Torch and Twang

The fourth annual Twangfest, the biggest and the best so far, celebrates some of the country's best roots artists

Tift Merritt and the Carbines
9 p.m. Saturday, June 10
Country singer/songwriter Tift Merritt may very well be one of "five emerging insurgents on the edge of center stage," as the alt-country fanzine No Depression recently crowned her, but it's difficult to say for sure, given the scantiness of the recorded material an MP3 on her Web page, four rough but amazing demos and a seven-song EP of duets with John Howie of the Two Dollar Pistols, a much less engaging (to put it charitably) singer than Merritt. Her negotiations with bluegrass label Sugar Hill currently at a standstill, the 25-year-old North Carolinian could be either the next big thing or just another casualty of label myopia.

Whatever her fate, there's no denying her gigantic talent. Backed by her solid country-rock band, the Carbines, Merritt plays rhythm guitar and sings with a clarion delicacy reminiscent of the young Emmylou Harris. Sometimes her crystalline vibrato attains a ragged majesty that brings to mind a less prickly, more buoyant Lucinda Williams. Merritt covers some of the same territory pioneered by Harris, Dylan and Williams, exploring those places where rock & roll, country, folk and blues intersect, but she never seems derivative or overly literary. Her songs are carefully crafted without being precious, and she sings them with a visionary sweetness and an aching restraint that's all too rare in this age of belters and blowhards. By most reports, Merritt is also a compelling performer, a small-boned beauty with golden ringlets and an easygoing stageside manner: equal parts juke-joint girl (the title of one of her songs) and coffeehouse angel. Although the direction of Merritt's career is uncertain, her performance at Twangfest this year is a sure bet. Don't miss it.
-- René Spencer Saller

Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings
10 p.m. Saturday, June 10
Some artists come by their twang honestly; others steal from the best. It's like absconding with the Farm-Aid funds. In his pre-(gray) roots day, Nick Lowe was thought to be the Milton Berle of pop, getting his best material from duped peers and dead trailblazers. But that was just a shtick -- Berle could write great jokes in his sleep, and Lowe was crafty enough to make a crazy quilt out of used material.

Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings, purveyors of a hybrid strain of country-pop for which there is no word
Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings, purveyors of a hybrid strain of country-pop for which there is no word
Tift Merritt
Michael Traister
Tift Merritt

Walter Clevenger has been compared to Lowe in the way he takes the hyphen out of country-pop, purveying a hybrid strain for which there's no word. "We've been lumped in with the Los Angeles pop scene," says songwriter Clevenger, whose Dairy Kings will bring pop calcium to the bare-bones Twangfest country. But Clevenger's blend was never simple Lowe-fi reproduction. "I don't know how we'll fit in," Clevenger adds with more anticipation than trepidation. "I hope we do fit in." He says the Kings haven't even been close to this far east before. Most of their gigs have been in the Los Angeles area, just a dream's throw from Clevenger's home in the bedroom community of Orange County. Never pasteurized pop, the Dairy Kings have until now been defined within the context of LA's IPO (International Pop Overthrow), an annual music festival that places them in the thick of Jellyfish wannabes, Posies poseurs and Redd Kross dressers. Actually, despite Clevenger's love of obscure old power-pop albums, he's a roots man. Either way, people will squeeze him into a category smaller than a calf stable in a train. It's a cruel world for true originals.
-- Jordan Oakes

Bill Kirchen
Midnight Saturday, June 10
The Fender Telecaster is possibly the most twang-friendly guitar ever invented. The guitar delivers a naturally trebly sound, with the ability to produce a deep rumble on the lower strings, especially if coupled with the reverb knob on a Fender amplifier. Best of all, the pickups employed on the classic Telecaster practically make each note sing with the sound of electricity, generating a slight quick echo that calls to mind music made in the mountains.

Bill Kirchen is one of the Telecaster's best practitioners of twang. In the '70s, Kirchen held the guitar chair in Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen. His encyclopedia of basic Telecaster twang licks is familiar to anyone who remembers their hit rendition of "Hot Rod Lincoln." There it is, all the rumbling aura of menace, the hammering rhythmic ticks, the bent chords, the clattering quick runs up the fretboard.

Kirchen resurfaced in the '90s, first appearing here as a guitarist in Nick Lowe's touring band about five or six years back, then turning out a couple of first-rate solo albums on Hightone Records. The first of these, a concert recording called Hot Rod Lincoln Live -- hey, Kirchen knows which side his bread's buttered on -- included an incendiary remake of his biggest break that featured nods to guitar role models ranging from Muddy Waters to Jimi Hendrix to Johnny Cash to the Sex Pistols. The second, a studio affair called Raise a Ruckus, showcased the songwriting talents of his wife, Louise. He's not the greatest singer you've ever heard, but not the worst, either. His guitar playing, however, will be a fitting ending to this year's Twangfest lineup.
-- Steve Pick

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