After a while, anyone who gets into record collecting begins to realize that there's an awful lot of music that's been recorded. There are a lot of records in the world. Some are great, some are good, some are hard to find, some are hard to get rid of... Collectors have a lot of room to decide what they want to get into, whether they want to pursue weird, obscure stuff or just buy music they enjoy. But the deeper you dig, the more you'll realize there is simply no end to what you can find.
In my case, I'm into a lot of different kinds of music, but country music has always been a special favorite. I learned to sing country songs off the radio as a kid -- Top Forty stuff at first, although later I had the good fortune to tune into the legendary California hippie country station KFAT during its heyday and to absorb the KFAT classics, including old honky tonk, western swing, and a whole bunch of stoner-twang novelty tunes. When I went into radio myself, I brought a lot of those songs and records along with me, and discovered more music like it when my station became one of the first in the country to report to Rob Bleetstein's groundbreaking Americana charts, which helped define a new generation of independent country musicians. Later on, while working in commerical country radio I went through all the Nashville stuff I could find, decade by decade, and started writing about that as well.
A few years ago, I revisited the "hippiebilly" country I started out with, and created a space online to document that music... But, as I mentioned above, the deeper you dig, the more there is to find. Soon, it wasn't enough to try and track down all the "hippie" artists... I began to see the connections between the hippie country-rockers and the studio musicians of Nashville, Memphis and LA, to discover layer after layer of experimental early '70s country-folk, bluegrass twang, bar band music and odd, highly personal albums from every corner of the world. I started to think of the project instead as documenting all kinds of independent, off-the-radar country artists -- not just the longhairs, but also the locals, the regular folks who were on teeny-tiny labels or who paid for their own vanity albums and tried to sell them at shows, or gave them away to friends.
Online, a lot of these albums are the targets of mockery -- would-be hipster bloggers who giggle and point fingers at people with "bad hair" or tacky 'Seventies clothing. People post glib websites that keep alive the still-prevalent mainstream American prejudice against Southerners and hicks, focussing on so-called fashion victims rather than on the music. Personally, I've never been into the whole sneering-at-people-in-the-past thing... More often than not I think it reveals more about the cultural limitations of the bloggers than the people they're making fun of, and that's especially true when it comes to old country records. I think it's kinda lame, and in many cases it obscures the accomplishments of the musicians involved.
Anyway, back to the record collecting. I had a bunch of these records already, and started connecting the dots and seeing where bands from certain "scenes" had influenced one another... The West Coast and Texas, sure, but also the vibrant indiebilly-longhair country scene in the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest... Boston... Idaho... I even had to overcome my own reflexive prejudice against the folks who played gigs at places like Branson and Knotts Berry Farm, as well as the often-anonymous bands that played on cheapie knockoff albums by labels such as Crown, Design and Wyncote, the kind of things "serious" record collectors have ignored for years. I've come to realize that a lot of very talented people took day jobs in fly-by-night studios or at casions and tiny local theme parks, including grizzled old-timers from bygone years and hip younger folks like Doug Dillard and Steve Martin, just to name a few. And the whole bar-band is huge. Like, unbelievably large. I started out thinking there was a small, finite pool of self-released records that I'd be able to catch and put in a bottle and now, several years and thousands of artists later, I'm not even sure if I've scratched the surface.
Regarding the quality of the music... Again, I try really hard to be honest but also not to just make fun of the ones that aren't that great. And, yeah, some of these records are pretty iffy, although I have found a lot of real gems, tons of wonderful, fun, hilarious songs and talented pickers. Of course, my tastes are kind of peculiar and I've trained myself to be more forgiving about the shortcomings of some of these indie albums than I am with mainstream Nashville Top 40, so the records I get all excited about might not be for everyone. But, as with the "Americana" artists of the '80s and '90s, and the eclectic twangsters of today, all of these folks have done something that I have not -- made a record -- and I think that alone means they deserve some respect.
I've also been amazed by just how obscure some of these records are, and how obscure they remain. Most of these bands hover on the edge of historical oblivion. There's a fifty-fifty chance that any given band or record might have some small reference to it online, outside of the omnipresent listings on eBay and other collector sites. Sometimes there are decades-old items in local papers referring to weekly shows at lounges or bars, and on a few rare occasions, actual newspaper articles that were written about the musicians. Even in an age of personal websites and compulsive oversharing, most of these folks who quit being in bands years and years ago have never bothered to look back and share their stories online. More often than not, the most solid information I find comes from obituaries, and even then they don't always say much about the bands or the records they made. These are records that people forget about, often including the people that made them.
As I mentioned, the scope of this website has changed a lot over the last few years. From an ambitious but limited overview of '60s/'70s country-rock and longhair country, it's grown to include obscure regional country bands from the 'Fifties and early 'Sixties, as well as "foreign" country records from Canada, the UK, Australia and beyond. Now I frame it in my mind as documenting independent country/twang from the "pre-Americana" era, the days before alt-country became a "thing." (On occasion, however, I come across records well into the late 1980s that seem so much like throwbacks to an earlier era of self-released records that I include those ones as well. Although the actual dividing line is pretty fuzzy, I also have an Americana music section which reviews more modern and sometimes more rock-oriented indie albums.) I have tried, though, to limit the scope in some ways -- I'm not that into folk music, per se, and while the hippie era in particular blurred the lines between genres, there are a lot of records, particularly "folk freak" vanity pressings, that I've chosen to omit. The same goes with bluegrass and Southern Gospel, which also have deep, deep reserves of independently produced music that can also be mined. There is some crossover, but I'm mostly interested in what I call "twang," and I have to hear it in an album to include it here.
My thanks go out to all the long-retired writers on local community newspapers, the music lovers and amateur bloggers and the online record sellers whose own work fed into this website and helped me connect the dots, as well as to the actual musicians that I've contacted who have shared their stories and helped me fill in some blanks. Also to the many Slipcue readers who have written me with feedback, comments and corrections. I always welcome suggestions and new information, and I am particualrly interested in any information about the "locals only" bands that this section covers.
Any musicians, as well as their family, friends or fans who would like to contact me and add information or insight are strongly encouraged to do so. I would also love to get pictures of album covers, back covers and inner labels, so that I can see what the records looked like, especially anything that lists the musicians and producers, as well as catalog numbers and anything that shows where or when the record was made. (Better still, if you want to send me the actual records, I still have a little room on my shelves... :-) Here's my contact info.
And finally, here it is... a link to the site itself:
Hick Music Index