Splitting Genres with David Lowery of Cracker
Seminal country rockers Cracker have always been a band apart. At the height of their success in the mid-1990s, Cracker was a major label darling whose first release sold 200,000 units. This may not seem like much now, in an age when outsiders regularly saturate the digital airwaves, but it was a pretty significant accomplishment back in the days of record company totalitarianism. Although lumped into the homogenous “alternative” genre, Cracker’s back story never really fit the same mold as peers like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or the Smashing Pumpkins. Typified by heavy, driving rhythms and soaring metal leads that lot preferred the same post-ironic fashion and the lyrical subject matter of a sensitive punker’s high-school diary.
But Cracker? Well Cracker was always closer to snake-skins than Doc Martens or Chuck T’s. And while the blanket lead on radio favorite “Low” owed something to the hook driven strategy initiated by the Pixie’s “Where is my mind?” and perfected by Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Cracker’s lyrical content was significantly more airy. Whether meta-critical of the industry in their popular hit “Teen Angst,” or the early 90’s lifestyle consciousness on “Get Off This” or the eight minute epic “Euro Trash Girl,” Cracker possessed the hip, humorous verbal acrobatics of more metropolitan groups like the Dandy Warhols or T-Rex.
From a variety of influences and a myriad output one thing about Cracker remained static. The mid tempo preference and minor keyed melodies more closely resembled outlaw country than anything industry rock. Sure, tracks like “Big Dipper,” contained a timeless sophistication, but the majority of album deep cuts tended to offer up narratives utilizing the first person P.O.V. and contain a certain sadness akin to the blues. All themes seen most often in country.
The story of Cracker unspirals around the axis of front man David Lowery. And perhaps the amalgamation of disparate influences could be credited to his exhaustive work ethic, transient life story, or multitude of concurrent projects. Professor David Lowery of the Terry College of Music is not only prolific in output, he’s become the unofficial voice of the musician’s right to commerce in the digital age. Whether testifying before Congress or running the publication Trichordist it seems there’s little Lowery isn’t busy with.
Speaking with Lowery from his base of operations in Athens, I was first and foremost interested to know about the front man’s personal connection to country music, the most unpopular of popular genres.
David Lowery: My father was in the Air Force. I was born down in Texas. I lived all over the place, but I more or less grew up in Southern California in the Inland Empire. When I was growing up it was orchards and ranches and suburbs. In high school there were the jocks, the stoners, but there was also the cowboy clique. People don’t think about cowboys when they think about California, but there were cowboys at my high school. There was all kinds of music growing up. It was the most multicultural place I’ve ever lived. We would hear country, rock n roll, Norteño and other Mexican music, all kinds of stuff. This album represents where I grew up. It has all of that in it.
Think about Bakersfield. It has its own sense of country music. It isn’t the coast, but it got the same interjection of energy. Guitars and Cadillacs by Dwight Yoakam was the culmination of all that. I was playing punk rock and psychedelic, but at the same time we were immersed in this new wave of California country. We were into doing that with Camper Van Beethoven but after we broke up the first two albums of Cracker were completely blues and country rock. So we had country music styling right from the very beginning, and it’s run like a thread throughout our entire career. People tend to think of us as an alternative rock band the country’s always been there. Berkeley to Bakersfield is really a summary for what we do. We’ve done both rock and country so on this album we’ve just split it up.
Raymond Lee: You really were ahead of the pack in respects to that. It’s rather a popular thing to do right now.
Yeah but twenty years ago it wasn’t. <laughter> I remember turning the first Cracker album into our A/R guy, and he was like, “Are you sure you want to do a country rock album when Grunge is the biggest thing on the radio?” And we were like… “Well we don’t know what else to do.” So we did, and it worked out.
It worked well, too. What do you have more of in your record collection: Punk or Country?
It’s about even, but really I liked a lot of the Brits. Y’know a lot of the Roots/Americana stuff was done better by the Brits. Everybody knows the Stones but really the Kinks did it better than anyone. It was pretty cool.
Twenty years ago country and punk were fundamentally different styles of music. Today country music is rather radicalized from what it once was, but the two are finding a lot more in common than they might have once had. Listen to say Mojo Nixon on Sirius or consider artists like Hank III. The blend is a lot more prevalent than one might necessarily anticipate. What was it like to watch these two seemingly disparate things intertwine?
It’s funny you mention Mojo Nixon. He was one of the first guys we toured with. We did tons of shows with him. That was kind of the thing back then, the irreverent, mixing up country and rockabilly but playing in front of rock bands. That was really the scene we grew up in.
The double album is a young man’s game. You’ve done it before but never with all original material. What was the ambition behind it?
Well we had a two batches of songs. We recorded in two places, Georgia and in Berkeley. The stuff we were recording in Berkeley was a lot more raw rock, a lot more alternative or punk. The stuff we recorded in Georgia wasn’t really planned. We weren’t planning on making a record, we were just recording some songs. The stuff in GA was a lot more country, alt-country, Americana. After we had five or six songs I realized there was two different things going on. I didn’t really wanna make two albums, so we decided on two disks.
One disk is the California style of Country Americana and the other disk is the Northern California alternative/punk rock stuff. That’s how we ended up with two disks. In the last two years between Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker we’ve recorded 46 songs. We’ve just been on this streak.
Off and on for almost two years, a few days out of every month. We’ve been writing a lot of songs. And when we realized we had all these songs recorded we decided to do a double album. A lot of people slow down once they get older in their writing, I’ll just go in phases. I’ll write a bunch of stuff for a while, then I won’t write anything for a while. But the process just kept going, the only reason I stopped was because… [laughs] we needed a record out.
Ambition is in no short supply when it comes to Lowery, and after a longer musical career than the lifespan of our key demographic, Lowery et al have released the double album Berkeley to Bakersfield, which encompasses both the punk and country influences of Cracker’s long, illustrious career.