By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Stifle the cynical yawns, rock fans, and add yet another tribute album to the gazillion or so out there. Poor Little Knitter on the Road is an homage to the Knitters, a side-project of X, one of the greatest rock bands of the '80s. In 1985 the Knitters released their only album, Poor Little Critter on the Road (Slash), which comprised mostly covers of country standards. The mind reels: a tribute to a tribute band? Covers of covers? The 12 bands represented here, most of which hail from Chicago and record for the Bloodshot label, perform all the songs on the Knitters album in the original order. The only difference -- besides, of course, the performances, which range from superb to embarrassing -- is the inclusion of a previously unreleased Knitters song, "Why Don't We Try Anymore."
The Bloodshot tribute begs the unkind but inevitable question: Why bother? Well, because for some reason, young country audiences must be courted at regular intervals, coaxed into believing that paunchy old white guys with bad haircuts can be cool. In the mid-'80s, the Knitters inspired scores of teenage punk fans to scour the used-record racks in search of country greats like Merle Haggard and the Carter Family; Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks would have a similar effect on indie kids a few years later, just as Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris had on rock audiences a generation before. If the Bloodshot tribute begets a new batch of converts, it will have a place in this evangelical tradition; if not, it will at least cause the aging sentimentalists among us to dust off our original Knitters LPs and remember the good old days.
Like all compilations, Poor Little Knitter on the Road is inconsistent. Low points include Whiskeytown's lugubrious version of Haggard's "Silver Wings." Alt-country wonderboy Ryan Adams -- wisely surmising, perhaps, that he couldn't match the sweet, soulful urgency of John Doe's interpretation -- aims for dramatic restraint but instead sounds listless and perfunctory. "The Call of the Wreckin' Ball," written by Doe and Dave Alvin, was a dumb song from the outset. (How could a song about stomping barnyard fowl to death be anything but?) What redeemed the Knitters' version were Doe and Exene Cervenka's antic harmonies and Jonny Ray Bartel and D.J. Bonebrake's infectious chugalug rhythm section. In the hands of wiseguy novelty-meister Robbie Fulks, the song is merely obnoxious. From a technical standpoint, Anna Fermin -- who's endowed with a honeyed alto -- may have a better voice than Cervenka, but her version of the country-swing romp "Love Shack" lacks the off-kilter appeal of the original, the crooked grace of Cervenka's plaintive drawl.
Fortunately, however, highlights abound. Trailer Bride's droll, relaxed reading of "Poor Little Critter on the Road" captures the good-natured charm of the Knitters' rendition. Kelly Hogan belts out a bold and blowzy "Someone Like You," and the Sadies and Catherine Irwin (of Freakwater) successfully transform "Walkin' Cane" into a raucous hootenanny chorale. But where these songs are merely entertaining tributes to a better band, the Handsome Family's gothic-cowboy take on "Trail of Time" is a revelation. Brett Sparks' haunted baritone brings goosebumps to the skin and a lump to the throat; combined with wife Rennie's eerie, understated harmonies, the effect is incantatory. This exquisite performance makes the Sparks seem not so much tribute-payers as heirs apparent.