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Country Saviors

"Do you know what you're looking for? Will you know it when you see it?"

These questions, asked by the disembodied voice of a little girl, are the opening lines of Andrew Douglas' love letter of a documentary to a certain downbeat side of alternative country music, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Most seem to think Douglas starts his fine film, released late last year, with these lines because they pretty much sum up what they see as its raison d' etre - an attempt to examine the poverty-stricken white Southern culture that produced singer-songwriter Jim White's haunting oeuvre of sparse, gloomy acoustic country songs.

But I rather agree with some other reviewers that Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is really more of an excuse to give the alt-country musical genre a chance to strut its stuff rather than a serious attempt to unearth the root causes of white poverty below the Mason-Dixon line. And if that latter view is closer to reality, then the film's opening lines can more aptly be applied to "alternative country" itself - do you really know what you're looking for when a gut-felt aversion to slick Nashville product and the meaninglessness of pop and modern rock leads you to search for a more authentic music, but one that also has some rock 'n' roll chops? Will you know it when you hear it?

Yes, I will. And what I heard here was an all-star gathering of the gloomiest, spookiest musical wackos that alt-country has to offer.

wrongeyed_white.jpgThe main trip is supplied by White himself, who acts as the seeker's guide on-screen while off-screen seven of his songs are sampled. White's style is ultra-downbeat, indeed, some call it sadcore. It touches on that strain of alt-country that harkens back to brimstone-and-hellfire religious folk lamentations about people being unjustly hung, falling out of grace with God, or a myriad of other calamities. But the thing that makes it "alt" is that his lyrics, while gloomy, are also smart and metaphysical, giving them a tasty intellectual kick. These lines, for instance, are from his song "Ten Miles To Go On a Nine-Mile Road":

From the splinter in the hand, to the thorn in the heart
To the shotgun to the head
You got no choice but to learn to glean solace from pain
Or you'll end up cynical or dead

There's a ton of this kind of stuff in Wrong-Eyed Jesus. The other artists who get the most face-time on screen are Chicago's truly troubled Handsome Family and black humor iconoclast Johnny Dowd. The Handsomes have three songs on the soundtrack, including a truly memorable sequence where they perform a good bit of "My Sister's Tiny Hands" while standing on the porch of a shack that seems to be floating in the middle of a flooded lake. Very striking - and to me, a very apt visual metaphor for the isolating, dangerous qualities of their music.

They pop up again playing "Cold Cold Cold" in what White calls a "typical cut-and-shoot" redneck bar along a two-lane highway, as he talks about how folks who live in "Pentecostal" small towns have to make a choice about who they are - a Saturday night hellraiser or a Sunday morning Jesus worshipper - with little or no room for anything in between.

There's also a non-musical sequence where the Handsomes Brett and Rennie Sparks are sitting in a car on a dark, deserted parking lot holding a serious discussion about the nature of country rock that kind of sounds like something you'd hear in a graduate school course on the history of roots music. It goes something like this -

Brett: There's a great tradition of art emerging from the clash between the sacred and the secular. That's nothing new.
Rennie: The devil's alive in the South. Without the devil, what's God? Nothing. You need both. You need something dark. You need ghosts, evil, before good makes any sense.
Brett: Yeah.
Rennie: You need some sin. Any of those people, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, they could have been priests, they could have been killers. And the amount of blood. What is it about Southern music and Southern religion that has a lot of blood and violence and fiery images?
Brett: I think it's just the oral tradition in poverty. Pentecostalism is very sensual and intense.

Deep, man.

What it all really means, I think, is go rent Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus not if you're trying to find why God appears to Southerners in greasy truck stops, roadside junkyards and speaking-in-tongues cinderblock churches - but in the acoustic licks of an autoharp or a banjo plucked by the scary-looking guy from 16 Horsepower.

For more on this film, check out Beachwood contributor Marilyn Ferdinand's review. And for alt-country fans, here's the movie's tasty playlist.

1. Jim White, "Still Waters"

2. Cat Power, "Cross Bones Style"

3. Johnny Dowd, "Murder"

4. Handsome Family, "My Sister's Tiny Hands"

5. Jim White, "Cinderblock Walls"

6. 16 Horsepower, "Wayfaring Stranger"

7. 16 Horsepower, "Cottonmouth"

8. Jim White, "Alabama Chrome"

9. Johnny Dowd, "First There Was"

10. Handsome Family, "Cold Cold Cold"

11. Johnny Dowd, "Worried Mind"

12. Rev. Gary Howington, "Covered In Blood"

13. Rev. Gary Howington, "I'm Rooting For That City"

14. Rev. Gary Howington, "When Jesus Calls My Name"

15. Jim White, "Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes"

16. Handsome Family, "When That Helicopter Comes"

17. Jim White, "The Wound That Never Heals"

18. The Singing Hall Sisters, "Knoxville Girl"

19. Johnny Dowd, "One Way"

20. Lee Sexton, "Danville Girl"

21. Hobart Smith, "Wayfaring Stranger"

22. David Johansen and Larry Saltzman, "The Last Kind Words"

23. Brother Doug Trio, "Meet Me on the Other Side"

24. Melissa Swingle, "Amazing Grace"

25. Lee Sexton, "Little Maggie"

26. Lee Sexton, "Rye Whiskey"

27. Jim White, "Borrowed Wings"

28. Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson, "The Coo Coo Bird"

29. Brother Fred and Sister Brenda, "Dance Like David"

30. Brother Fred and Sister Brenda, "Did My Savior Die?"

31. Jim White, "Christmas Day"


Posted on December 14, 2006

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BOOKS - How CPL Books Get From Here To There.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Remembering James Randi: Hero.

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