my BSA Gold Star. I didn't give a damn whose girl she was."
The crowd hoots in triumph as Balbinot and the rest of the Roadhouse Rockers fire up a wailing rockabilly flourish to punctuate the story.
Balbinot isn't fooling -- he's white trash and proud. And his ingenuous admission is celebrated by the crowd of rockabilly scenesters at the DNA. On the dance floor, a potbellied hipster with terminal sideburns strips off his mechanic's shirt, revealing two thick arms sleeved with tattoos. A tall woman, stately in her leopard skin spandex pants, twirls around him in a tight arc. He catches her hand as she passes behind his back and lurches into the air, swinging his meaty arm over her head as she completes her revolution.
Compared with the trendoids in engineer boots who frequent the regular Thursday night rockabilly shows at the DNA, Balbinot, 42, is an old-timer, the genuine article. While it's impossible to escape discussion of irony when talking about white trash, Balbinot insists that there is no conscious artfulness underlying his cowboy boots and Johnny Cash garb.
"I'm not pretending," Balbinot says. "Most guys in their 20s didn't grow up with this music. I can remember when this stuff was in those big rainbow-colored Wurlitzer jukeboxes."
And the white trash ethos isn't feigned either, a point Balbinot makes when I ask him about the strange guitars he plays. One, a beautiful blue barracuda of a guitar, was made by an Italian accordion manufacturer; the other, a small white no-name neo-space age affair with more than its share of knobs and switches, no one can place.
"I think it's more white trash to play weird-ass guitars," Balbinot smiles.
But white trash isn't just off-the-wall guitars or cowboy boots; it's more than simply Pabst Blue Ribbon, tractor pulls, muscle cars, and Kraft macaroni and cheese. White trash has become an aesthetic, a cultural marker and perhaps one of the last racial stereotypes to be bandied about with impunity.
Only halfway through the '90s, New York magazine had seen enough to dub the decade "the age of white trash." As Tad Friend wrote in that 1994 article, "White Hot Trash," if you're content to define history as a progression of "stock figures" that succinctly capture the Zeitgeist of a particular era, then you can't help but notice the cultural preponderance of blue-collar Americana.
From wallet chains and tattoos, leopard skin purses and dime-store barrettes to the neo-heavy metal sound of the Supersuckers, the country-fried rock of Southern Culture on the Skids, and the drag-punk of Gearhead magazine, it seems the young and hip are flocking to white trash culture like, well, flies to shit.
Capturing in microscopic detail the horror (and the pride) of white trash is an article by Michele Mantynen titled "Suburban White Trash and Proud of It! (I Think)," published in the local zine Bunnyhop. The 32-year-old Mantynen chronicles an adolescence spent in the trailer parks and shopping malls of Santa Rosa, a town she remembers as "overwhelmingly lower-middle-class, politically conservative, and glow-in-the-dark white."
Mantynen's breakdown of white trash fashion is a hoot. For the white trash gal: big hair (unless you're a "Stoner Suburban Trash Gal"); tight jeans ("Camel toes are a fashion must!" It took me a week to get that reference); denim miniskirts for special occasions; and tightfitting T-shirts with zippy sayings like "10% Angel, 90% Bitch."