Gimme Five: Country Artists That Metal Fans Should Know

A couple of personal comments I’ve received over the last few days from my annual Country and Southern Rock List got me thinking a little about the best entry points for metal folks into the country world.

As I stated in that piece, I grew up a metal kid. At the age of 41, I’m still a heavy metal fan to the core. When I was in college in the early 1990s, I was a long-haired, country music-hating, angry kid. I was convinced that there was no redeeming value in country whatsoever.

Around the same time, Johnny Cash experienced his resurgence with Rick Rubin and American Records. I was watching MTV one night, probably waiting for “Headbangers’ Ball,” when I saw the video for “Delia’s Gone.” I listened to the dark tune and thought: “This is pretty damned metal.” So I picked up the record, which led me to explore more Johnny Cash songs. From there, I branched out into other “outlaw” artists and a little later began picking up on some newer guys with that same spirit.

The original outlaws and some of the current underground country artists have more in common with our metal heroes than you might think. There’s a do-it-yourself and don’t-give-a-damn attitude that goes into this music. They write songs that are a true expression of themselves rather than calculated pieces aimed at radio airplay. And, yes, they can get as rowdy and ornery as any metal guy (see No. 5).

I’m happy to say that I’ve also been able to introduce a few other metal fans over the years to this music through my reviews and just talking up some of my favorite artists. That’s really what my ramblings are about, trying to share the music I love with others who may feel the same way.

So, if you’re a metal kid (or even a balding, middle-aged metalhead who should be old enough to know better) thinking you might have an interest in that brand of country, here are five artists you should know …

No. 5: DAVID ALLAN COE

What’s so metal about him: There’s maybe no one more metal in country than David Allan Coe. A quick look at his history will show a meaner, badder man than you’ll find in just about any genre of music. Coe spent most his first 30 years in reform schools and prisons. He’s even rumored to have killed a man and convinced another inmate who was already serving life to take the rap during one of his stays.

When he got out, he lived in a hearse (yep, a hearse) in front of the Grand Ole Opry, calling himself the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, until a small Nashville label gave him his chance in 1968. During the 1970s, he recorded a couple of controversial x-rated albums, and in the late 1990s to early 2000s, he recorded an album titled Rebel Meets Rebel with members of Pantera. His song “Jack Daniels If You Please” was regularly played before Pantera shows.

Coe is not a nice guy, not someone you want to have a beer with. He’s rude, angry, belligerent and unpredictable. When you go to one of his shows, you might get a fantastic set, a rambling hour-long one-song mashup of pieces of his tunes and cover songs or even cursed at from the stage. He can make Axl Rose look like an amateur when it comes to imploding shows, but he quite simply does not give a shit … about anything. What’s more metal than that?

Gateway songs: “Long-Haired Redneck,” “Jack Daniels If You Please.” “Son of the South,” “The Ride”

No. 4: BOB WAYNE

What’s so metal about him: Bob Wayne is the metal kid that grew up to be a country singer. He wears his punk and metal influences on his sleeve, and though his own music is deeply traditional from an instrumental standpoint (you’ll rarely hear a distorted guitar), the attitude of his heavier upbringing most certainly rings through.

Wayne is a self-made man in the music business, and though he’ll likely never be a big star, he’s fine with that. He makes his name going from town to town, playing the same, high-energy show whether he’s in front of five people or 5,000. He spread the word of his first four albums by selling hand-burned copies in zipper bags out of the trunk of his Cadillac limousine at shows, and once sang about fame, “as far as selling out goes, fuck looking for a deal.”

He finally did sign a record deal, but true to his style, he brought his country music to Century Media, a label largely known for its extreme metal acts. Look for new music from Wayne in 2014.

Gateway songs: “Till the Wheels Fall Off,” “Work of the Devil,” “Blood to Dust,” “Devil’s Son”

No. 3: HANK III

What’s so metal about him: A great many metal fans will already be familiar with III’s work through his collaborations with Pantera’s Phil Anselmo in Superjoint Ritual and Arson Anthem, or maybe through his own hardcore outfit Assjack.

Though III carries about the most mythical name that you can have in country music circles, he’s always had a penchant for heavier music than his famous forebears. Even while touring for his first two albums, which were very neotraditional country, he’d thank fans for coming out for the country set of his live shows, tear his cowboy hat off, let the long hair fall down and rip into some crushingly heavy punk and metal tunes for the rest of the night.

