Freakwater best exemplifies the representative traits of alt.country discussed here. Centered around the songwriting and vocal team of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin (with bassist David Gray), Freakwater play a brand of country music that has been virtually unheard since A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter parted ways over fifty years ago. The band officially came together in 1989, recording a pair of albums on a small independent label and then switched to a slightly more prominent indie label. Their sound hangs on Bean and Irwin's emotive harmonies, acoustic guitars, and other stringed "traditional" instruments, betraying almost none of the changes in country music in the last half decade. Even electric guitars and drums are almost nonexistent on their recordings. While the women of Freakwater are indebted to early country music, citing the Carter Family and the Louvin Brothers as influences, they are not strictly country purists in the Nashville sense of the term. Bean, with her husband, has spent much of the last decade writing and performing in Eleventh Dream Day, an indie rock band far different from Freakwater. Freakwater also recently rejected a Nashville-based major label deal in favor of remaining with the indie label Thrill Jockey (which is not known for its country roster) thus strengthening their anti-Nashville image. Remaining with that label virtually assures that Freakwater albums will not be available in major retail outlets and that they will not receive exposure in traditional media. In their marketing, they also refrain from the Nashville standard; their album covers, painted by Irwin, are expressionist pieces that convey the idea of cover art as "art," a convention of rock music which was extended in the indie world.
The Carter Family's "Who's That Knocking at My Window?"
Listening to a Freakwater album is like picking up a broadcast from the past. Bean and Irwin seem to channel the sound that the Carter Family created seventy years ago; however, there is no one to play A.P. to their Sara and Maybelle. Only on their latest album did they allow a male vocal to appear- a fairly minor detail but a realization of the process of the subtle (and not so subtle) changes alt.country has wrought on the country tradition. Musically they employ mostly "traditional" country instruments- guitar, pedal steel, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and bass guitar and occasionally adding piano or percussion. It is the near absence of percussion though that most strongly links Freakwater with the early days of country. Each of the albums have their own style evoking different moods. Dancing Under Water (1991) is a despairing blue grass infected album, Old Paint (1995) has a darker more claustrophobic sound, and Springtime (1997) is a more hopeful and up-beat. Their sound does not simply mimic past styles, nor like New Grass does it adhere to only one tradition within the greater realm of "Country." "Great Potential" has folk-pop elements that would have been anachronistic in the '30s, while "Fill My Thermos," "Blood and Fire," "Washed in the Blood," and "Picture in My Mind" all suggest a bluegrass lineage, which was just being created in the early Forties. "Binding Twine" remains firmly rooted in the rustic sounds of old-time music, but the edgy, nearly whispered verses and repetitious mandolin owe as much to the art-punk of Pattie Smith as to the Carter Family, and the vocals of "Waitress Song" are more reminiscent of Dolly Parton than any other earlier figure. Much of the album Old Paint reveals a slight blues influence too, especially the guitar work on "Hero/Heroine" and the piano on "Smoking Daddy," while "Harlan" from Springtime is a folk ballad drawn more from the Sixties revival than from the infancy of Country.
Freakwater cover of Woody Guthrie's "Little Black Train"
Freakwater's tragedy-song, "Scratches on the Door"
Lyrically, Freakwater blend traditional and contemporary themes creating a place outside of time- one that could be now or the 1930s. The most obvious allusions to the past come from covers of songs by Woody Guthrie ("Little Black Train"), Merle Travis ("Dark as a Dungeon"), and Bill Monroe ("Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake"). Rather than simply acting as preservationists, like the Smithsonian Folk Institute, or establishing themselves within a tradition, as Richard Peterson describes the process of authentication in Nashville country, Freakwater infuse these songs with new meaning within the a modern context. Monroe's "Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake," which is already ripe for Freudian interpretation, takes on terrifying implications in a world plagued by AIDS. The lyrics have not been altered by Freakwater, but the image of a girl attacked by a snake in the "dark woods" which concludes with the admonishment, "To all parents I say/ Don't let your children stray/ They need your love to guide them on," loses its Biblical implications because the accompanying music retains none of the gospel overtones of early country. Similarly, Guthrie's "Little Black Train"- a fairly conventional "Because I could not stop for death" song couched in industrial images- as read by Freakwater seems stripped of its religious overtones, again because of the dark non-spiritual music, and assumes a stance on capitalist excess of which Oliver Stone would be proud. Freakwater also revived the tragedy ballad, once a staple of country music. In the '20s and '30s before the TV-movie-of-the-week, these novelty songs usually documented some nationally publicized event; however, they were reinterpreted by Woody Guthrie in the late '30s. He used the formula to record politically tinged events, as in "Deportees" or "1913 Massacre," replacing the maudlin emotions with social radicalism. "Scratches on the Door" discards both the affected sentimentality and the radicalism, emphasizing instead the creation and exploitation of these types of stories for mass media. Freakwater achieves both the aura of tragedy which defines this genre while establishing an ironic distance from the original purveyors of these songs, because they signal that they are aware of exploiting that very tradition.
Their original songs also achieve this synthesis of distance and raw emotion that serves to connect the past and present. "A Song You Could Cry For," as the name implies, creates a despairing mood. The song opens, "Desperately seeking more and more confusion/ You sink your nails into the back of an illusion," suggesting the existential angst of post-punk, but the lines "Desperately seeking a love you could die for/ You sink one more quarter for a song you could cry for" acknowledge the self conscious sadness of country where you pay to have a "tear in your beer." The emotions, however, are so palpable that any distance between the facsimile (this song) and "the real thing" is shattered. "Fill My Thermos" enacts a similar process on the theme of escaping to the west. The song begins, "I'll be going far tomorrow in my dreams/. . .Fill my thermos in a truck stop/ Watch the night turn into day/ It's the highway as much as you/ That makes me run away," presenting a conventional image of rebirth and redemption on the way west, but flight is prevented by reality- "it's no money as much as you that makes me have to stay." Here the jubilant bluegrass music is juxtaposed with the inability to fulfill the promise of that dream of flight, so that the audience finds a different message in the music and in the lyrics. "Hero/Heroine" helps locate Freakwater's audience. The song, which demythologizes the narrator's hero/heroine, runs counter to country's idolization of key figures, but more importantly the lines "there were myths and there were facts which I mistook/ And everybody who gets drunk will not write a good book" identifies a novelist, a hero/heroine not typically associated with country audiences.
Several songs return to the theme of poverty, establishing an empathy between artist, audience, and the characters. "Waitress Song" seems to begin as a "lost love" song, but the narrator shifts from her relationship to the statements "Maybe money can't buy everything/ It looks like I'm never going to know for sure/ Maybe money can't buy happiness/ Well neither can just being poor. . . If I didn't go to bed afraid/ About some bills that will never get paid/ I wouldn't be down at the laundromat/ Watching my work clothes fade." "Gone to Stay" may be one of the most dismal of their songs, representing a collective depression in its protagonist. Again the song begins in a seemingly conventional manner, "How many heartaches do you think you can stand/ I used to count them all on the fingers of one hand/ Way back in the distance before the sad times began." After these lines though there is no mention of lost loves, and the identification of the "sad times" further suggests that the heartache is not caused by someone but by a time or a mood. When they sing "there's nothing so pure as the kindness of an atheist," Freakwater brings into focus the idea of absences, meaninglessness- things beyond human control. The song's climax, "there's nothing so sure as a razor blade above your hands" and the question it provokes "do you still dream of being saved?" reinforce the mood of helplessness beyond the hope of redemption.