Train kept a-rollin’

Sacramento acoustic band Freight Train Riders of America stages its fourth Holler Inside, a homegrown version of the Grand Ole Opry

Gwamba (with mandolin), Brian Dahl and Clovis, of FTRA: These don’t exactly go to “11.”

Gwamba (with mandolin), Brian Dahl and Clovis, of FTRA: These don’t exactly go to “11.”

Peter Blackstock doesn’t remember much going on musically in Sacramento. He haunted the streets of Midtown in 1986, while spending that summer as an intern at The Sacramento Bee.

“I remember I lived in some slum kind of house downtown, real near a club called the Oasis,” he recalled. “I remember going there once and just being thoroughly disenchanted. And I realized that having come there from Austin, I was in for a summer of not having nearly as much live music to get to see,” he laughed, “and summarily as a result, spent most of my days off going into San Francisco to see stuff.”

Given where Blackstock had come from, Sacramento—and especially such a hard-rock haven as the old Oasis Ballroom—was bound to come up short in comparison. Austin is a city that knows a thing or two about music, it being the place where the longhair country-music rebellion took hold in the 1970s and challenged Nashville’s pomaded hegemony.

In 1995, Blackstock and another writer named Grant Alden co-founded a bimonthly called No Depression, a magazine whose aim was to cover whatever music falls under the umbrella of “alternative country.” The two still co-edit the publication, Blackstock from Durham, N.C., and Alden from Nashville.

No Depression took its name from the 1990 debut album of Uncle Tupelo, an influential roots-rock band from Belleville, Ill., that later splintered into two camps, one called Son Volt and the other called Wilco. And No Depression the album took its name from a song by American roots-music icon A.P. Carter. (In an interesting bit of regional trivia, Carter’s widow, Sara—who sang with A.P. and his sister-in-law Maybelle in the Carter Family, one of country music’s seminal acts—died in a Lodi nursing home in January 1979.) Uncle Tupelo seemed like as good a jumping-off point as any in marking a new regionalist movement in American music, one in which it was cool to come from the more obscure parts of what bi-coastal types derisively refer to as “flyover country.”

The capital city for the aesthetic, of a musical big tent that radio programmers would label “Americana,” was Austin, of course. But the pages of No Depression were filled with obscure little bands and singer-songwriters from around the country, acts whose unifying features were a healthy disdain for what Joni Mitchell once called “the star-maker machinery behind the popular song” and a fascination with exploring America’s musical roots.

A few hopeful predictions had it that Americana might turn into some kind of next big thing, but those never quite panned out. “It’s done kind of what I expected,” Blackstock said, “which has been this sort of slow and steady growth. Early on, in ’96 or ’97, everyone was saying that one of these bands is going to have a ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’” he said, referring to Nirvana’s 1991 grunge-rock breakthrough, “and is going to become huge. And I was more skeptical of that, and I don’t think there has been any evidence of that. On the other hand, it hasn’t really died away, either. It’s just been sort of this gradual build. Bands that maybe were putting out their own records and selling a few hundred or a couple thousand copies are now more likely to be on a small or medium-sized independent label, and maybe selling [10,000] to 20,000 copies.”

For its regional flavoring, No Depression relies on dispatches sent in from correspondents around the country—people like Bee feature writer Rachel Leibrock, who used to feed the magazine an occasional tip back when she worked at SN&R. One of those acts was Jackpot, Blackstock recalled. “And I remember Rachel used to be big on some band called Grub Dog and the Amazing Sweethearts.”

It’s been a while since something from the Sacramento Valley crossed Blackstock’s radar, though. But that has more to do with the sheer volume of submissions he gets from other parts of the country than any lack of activity here.

In fact, a good case can be made that the Sacramento area is in the middle of an Americana revival.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Brian Wenzel, better known in these parts as Gwamba, just got home from Skip’s Music. Every summer, Skip’s puts on a rock ’n’ roll version of Little League Baseball called Stairway to Stardom. Young musicians are grouped into bands and assigned a coach, and they write a couple of original songs, figure out a band name and work up an act over the summer. Then, just before summer vacation ends, they play a battle of the bands.