III feuded with his label, Curb Records, for years because they wouldn’t let him release the music he wanted to put out — including his signature album Straight to Hell, which was delayed for years by the label, and a rock record they refused to put out, which he leaked and Curb only released after he left. Since emerging from the Curb contract, III has definitely done his own thing, putting out a couple of country records, a Cajun record, a doom metal album, a punk record and, perhaps one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard in a mix of auction cattle-calling and thrash metal. It’s not always great, but it’s always what he wants to do.

Gateway songs: “Dick in Dixie,” “3 Shades of Black,” “Long Hauls and Close Calls,” “Hillbilly Joker” (not really a country song, but just badass)

No. 2: WAYLON JENNINGS

What’s so metal about him: Jennings was one of the original country rebels of the outlaw movement. Coming from a background of rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly (he was almost on the plane that crashed with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, but gave his seat up to J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson), Waylon felt hindered by the constraints of Nashville in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He didn’t like the labels not letting him use his own band and telling him how to dress and act.

Jennings was one of the first country artists to manage to negotiate artistic control of his music in the early 1970s, and later made doing things his way pay off, recording the first-ever platinum country record with Wanted: The Outlaws, featuring Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and wife Jessi Colter. In the later years of his career, Waylon also began to feel constrained by the outlaw label, thinking the rowdy image that had been built around it limited what he could record.

If I had to choose a favorite classic country artist, or perhaps a favorite country artist period, Waylon would be my guy for his ability to write and perform the rowdiest of rowdy hell-raising songs or the most tender and beautiful of melodies. There’s also just something in his voice that speaks to me.

Gateway songs: “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit Has Done Got Out of Hand?,” “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”

No. 1: JOHNNY CASH

What’s so metal about him: OK, this is an obvious choice for No. 1, but Johnny Cash was metal before anyone even knew what metal was. I mean, here’s a guy that dressed in all black, creating a dark and ominous presence on the stage. Probably the most famous photo of him shows him flipping the bird, and he sang (in a song that just happens to be perhaps his most well known) about shooting a man just to watch him die. Suck on it, black metal dudes. This guy’s darker than your underwear.

Joking aside, though, there are any number of reasons that a metal fan — or any fan of any kind of music for that matter — should check out Cash if they haven’t already. The main one, for me, is that he’s arguably one of the greatest songwriters ever. He’s a natural storyteller who has penned some of the best tales ever set to music. His songs are often very dark and sorrowful, but at the same time inspiring. And that deep voice perfectly matched the tone of his music. There has never, and will never, be another like it. It’s likely that there’s not a music fan on the planet — Cash fan or not — that doesn’t instantly recognize it.

Known of course as a country musician, Cash had respect for all genres. In his later years, he recorded songs from metal, hard rock and industrial stalwarts like Danzig, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. Though he found a gentler soul later in life, in his early years there were likely few men on the planet badder than Johnny Cash. U2’s Bono probably said it better than I could: “Every man knows he’s a sissy compared to Johnny Cash.” That, my friends, is metal.

Gateway songs: “Delia’s Gone,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hurt,” “Cocaine Blues” — heck, just pick up any album and pick a song at random

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Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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  • JC Mosquito

    Add Billy Joe Shaver to your list; he actually wrote most of Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes album. Track down Shaver: Live at Smith’s Olde Bar, which features Shaver, his son Eddie (since deceased) and produced Brendan O’Brien, who makes the whole thing sound like the Georgia Satellites’ older, more grizzled kinfolk from up the holler (O’Brien played bass for an early version of the Sats if I remember correctly). And Billy Joe taught himself to play guitar after he lost two fingers of his right hand in a lumber mill accident – how much more metal can that get?

  • Fred Phillips

    Not to mention the whole shooting incident, which spawned its own song. ;) Love some Billy Joe Shaver. Another very good choice.

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/chrisedwards chris edwards

    If this were a longer list, I think a good argument could definitely be made for Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams’ inclusions.

  • Fred Phillips

    Definitely. There are lots of artists that I considered in making the list, both classic and newer, but I was kind of looking for that handful of gateway artists that might have some appeal to the metal guy just beginning to explore country.