The quiet Americans

Punk ethos drives a folksy charm among the Woodchuckers - a group of songwriters blowing the cobwebs off modern US music. They drink cider, too.
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How many times have the snugbars and cybercafes of the nation echoed with the anguished cry: "If Jeff Buckley and Alanis Morissette are the James Taylors and Joan Baezes of our age, where are the Neil Youngs?" Well, maybe not all that often. But with palates jaded by self-indulgent MTV angst, it would be easy to conclude that the currency of the troubadour had become sadly devalued. Given that some of the most exhilarating music of the moment is being made by quiet Americans with acoustic guitars, this would be a grave mistake. Ladies and gentlemen, let your ears thrill to the cracked and wondrous sound of the Woodchuck Nation.

A neat phrase coined by Lambchop's Kurt Wagner on the band's 1994 debut, I Hope You're Sitting Down (City Slang), it's as apt a term as any for a small, mysterious and spectacularly talented group of singer-songwriters who have, in their own distinctive ways, married the maverick moral energy of pre-Nirvana US punk underground with the most ancient American songwriting traditions to spectacular effect. The group comprises (household-name alert) Wagner himself, Vic Chesnutt of Athens, Georgia, Will "Palace" Oldham from Louisville, Kentucky, and Bill "Smog" Callahan from Sacramento, California.

For introduction, let us visit Camden Dingwalls where Lambchop, from Nashville, are playing their first full-scale UK show. There are 10 people onstage. Among the instruments are an alto sax, a trumpet, guitars, keyboards and assorted percussion, including a set of wrenches. At the centre of it all is the amiable, baseball-capped, just-parked-his-tractor figure of Wagner. He looks up from his guitar and jumps. "Oh, I forgot you were there - I'm sort of used to playing in my basement." This could be the stuff of wilful amateurism and gratuitous folksiness, but the subtle and captivating music suggests otherwise.

Wagner insists there is nothing ironic about Lambchop being from Nashville. "I think we're just as true to the spirit of the place as the acts which would be considered 'true' country - maybe more so." Wagner elaborates on this point in "Garf", a cryptically entitled selection from How I Quit Smoking, Lambchop's fine second album. It is a tribute to his unique phrasing ability that he manages to make the following lines scan: "I could be sitting by the telephone tomorrow to receive a call from the overweight Garth Brooks, who would then try to offer me, like, a hundred thousand dollars, just to go the fuck away."

Chesnutt is probably the best known Woodchucker, largely due to the impassioned advocacy of REM's Michael Stipe, who dragged him into the studio in 1988 to record his extraordinary debut, Little (Texas Hotel), in 24 hours and has been praising him up in public since. This royal patronage has probably not done Chesnutt that many favours; it has, by his own admission, ruined him locally, as people now tend to think of him merely as Stipe's buddy, rather than the writer of complex and beguiling individual lines like "Some day I'll be a paragon, like Louis Farrakhan" and albums such as last year's effulgent Is The Actor Happy (Texas Hotel).

Will "Palace" Oldham is the undisputed heavyweight genius of the group. If you're lucky enough not to have yet heard his two finest albums - 1994's Palace Brothers and 1995's Viva Last Blues (both Domino CD/LP/cassette) - hunt them down mercilessly, secure in the knowledge that your life will not be the same once you have heard them. The seeming frailty of Oldham's singing is the perfect compliment to songs that will last forever. His new album, Arise Therefore, is probably not the best one to start with though, as it is too highly sexed for anybody's safety.

Bill Callahan, who releases records under the suitably obfuscatory name of Smog, is probably the weirdest of this very strange quartet. Smog's 1995 album Wild Love (City Slang) contains some of the darkest and most disturbing songs ever recorded. One of them is called "Prince Alone in the Studio" and features the immortal line "It's 3am and Prince hasn't eaten in 18 hours". The new Smog EP, Kicking A Couple Around, finds Callahan moving in the opposite direction to Palace - from baroque perversity to something more traditional; it would be a brave soul who predicted what he was going to do next.

Oldham takes his shape-shifting the farthest. He doesn't just change the players almost every time he records, he changes his name, too - from Palace Brothers to Palace Songs to Palace Music. So why will he never sign up the same musicians for more than six or eight weeks at a time? "Most of the expressive musicians," he has explained helpfully, "tend by this stage in their lives to have become frustrated, and got other jobs."

The other thing the Woodchuckers seem to have in common, for all their folkish inflections, is a punk rock heritage. Chesnutt waxes lyrical about the golden age of the Butthole Surfers, and Wagner was at art school in Memphis when the Sex Pistols played there. He is happy to concede that what he and his peers are up to is at least in part "an outgrowth of that whole attitude - that spirit is the driving force rather than technical ability".

There is another punk rock connection. Surveying the rather arid US "alternative" rock landscape of 1996, one could be forgiven for wondering what happened to the spirit of Kurt Cobain. Well, not for nothing was Cobain rarely photographed without his Daniel Johnston T-shirt. Johnston, a "210lb child" and authentic crazy man (not in the light-hearted, throwing-TVs-out-of- windows sense; he once wrestled plane controls from his pilot father in mid-air in the belief that he was Captain America), is the only man worthy of the title Godfather of Woodchuck.

The inventiveness and intensity of such Johnston recordings as 1983's truly frightening Hi, How Are You? (Homestead) [sample lyric: "Running water, running water, where are you running from?"] has long won him a small but fascinated following, with several Woodchuckers among its number. Fittingly, the inclusion of Johnston's two tributes to Casper the Friendly Ghost on the soundtrack of the teen-libido shocker Kids has won him a new audience just as his influence is coming to fruition. Such childish serendipity brings us back, via Shari Lewis's glove puppet, to Lambchop.

So what did Kurt Wagner mean by the Woodchuck Nation? "Frankly, it was the name of a strong cider we were quite fond of when we were touring." Oh. It was nothing to do with Chesnutt, Oldham or Callahan? "No. But I think it's probably true that we are all different apples which fell out of the same tree. Some got bruised, some lost chunks out of them, and some turned out OK."

n Lambchop's second album 'How I Quit Smoking' and new single 'The Man Who Loved Beer' (both City Slang CD/vinyl) are out now. Palace Music's 'Arise Therefore' (Domino CD/LP/Tape - and see review page 11) is out on Monday and Smog's 'Kicking a Couple Around' EP (Domino) follows on April 29. Palace and Smog play Camden Dingwalls (0171-267 1577) together, solo, on April 28