God told me to do it."
That is John Doe's deadpan explanation of why he and bandmates from acclaimed outfits X and the Blasters reformed the Knitters, the acoustic folk/country aggregation that released Poor Little Critter in the Road in 1985.
"A giant ear of corn came to (vocalist) Exene and said, 'Reform the Knitters.'" No one can say no to a giant ear of corn, so Doe, Exene Cervenka, X drummer D.J. Bonebrake, one-time Blaster Dave Alvin and new member bassist Jonny Ray Bartel decided to take their plaintive home-on-the-range sound back on the road.
The Knitters started playing around Los Angeles in the early '80s when some members of the bands wanted to play benefits and others didn't. "I think the first benefit was for an after-hours club," Doe says, laughing, "We started at the top, supporting a place to keep our alcoholic behavior going until dawn. Then we started doing benefits for stuff like old people's homes and playing just for the fun of it." The Knitters have done shows on the West Coast every three or four years, and then decided 20 years after the first album that it was time to go back into the studio. Doe says, "We finally stopped being lazy. The time was right."
Poor Little Critter in the Road and this year's The Modern Sounds of the Knitters are full of steel guitar, crisp snare drums, string bass, and the desperate yet positive harmonies of Doe, Exene, and Alvin. It's folk music, but with more edge. The album ranges from the Appalachian folk of the Stanley Brothers to the classic Nashville country of Porter Waggoner, and the Knitters deliver it all with just enough respect to honor the songs and their creators. The original songs show the Knitters to be apt students of American roots, while Doe and Dave Alvin's update of "The Call of the Wrecking Ball" from the first album is the band having simple, goofy fun.
The Knitters also worked up folk versions of X's "The New World," "In This House That I Call Home" and "Burning House of Love." "You can't force X tunes into Knitters tunes," Doe says. "It must be intuitive, though I always imagined that people could square dance to punk rock due to the heavy 2/4 beat. Maybe that's why in '83 and '84, people started looking to country music with an alternative slant. It was a natural progression." He credits the Knitters' opening act, Phranc, for giving Los Angeles punk rockers the idea to expand their music by booking acoustic punk-rock shows.
Today it is a different musical universe than it was when the Knitters decided to start playing benefits. It was five years before MTV Unplugged and six years before Uncle Tupelo gave the alt.country movement a name with the album No Depression. It was 13 years before Smithsonian Folkways reissued the Rosetta Stone of American folk, Harry Smith's epic The Anthology of American Folk Music and 15 years before O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the resurgence in folk and alt.country it engendered.
Artists such as Alejandro Escovedo, the Drive-By Truckers, the Waco Brothers and Jesse Malin have traveled paths similar to that of the Knitters, finding in country and folk the same rebellious spirit and working-class consciousness they first found in punk rock in the 1970s -- music that gave the sonic middle finger to the bourgeois, technique-bloated music that preceded it. Still, Doe says the Knitters occupy a unique place in today's Americana marketplace.
"I think we're different from other alt.country bands because there is a high level of humor and f--king around," he says.
In the years between albums, music by the artists who inspired the Knitters, such as the Carter Family and Lefty Frizzell, was reissued and rediscovered. "People should know who these people are," he says. When the Knitters started playing, audiences didn't know them, and those that did tended to be skeptical. "In '84, (this music) would be all new (to punk rock audiences). People thought, 'Wow, this is not as square or stupid as I thought it would be. It's kind of cool.'"
For Doe, Exene and Bonebrake, the movement from X's punk to country isn't as radical as it might seem. Beneath X's reckless rock 'n' roll and fast guitars, there is an abundance of the country soul that listeners have found in musicians from Hank Williams to George Jones. Doe also sees a similarity between the music of X/the Knitters and the country music to which they are indebted.
"They have similar attitudes," he says. "They're direct. They have solid melodies, but not too flowery. The lyrics -- you know what the song is about. It's usually unresolved, unsatisfied. We can only hope to write songs as straightforward and melodically sound as the great folk and country songs. It is a huge well, and you have to keep digging for it."
- Members of X and Dave Alvin -- along with newcomer Jonny Ray Bartel -- reformed their folk and country band to record The Modern Sounds of the Knitters.