Country Music for People who Hate Country

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KELLY HOGAN. PHOTO BY NEKO CASE.
  • Kelly Hogan. Photo by Neko Case.

Cardinal fans and Cub fans. Democrats and Republicans. Those who keep up with the Kardashians and those who should be allowed to vote. Country music fans and country music haters. While no end is in sight to the strife between the first three aforementioned warring factions, there may be hope for the fourth. Snooty, holier-than-thou, if more than ten people like it then I can't alternative rock fans, meet overall-wearin', NASCAR-lovin', tobacco-chewin' country music fans. There is a bridge that spans the treacherous waters of your discord. That bridge goes by Kelly Hogan.

See also: -Why John Mayer's 'Daughters' is the Worst Song Ever -Kelly Hogan and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts with Neko Case (from May 2000) -Why Twangfest?

Many other current artists dwell somewhere on the spectrum between country and alternative rock: Wilco, Ryan Adams, Band of Horses and the Avett Brothers are at the very least heavily influenced by country. Even the most strident fan of the alternative rock genre is careful to pay proper respect to certain country legends of yore, such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn.

Personally, I've always felt this was more for show, because the next time a friend of mine plays a Willie Nelson song in my presence will be the first. Kelly Hogan is uniquely suited to please both factions, as she is more country than the Avett Brothers, without allowing herself to sound like the Judd sisters.

Heretofore best-known as a backup singer and contributor to Neko Case, Hogan has also collaborated with Andrew Bird, Mavis Staples and Jakob Dylan. She had two prior solo releases of little fanfare, the more recent of which, Because it Feels Good, dropped in 2001 (possibly even pre-dating the term "dropped").

St. Louis received a welcome re-introduction to Kelly Hogan on June 7 at Twangfest 16, an event whose name hardly suggests artists that will appeal to the alternative music scene, and delivered one of the highlight performances, blowing the low ceiling off the Duck Room. With her latest album, however, Hogan reaches her professional apex, laying her life and experiences out in varying styles that include not only country, but pop and blues.

Two notes into I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, it sounds like Kelly Hogan might be another of the myriad artists readily available for sale at Wal-Mart (or "the Wal-Mart", to most country fans). She begins "Dusty Groove" with a quick breath and a twangy "even in an evenin' gown". Uh-oh. Sounds like someone is about to jump into a pick-up truck and go square dancing with her ne'er-do-well boyfriend. However, something interesting happens on the way to the hootenanny: a thoughtful, well-written song that seems to be about a girl feeling unsure of how to end her oppressive and probably abusive relationship. Rather than lay out all the clichéd ways that this no-good man is causing this sadness, they are enumerated in "a laundry list in a clenched fist never meant to be shown."

On the next track, "I Guess We Just Can't Have Nice Things," Hogan describes a "humble home" where a substandard husband has "made a wreck of everything again." Among the items not to be found in an IKEA are a coffee table/footrest with rings left by a whiskey glass, a chair burned by cigarettes, a broken lamp and a hole in every wall. Sure, to a great majority of country music fans, a home with a chair AND a coffee table may sound like some kind of paradise, but the "teardrop on each pillow" and the bedroom door which is shut to "hide our broken dreams" reveal this song is about much more than a wife complaining about a lunkheaded husband.

In "Haunted", Hogan de-emphasizes the guitar in favor of the organ in a poppy song that could just as easily have been performed by her friends the New Pornographers. "Daddy's Little Girl" would be a perfect substitute for the nausea-inducing "Daughters" by John Mayer at father-daughter dances were it not for the unfortunate use of the word "crotch" (but in Hogan's defense, what was she supposed to rhyme with "Scotch"?).

Hogan seems to instinctively know exactly where the line is between alt-country (or "ya'll-ternative" if you prefer) and the largely irredeemable pop country genre, and while she may two-step all over it, she manages not to cross it. Many of the famous country tropes are here, to be sure: A man who done a woman wrong, whiskey, cigarettes, church, county fairs, transistor radio, the phrase "number one with a bullet." But so is a magnificent, strong, confident voice -- one that is seasoned, soulful and tinged with sorrow yet somehow still hopeful -- with many stories to tell. Fans of all types of music should listen to them.


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