Back in the early 80's, when members of L.A. punk pioneers X formed a
country side project called the Knitters, they just wanted to have a
X members John Doe, Exene Cervenka and D.J. Bonebrake got together with
standup bassist Johnny Ray Bartel and the Blasters' Dave Alvin to play
some benefits and released just one album, Poor Little Critter on the
Road, in 1985. They wrote a few songs of their own, but mostly they
played covers of old honky-tonk classics.
No big deal, or so they thought.
Fourteen years later, Bloodshot Records' Poor Little Knitter on the
Road: A Tribute to the Knitters proves that their just-for-kicks side
project was on to something. The 13 tracks showcase an unruly chorus of
alt-country young-uns lovingly re-creating Critter, track by twangy
track, with all the charm of a drunken hootenanny.
When you're young and punk as hell, country music sucks. But after a few
years of getting kicked around an America that doesn't give a rat's ass
about your good politics, you just might appreciate hearing something
sad on the jukebox. And a really good country song just begs you to sing
Bloodshot must have known this when they put together Knitter,
because on this record, the sing-along concept is squared: Artists singing
covers of artists singing covers. Add yourself, and the value is cubed.
One of the most charming things about Knitter is the sound of the
womenfolk and the menfolk all singin' together. On the Helen Carter tune
"Poor Old Heartsick Me" (RealAudio
excerpt), Ground Speed's Lawrence Peters' duet with the Blacks'
Nora O'Connor gives the same impression as X's vocals always did: two
people singing as, well, two people. Their voices couldn't be more distinct.
Some of the Knitters' originals stand up pretty damn well; Kelly Hogan
and the Rock-a-Teens' cover of "Someone Like You" (RealAudio
excerpt) is a tear-jerker that needs no apologies. Same goes for
Old 97's' cover of "Cryin' but My Tears Are Far Away" (RealAudio
excerpt) (with guest vocals by John Doe himself). Just plain old
The record does have some awkward moments: The Blacks misquote "The New
World," and Whiskeytown's decidedly unsoaring vocals ground Merle Haggard's
"Silver Wings." But all in all, Knitter is a down-home good time
and a fitting tribute to a band that taught a lot of snotty punks (like
me) a lesson about some great songs we might otherwise have missed.