Honky-Tonk Angles

Western swing musician Johnny Dilks plays scholar to California's country music past and suggests its future, if Charlie Louvin has anything to say about it

One of them was fiddler Brian Godchaux. "He was trying to start a band and he called me on the phone," Godchaux recalls. "He sent me a tape, and I was surprised because it was just a tape of things he wanted to play," not Dilks' own songs. But, Godchaux says, "I dug the music. At least I dug what his idea of the music was."

Guitar playing and songwriting Dilks had down; getting his yodel down was another matter. While he eventually did take lessons, mainly he "just jumped in and did it." In groups of various sizes -- up to 13 musicians at one point -- Dilks fronted his band as the Rhythm Wranglers, Rhythm Rustlers, and eventually the Visitacion Valley Boys. "Visitacion Valley's a district [in San Francisco]," Dilks points out, "but that whole valley [around Brisbane] is originally Visitacion Valley. Brisbane used to be called Town of Visitacion."

Dilks landed regular gigs at the now-defunct Julie Ring's Heart and Soul, and in San Francisco was running into people who found a person obsessed with country music a little strange. "You can have your hair dyed green and piercings hanging out of your face, and when you walk down the street nobody will look twice at you," he says. "The second you put on a cowboy hat, everybody wants to fight you. ... When I first moved to the city, I wore a hat all the time, and people would talk shit or start trouble. I had more than one fistfight over the way I looked."

Dilks' pickup is threatening to run out of gas on the highway. He mentions turning on the radio earlier in the day and hearing one of his songs -- "Stalin Kicked the Bucket," actually a cover of a kitschy, obscure tune by Ray Anderson about Cold War anxiety ("Though he was a man of power/ He was scared of Eisenhower"), that he first heard on an old 78. "I heard it on the radio today, and I cringed," Dilks says. "I've heard those songs so many times, I couldn't tell you if it's good or bad anymore."

That song's in the great tradition of Cold War country tunes like the Louvin Brothers' "The Great Atomic Power," right? Dilks tut-tuts the notion. "That's more about [the biblical] Revelations, I think. That's about the bomb dropping and are you going to heaven or hell?" "Stalin Kicked the Bucket" -- that's just a silly song about a dead dictator.

He pulls into the driveway of his house, whose contents, strictly in terms of records, are a punk-meets-country affair. Misfits CDs mingle with bluegrass compilations on one table; on another, a 7 Seconds LP lies next to a Robert Mitchum album Dilks is pleased to show off, and vinyl copies of Acres of Heartache. After he picks up his clothes, he drives to a gas station, jumping a curb ("You wonder why my front end was out of alignment?"), and as he fills the tank he's still pondering the country radio issue. "In country music now, the radio's so bad that something's gotta happen sooner or later," he says. "There's definitely an interest in classic country as far as just being away from the mainstream. Nashville's got their heads so far up their ass," he says, and trails off. Finish that metaphor however you choose. Lots of people have.

There's a scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood stroll into a middle-of-nowhere honky-tonk called Bob's Country Bunker and ask the bartender what kind of music they play. "Oh, we got both kinds," she responds perkily. "Country and western." It's one of the movie's great lines, but along comes Gerald Haslam to point out that the guileless bartender was actually on solid academic footing. One of the numerous revelations to come out of his book Workin' Man Blues is that California has had a strong roots music tradition practically since the turn of the century; that contradicts the conventional wisdom that argues California as a musical desert until the Okie migration of the 1930s.

Workin' Man Blues is the latest in a string of fiction and nonfiction books that Haslam, a Sonoma County resident and San Francisco State graduate, has written on California over the years: "All my nonfiction books have tried to sort of extend and correct the stereotype and image of California." The result is a thoroughly researched academic tome (it's published by University of California Press), but also a readable one and, perhaps more importantly, an open-minded work. There are commentaries about the usual suspects in California country -- Gene Autry, Rose Maddox, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard -- but the latter half of his chronology leaves room for Gram Parsons, X, the Blasters, and even the Eagles, if only to point out what a horrid, sappy mess country mutated into during the '70s.

Haslam argues that California was actually a leader in country music's mainstream until the '50s, when Nashville started to contest its primacy, mainly for publicity reasons. In 1958, the Nashville-based Country Music Association, Haslam writes, "performed the paradoxical feat of creating the impression that country was more southern than was true."

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