Down south, in the sprawling mall where A&R is king, mentioning your favorite country band still requires a 20-word disclaimer and a complimentary white wine spritzer if you are to avoid the slightly-distracted-cross-eyed-L.A. semistare. Otherwise, the music professional with whom you are speaking might say something like: "You mean like Billy Ray Cyrus?" To which you would have to respond sweetly, "Yes, that's right numbnuts, and when I mention a rock band I usually mean something like Journey." Having said that, L.A. music critics are definitely aware of the rejuvenated country scene, going so far as to give it snazzy little labels like "twangcore," "insurgent country," "alternacountry," "cowpunk," and, ugh, "punky-tonk" -- it seems that as long as a "neo-country" group has punk or garage-band ties, their credibility is salvaged. To use a cliche, it's a cryin' shame that labels are the key to record contracts, but seeing how the term "alternative rock" has been perpetuated even when the "alternative rock" bands outnumber everything else 10 to 1, I'm sure that "twangcore" is here to stay. Strangely, in San Francisco there is no twangcore category in the music listings and new Americana fans are forced to traverse the standard Country/Folk section along with all the weepy hippies searching for heartfelt Greenpeace ballads. But week after week, the section redeems itself, boasting an amazing bevy of local talent -- the Kuntry Kunts, the Old Joe Clarks, the Swingin' Doors, Tarnation, Stephen Yerkey, the Buckets, Richard Buckner, Johnny Dilks -- and the occasional out-of-town treat. This week, the No Depression Tour, which was the brainchild of No Depression Magazine and San Francisco's Mongrel Music, promises four acts that, together, embody the nation's migrations in country. Sitting in chipped rocking chairs on a wooden porch, Hazeldine (three gals, one guy) fill their hometown with the dust of sparse, fuzzy reverb and pristine pickings. Lyrically, Hazeldine are modern in notion, but chaste harmonies and delicate, lilting twangs keep them from assuming modern-day irony. Even when the ladies sing, "Fuck me like Batman," it is only sad proof that they are lonely, not bored, out there in Albuquerque, N.M. Patsy Cline might have said the same if she were a '90s girl. Hailing from Seattle, Wash., the Picketts are more rollicksome and flashy in their approach. Electric guitar takes the foreground, and there's a heftier twang to Christy McWilson's cowgirl vocalizing. Their hick versions of the Who's "Baba O'Riley" and the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" would be worthy of Urban Cowboy 1997. (Warning: Going from Hazeldine to the Picketts is a bit like going from Delta to Chicago blues.) It is clear upon the first listen of Faithless Street that Ryan Adams, singer for Raleigh, N.C.'s Whiskeytown, grew up on a solid diet of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Willie Nelson. His unaffected, smoke-stained vocals find comfortable pairings with introspection and pedal steel before jumping into hard-boiled shit-kickers that smack of teen-age rebellion, whiskey shots, and Richard Hell. This band is at their boot-scooting best when rowdy, sounding more like early Bruce Springsteen on rush than Conway Twitty ("motherfucker" rolls a little too easily off Adams' tongue). Still, fiddle player Caitlin Cary adds a touch of Loretta Lynn-styled class with sweet-voiced accompaniments and a singular ballad that explores the prospects of virginity ("I swear I'll use my cherry my own way/ I don't believe I care to marry"). My only request is that Adams avoid the word "heart," which makes him sound a little too much like Tom Petty. Now, the Dallas-based Old 97's are what we've all been waiting for. Lacking a better word, these boys have called what they do "honky-skronk," though they actually don't mock country music. The Old 97's take straight-up country signatures -- banjo, trap kit, heartbreak -- and mix them with British Invasion hooks and some of the snappiest songwriting this or that side of the Mississippi. The giddy concoction found its way onto their debut, Wreck Your Life, which, aside from covers of Bill Monroe's "My Sweet Blue-Eyed Darlin' " and Augustin Lara's "You Belong to My Heart," could easily be the journal of a deeply insecure musician afraid to go on the road. "The Other Shoe" chronicles an unfaithful lover left at home: "By the time she thought you'd probably gone to Phoenix she'd arranged for your shoes to be filled"; while "Doreen" chronicles a potentially unfaithful lover: "Doreen, last night I had another dream/ You were laying in the arms of a man I never seen/ Come clean, Doreen." On "Big Brown Eyes" singer Rhett Miller talks about the loneliness that can come from a tour bus: "You don't want me anymore/ Not since fame and fortune broke down our door." The haunting "Old Familiar Steam" tells of the pain of leaving home that first time, and "Dressing Room Walls" warns of the false allure of Los Angeles: "There ain't no gold there/ Just line upon line of cocaine." "Bel Air" finally falls back on youthful fancies: "You poured whiskey in my Slurpee," only to be visited by "Victoria" that is merely "the story of Victoria Lee/ She started out on Percodan and ended up on me." Finally, "W.I.F.E." states the inevitable no-winner compromise: "I've got my wife, the other women, and whiskey killing me," which can only lead to "Over the Cliff" -- written for the 97's by ex-Mekons singer Jon Langford: "It's hard to tell if life is a burden or a gift/ But I'm going over the cliff." Perhaps on this tour Miller will find some Xanax to soothe his nerves. Look for the Old 97's Elektra release coming in June. The No Depression Tour will be at the Great American Music Hall on Wednesday, March 26. Hazeldine performs at 8 p.m., the Picketts at 8:45 p.m., Whiskeytown at 9:45 p.m., and the Old 97's at 10:45 p.m. Ticket price is $10; call 885-0750.
-- Silke Tudor