Chicken-stompers, hog-callers and corn-haulers--can it be that the Knitters are back?
One of the most endearing things to come out of the Los Angeles scene in the '80s was the Knitters, that porch-grade country and folk band comprising Exene Cervenka, John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake from the typically dead serious X with the Blasters' guitarist Dave Alvin and D.I. bassist Jonny Ray Bartel.
The group name was a play on the '50s folk sensations the Weavers, and there indeed was a hootenanny spirit to the shows and one album (1985's "Poor Little Critter on the Road") the skewed supergroup did between 1984 and '87.
According to Doe, the group has sat on the shelf for the last five years because he, Alvin and Cervenka all had too many other irons in the fire. Each issued solo albums; Alvin did soundtrack work; Doe has acted in several films (he has one of the leads in "Roadside Prophets" due for release in March); Cervenka published poetry, and she and Doe each also started families.
Speaking by phone from his home near Gorman, Doe said playing in the Knitters now has a different meaning for its members.
"At the point when we started it, all of us only had one avenue of expression, so it was a real departure for us," he said. "Since then we've all branched out and done different things. But it's a spiritual kind of soul thang to us now. We don't see each other as much these days, so this way we get a chance to hang out and be really silly. To me, the Knitters means lack of pressure, unbridled fun and country music."
Playing together for them can be like a conversation between old friends. "There's some intuitive musical bond between all of us," Doe said. "We can do something we haven't rehearsed before and all head to the same place with it."
The members regrouped to play a benefit show last summer for Los Angeles' Sunset Hall, a home for elderly leftists, and decided to play more when they had the time. One such time comes tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
Doe said the group will perform retooled songs from the "Critter" album, along with Knittered versions of some of the members' solo works, some country standards and obscurities. Those will include the traditional "Rank Stranger" and a Jeannie Seely-Jack Greene tune, "Something to Brag About."
Though Doe says the group has nearly enough material to record another album, that may be some time in coming. He has songs stacked up for another solo album he wants to cut before delving into a Knitters project, but his immediate priority is the recording of a new X album.
The group plans to go in the studio in February with a release aimed for May. They're working with a new producer, a former Killing Joke member who goes by the name Youth, and a new record label, the British-based Big Life Records, distributed in the United States by Polydor.
It's the group's first release that won't be for a major label, and Doe thinks the small size may be an advantage.
"Being on a major has its points, but there's a lot of things that get missed," he said. "After doing my solo record, I was pretty fed up with it, with the way these labels have strict agendas and if something doesn't do well right away, then they move on to something else. Big Life has a lot of plans for getting the X album across. It isn't just, 'Let's put out a record and see what happens to it.' It's difficult for the public to dig into music and find the good stuff when they don't have it available to them."
Often, group writers who also have solo careers save their best material for themselves, but Doe said his songs set their own destinations.
"Musically, the solo stuff tends to be a little lighter and more chord-oriented. The X stuff usually is harder and more riff-oriented. Then with the lyrics, it just depends on if they can apply to more than just one character, or if they lend themselves to be sung by two people instead of one.
"Also, for my solo album I've been writing a lot of story-songs, ones that have a catharsis in them, some point where people's lives change. For X, we've written more of the 'poetic journey' songs and a few political ones.
Doe believes it's a good time for the latter.
"I think things are set for a big change," he said. "Whether that change will come or not is up in the air, but people are fed up and they don't believe in the government, and that's great. It's sad, but it's good for changing the major things we need to change, like the government system.
"I think we're heading for a new Depression. It will probably be somewhat the same as the last one, just a little more selective as far as the people it affects. It's already affecting musicians' ability to play live. Promoters are scared. Now, they can't just let each show sort of happen and hope for the best. They've really got to work on making them successful."
He think that may hit mid-arena level rockers the hardest.
"I think maybe there will be less grand tours and hopefully more grass-roots ones. But then, look at the movies from the last Depression: They were Gargantuan, complete fantasy. So it may be that the acts that are really big will be even bigger, but there won't be as many semi-big Forum and arena tours."
He and X haven't been overly affected by the recession, he said, other than it spurring some creative activity.
"Working on an X record is not as lucrative as a solo career, so you have to split it up," he said. "But I think we'll fare just fine because we're willing to work hard and have a grass-roots audience anyway."
As much as he appreciates X's audience, Doe said he wouldn't mind having a larger one.
"It's always a mystery to me how people enjoy and accept the choices they make as to what will be popular or not. If I would have figured that out, I would have done a lot of hit records by now, I suppose," he said with a laugh.
One of Doe's more telling songs is his "Liar's Market," with the lines, "It's a liar's market and I'm trying to sell the truth / If I could be a liar, I could get as far as you."
As the song suggests, not only does Doe not want to sell out, but he doesn't think he'd know how to.
In a curious twist of convention, he said, "I think it (selling out) comes from within. You can't fake selling out, because somehow the audience knows it's not the real item. If you are not gifted at writing pop songs and try to write one, it just sounds like a feeble attempt, so you have to do what you know best."
His own goal, he said, "would be selling a lot of a record that I'm proud of. I would like to do a record that inspires fear and pity and tragedy, all the emotions that people seem to neglect or shy away from, that's so powerful that even someone who doesn't want to hear it will listen to it and go, 'Wow.' "
The Knitters and the Haze play tonight at 9 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Admission: $17.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.