Except Gram Parsons never played country music. He played what he called "cosmic American music," which was, well, country, but with rock and R&B twists that made it innovative and interesting and dismally unmarketable.
Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1974. Twenty-six years later, a surprisingly large number of bands are struggling to be named heir to Parson's throne. San Francisco's best shot may be the Court and Spark, a band that has already mastered the first step to underground country stardom.
It doesn't play country music.
Ask M.C. Taylor, the Court and Spark's singer and rhythm guitarist, what it is exactly that the band is doing, and he'll be happy to tell you. Sort of.
"Umm ... well ...," he stammers, eventually giving up and looking to drummer James Kim for help.
"Deep layered country," Kim says tentatively.
Taylor looks at him, slightly pained.
"There's not one word for it really," Taylor finally concludes. "If I'm talking to my grandma, I'd just say it's country music. But we don't consider ourselves a country band. We probably listen to electronic or dub music as much as country."
The Court and Spark's musical identity crisis puts the band in good company. There's the Gram Parsons link, for one, but there's also the growing number of File Under ? groups that have more in common with Ry Cooder and his Paris, Texas than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Bands like Lullaby for the Working Class, Lambchop, and Souled American -- bands that can speak country, but that, ultimately, are polyglots, equally conversant in a number of genres.
Like many of its contemporaries, the Court and Spark came to its sound from the seemingly far-away world of punk rock. Lead guitarist Scott Hirsch, Taylor, and current bassist Joe Rogers met at UC Santa Barbara, where they played together in the noisy post-rock group Exignota. The band broke up at graduation in 1997, and Hirsch and fellow Santa Barbara musician Kim moved to San Francisco. Taylor followed eight months later. The three found a bassist, and the Court and Spark was born.
"We wanted to do something that was broad," recalls Kim of the band's early ambitions. "Mike was listening to a lot of country-type stuff. And the Steely Dan stuff. He was really into that, and we were kind like, "What is this?' He felt alone in that Steely Dan world."
But by January 1999, the band members had all 1) embraced Steely Dan, the Band, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and Kim Hazlewood, and 2) written enough originals for a trip to the studio. Working at Division Hi-Fi was a little overwhelming for guys in their early 20s whose previous recordings had involved eight tracks and a couple of microphones. The possibilities opened by a real studio were intimidating, to say nothing of the staff.
"They completely took us under their wing, but there were some times when it was pretty fucking harsh," says Taylor, recalling the tough love administered by producers/engineers Scott Solter and Desmond Shae. "We'd have to leave the studio and go, "Oh man ... I just got worked.'"
The time spent at Division Hi-Fi helped tighten the Court and Spark's playing while expanding the band's sound. "Recording the album pointed us in a certain direction," says Taylor. "We were able to do things on the record that we hadn't thought of doing yet. "
The album was recorded in spurts over five months, from January to May 1999. The resulting eight-song CD, Ventura Whites, crackles and hums with the electricity of a band catching up to its own ideas. A tour through the dark outskirts of the rural imagination, the album has the beautiful, doomed timbre of Palace or the Scud Mountain Boys, with an openness that neither can match. Some of that expansiveness has to do with Taylor's lyrics. His tales of God, ghosts, and human failure ring with the conviction of a hymnal; delivered with a mannered twang that works best when set on low, the stories unravel in fragments, chilling and vague.
Like Taylor's turns of phrase, the most stunning parts of Ventura Whites are often the smallest: a graceful flutter of vocal harmony from Wendy Allen (a guest when the album was recorded and now a full-time member); a melting chord from Hirsch's Hammond B-3 organ, or sepia fireworks from his slide guitar. Kim's drumming paces the perimeter of it all, his crashes and fills counting out the seconds before the dream dissolves.
With all the expert help in the studio, the band still benefited from some happy accidents during the recording process. One of the album's most haunting tracks -- the duet for piano and children's voices that became the title track -- was captured by chance at an elementary school where Taylor was working. "There was always a student piano in those old schools that I would play during lunchtime and stuff. These little girls were in the classroom -- it was PE time but they didn't want to go outside and play. I just used a little tape recorder and that just happened to come out. The girls say some pretty strange things."
By May 1999, the album was finished and ex-Exignota member Rogers had moved to San Francisco to take over bass duties. Another important addition was pedal steel player Tom Heyman, best known for his singing/songwriting/guitaring role in Philly's now-defunct altcountry stalwart Go to Blazes. "Tom's been really good for us," says Taylor. "He's been playing forever. We've learned a lot from him about playing live."
"And ordering Philly cheese steaks," Hirsch adds.
In June, the band took its fleshed-out lineup on the road. The four-week, 10,000-mile tour traveled through Chicago to New York and back again. In another Gram Parsons parallel, the band was faced with the responsibility of bringing its odd sound to hipsters, many of whom still see country as synonymous with white-bread, mainstream culture. And trying to play quiet, moody music in a bar is usually a masochistic endeavor, regardless of genre. But the Court and Spark audiences were appreciative. Mostly.
"In Oklahoma we played one sort of half-slow song," recalls Hirsch. "And some girls said, "This is music to slit your wrists to!'"
"And that," Rogers deadpans, "was our upbeat set."
In Murfreesburo, Tenn., they had another run-in with a restless audience. One heckler wouldn't stop yelling out a request for "Rocky Top." "She called us a bunch of California boys," recalls Rogers. "She sounded like the mother in Throw Momma From the Train. I think she had a good heart. She was just so drunk."
The good shows -- New York in particular -- made up for the off nights. And then there was the day in L.A. when the band stumbled on the bowling alley where the Coen brothers filmed The Big Lebowski.
The Court and Spark members, in case you were wondering, are very big fans of The Big Lebowski.
"That's what we do in the van -- we re-enact [the film]," says Rogers cheerfully.
"Line by line," adds Kim.
"Over and over again."
Just back from the tour, the band is preparing, appropriately enough, for its performance at the second annual "Sleepless Nights" Gram Parsons tribute. The Aug. 12 show at the Great American Music Hall will be a who's who of local country-ish talent. Mover, the High Deserters, the Blue Arrows, Red Meat, and Chuck Prophet are scheduled to play, along with San Diego's Convoy and L.A.'s Northern Lights.
The Court and Spark is flattered to get to help celebrate one of the saints of country music. But like a certain young maverick before them, the band members' taste in icons doesn't always follow the doctrine of the times.
"I think we're all fans [of Parsons]," says Taylor. "I don't know that we're huge fans. He was a good songwriter. But there's lots and lots of good songwriters from back then."
"We'd like to do a Gene Clark song and a Townes Van Zandt song too," adds Rogers. "They're just as cool."
Parsons would be so proud.