Despite mainstream country’s failed attempts at conquering Manhattan (the fabled Lone Star Café, the radio station WYNY), the incongruous subculture of indie country continues to thrive here, albeit in fits and starts. A previous heyday, in the eighties, gave way to bands like Last Roundup and the Surreal McCoys. “Things got dark and scary in the early eighties,” says former Roundup singer Amy Rigby. “Maybe we were looking for something sweet, and country was a refuge.” Sounds like right about now. And perhaps coincidentally, a new cache of bands is cropping up, this time mostly in Brooklyn, including O’Death (high-on-speed folk-country, like an American Pogues), the Dixons (steel-guitar-laced shuffles), and the intentionally misspelled Defibulators, whose debut CD, Corn Money, arrives this week.
On a recent weeknight at the bar Southpaw in Park Slope, the Defibulators’ guitarist and banjo player Bryan Jennings (who goes by the name Bug) and singer Erin Bru slip into harmonies that recall the storied Gram Parsons–Emmylou Harris duets. Barreling away behind them are a fiddler and a washboard player, and two-steppers fill the dance floor. It’s not exactly the career Jennings envisioned back when he was an alt-rock fan disdaining what he refers to as “Nashville country.” It took moving to New York (to attend NYU, where he met Bru) to appreciate the sounds of his hometown, Fort Worth, Texas. While Jennings was working at a Manhattan barbecue joint, a co-worker (now the band’s lead guitarist) introduced him to Hank Williams and other fifties icons. “It was the same kind of rush I had when I used to listen to Pearl Jam,” he says. “It was the melodies, the harmonies, the soul. These people were singing from their gut.”
In the way they re-create the barroom swing of the Hank era, the Defibulators and their fellow indie-country bands present themselves as more authentic than, say, Taylor Swift. But while Corn Money has moments of unvarnished beauty (“Your Hearty Laugh”), it also includes a degree of Hee Haw–style cornpone (note long underwear). So what is their music: paean or put-on? “It’s not ironic, what we’re doing,” insists Bru. “We’re not making fun of [country music].” Jennings arches his brow. “Or are we?” Noting Bru’s disapproval, he adds, “We’re not making fun of it. We’re having fun with it.” Sighing, Bru sums up the mystery that is their world: “It’s kind of hard to describe to people.”