I Dig American Music

SCENE: Anytown, 1955: Drawn from hillbilly music traditions as much as R&B, the fresh-faced rock’n’roll makes waves in youth culture. Rockers such as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis are proud of their hick heritage, and there’s a mutual respect for the new sound as much as hayride-fare. The stage is set for rock icons like Waylon Jennings and Bill Haley to easily redefine themselves as country staples within the next few years. After all, both genres are itching to tear down the final pillars of adult pop and big-band music that’s suffocated a generation.

SCENE: Anytown, 2002: A skateboarder, sporting a Bad Religion sweatshirt, nearly collides with a pickup truck. The skater flips off the hicks and runs for his life. The occupants of the truck, blasting the latest product of Nashville’s music machine, curse the kid and shake their Stetson-bedecked heads with disgust.

What went wrong?

Unraveling the answer to that question is probably outside the scope of even a doctoral thesis on pop-cultural evolution. Even if we could easily nail down the reasons for the animosity between rockers and country fans, the damage is done; the schism is too wide to bridge. We’ve got 47 years’ worth of oil and water to bucket out of the pop-cultural holding tank, and frankly, nobody is up to the job.

Nobody, that is, except people like Jeremy Chatelain. As a fan of the rock music, he’s got the sort of credentials that even the most-skeptical indie kid wouldn’t dare scoff at, as bassist for emo uber-rockers Jets to Brazil. Now his solo project, Cub Country, flirts with the acoustic guitars, tumbleweed rhythms and the occasional flare-up of folk or pop, is here to shatter preconceptions about the musician with its debut long-player, High Unita High (2002, Jade Tree). If he’s so darn cool – and nobody, nobody, is going to question Jets’ coolness factor – what the heck is he doing playing country?

Anyone who has to ask such an idiot question probably isn’t ready for the answer, but before you surf over to some other semi-literate Axl- and Sid-worshipping site or another where, by God, good, ol’-fashioned musical prejudices are treated with respect, you can at least give Chatelain the opportunity to explain himself:

“I think it’s a good chunk of American music. It’s pretty basic stuff,” he says. “A lot of country was based upon three chords and the blues. It’s that basic. I think it goes with getting older as well. You want to branch out. At least me, I get bored with what I’m listening to and want to discover new things, or some of the things I’m listening to are influenced by other genres, and I’ll check out what the actual influences of the bands I like are.”

Now that every hotheaded pigeonhole fanatic’s surely pointed their browsers elsewhere, it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts of High Unita High: the music. Across a canvas that’s informed by listens to his father’s mixed tapes on boyhood fishing and camping trips – think dyed-in-the-wool country like The Oak Ridge Boys and Willie Nelson – Chatelain dabbles with pigments that draw upon a subtle sense of pop melodies and hooks, folk’s homegrown lyrical tradition and, every now and again, traces of rock’s dynamics. High Unita High awkwardly sits between the worlds of country and rock. Too rock to even fit nicely in with the alt-country and No Depression boys, Cub Country is simply what it is. And what it is a darn, no wait – damned! – good take on American music traditions.

Childhood musical memories and the growth process aside, it’s still puzzling to ponder how Chatelain could so fluidly and so completely move from sitting on indie rock’s cutting-edge cusp to kicking it with a part-time gig as a solo artist with a love for Americana. It’s something Chatelain himself even has difficulty explaining it in anything but the broadest terms.

“It just kind of happened,” he muses. “I always have my acoustic guitar hanging out for I don’t know how many years, and it just sounds really natural to be strumming chords. I don’t know, something happened and I just started writing songs and it was just kind of like that. It wasn’t like I was like ‘I’m going to write a country record now.’”

It may not make sense to a lot of people, especially those who don’t pay attention to the similarities in song structure between the two genres, but Chatelain knows that his still-embryonic solo career is set to buck a lot of expectations. If his ties to Jets to Brazil aren’t enough to throw a post-hardcore shadow over Cub Country’s country licks, his label situation may do the trick: Like Jets to Brazil, Cub Country gets its paychecks from Jade Tree Records. With the label’s nearly synonymous ties to post-hardcore of all stripes, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Cub Country will bear some sort of similarities to, if not Jets, then the likes of The Promise Ring, Cap’n Jazz or New End Original.

Anyone who comes with those sort of expectations are bound to be surprised at Cub Country’s direction. While such a shocker can’t be avoided, Chatelain hopes many of the fans who follow him over from Jets to Brazil bring an open mind along for the trip; being somewhat unpredictable has always been a part of his full-time band’s formula anyway.

“I’m not sure what people expect out of Jets to Brazil,” Chatelain laughs. “At this point, I’m not sure if they expect anything out of us, because we’ve sort of surprised people as the records are coming out. With this, I wasn’t trying to be different or anything. It was just something that came out. Maybe it will surprise people, maybe it won’t. Jets did a few country-sounding songs, but nothing too involved.”

An appreciation for surprising audiences isn’t the only thing Cub Country shares with Jets to Brazil: The entire recording cast for High Unita High was borrowed from the Jets roster, and – surprise, surprise – when Cub Country takes to the road for the first time, the Jets will come along with him. Of course, there’s bound to be some confusion as to where the boundaries of one band begin and the other one ends, a fact Chatelain can deal with, especially since he plans to keep the Cub Country lineup shuffling. Nonetheless, he’s steeled himself for the inescapable ties to his full-time band that he’s destined to deal with.

“I don’t want people to go to the show expecting us to play a Jets to Brazil song because it’s just not going to happen,” he says. “When first I was taking everyone from the band, that’s immediately what I thought. ‘Oh great. Now people are going to yell Jets to Brazil songs at us.’ We’ll see what happens.”

By now, there’s certainly a handful of imaginations who’ve painted Chatelain as a closet country fan, growing up in Salt Lake City, jamming on country as well as the love for punk rock that eventually landed him a coveted position in Jets to Brazil. Flush those crazy ideas right now.

Like most youngsters who find shelter in the world of punk music, Chatelain quickly jettisoned his interest in most everything else. Country music was one of the first things to go.

“When you get into punk rock, pretty much you hate everything,” he laughs. “I didn’t want to have a family anymore, I didn’t want to like my friends anymore, I didn’t want to like anything unless it was hard and fast.

“I think country was the enemy. I grew up in Utah, so what I associated with country was rednecks, the guys who used to fuck with you when you’d go down to the store on your skateboard. Later on, I saw that musically it made a lot of sense to me. That’s probably one of the reasons I did hate it. I couldn’t stand dudes who walked around Salt Lake in cowboy hats with their big wad of chew in their mouth and had a knife on their belt and would call you a faggot or whatever when they saw you. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that whole scene. I’ve kind of discovered you don’t have to have anything to do with that scene to appreciate it.”

A bit reluctant to take a dip in Cub Country’s country-fried sound? Chatelain knows the feeling all too well from his hard-core-punk era. Luckily for music fans, he grew up enough to leave that sort of baggage behind. Now he’s just banking on an audience who has as well.

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