The program is in its 23rd season, and during most of those years, metal and other hard rock forms have dominated.

This year, Gwamba got a call because Stairway to Stardom needed a different kind of band judge. “They actually had some kids sign up for country and bluegrass,” he explained.

Not that a group of kids stoked on mountain music from listening to Nickel Creek CDs is any kind of leading indicator. Nor is the fact that the roots-music soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? has sold close to 7 million copies since its release in December 2000.

But, in a larger sense, a local Americana resurgence isn’t just wishful thinking from a bunch of graybeard folk-music enthusiasts anymore. For the past two and a half years, Gwamba’s band, Freight Train Riders of America, has carved out a niche for itself by playing acoustic music rooted in a string-band repertoire; last year, the band released a fine double-CD on its own Papa-Emeril Rekeds label.

A number of other acts also seem to prefer wood over metal, at least part of the time; these include Las Pesadillas, Nevada Backwards, Forever Goldrush, SN&R Clubber columnist Christian Kiefer, Elena Powell, James Finch Jr., Aaron Ross and—when he isn’t playing electric blues guitar—singer-songwriter Jackie Greene.

For Gwamba and Christopher McCann, better known as Clovis, the Freight Train Riders, named after a gang of murderous hobo thugs that rode the rails in the 1980s, were an option after their old rock ’n’ roll band, Okra Pickles, seemed to play itself out.

During the past year, Gwamba, the Freight Train Riders and friends have staged three musical variety shows at the Sierra 2 Center’s 24th Street Theatre. Dubbed “Holler Inside,” the idea was to present music the way the old Grand Ole Opry did it. The original lineup, last May, included Kiefer, Powell, Mike Blanchard, Scott McChane and Las Pesadillas. “The theme has gotten a lot closer to [the Grand Ole Opry], being that we now use a single condenser mic the way they used to do it to broadcast the radio show,” Gwamba said.

“The first one was kinda grim,” he continued, adding that the 296-seat-capacity theater was about two-thirds empty. “The last time, we sold out. And this time, the pre-solds are going crazy.”

“This time” refers to the upcoming Holler Inside, which will take place on Friday, May 9, at the 24th Street Theatre. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.; it will feature the Freight Train Riders opening, closing and playing between the other acts, which include McChane, Finch, Hitch & Getalong, Las Pesadillas’ Noah Nelson and Forever Goldrush’s Damon Wyckoff. Also on the bill are the Green Brothers, whose 5th String Music Store on Alhambra Boulevard is a hotbed of folk and bluegrass activity.

“I think it’s something that’s really catching on,” Gwamba said of the show. “You don’t see too many of the same people you see out in the clubs; it’s a whole different set of people who maybe don’t like to go out to clubs to hear this kind of music. A lot of people bring their kids. It’s a family environment, definitely.”

The idea afterward is to take the show on the road by staging Holler Inside revues in such locales as Nevada City, Placerville and Winters, the latter in the new home of the Palms Playhouse.

For some people, it’s easy to forget that this part of the state has such a rich country-music history. People hear California and think Beach Boys or San Francisco psychedelic bands; they hear Sacramento and think hard rock, like Deftones or Tesla.

Others can’t ignore the area’s country heritage. In a parking lot off Auburn Boulevard next to Skip’s Music, where a car dealer now parks its overflow inventory, once stood a nightclub called Wills Point, where Western swing deity Bob Wills held court with his Texas Playboys in the 1940s. Radio station KRAK was once the No. 1 country-music broadcaster in America, with a playlist that depended heavily on such Bakersfield mainstays as Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Wynn Stewart. And such musicians as Tiny Moore (who played with both Wills and Haggard), along with lesser-known players like Vance Terry and Jimmie Rivers, have called this area home, not to mention that one of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits is called “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Even local bands during the rock era—from Redwing, the band that was left behind after Tim Schmit split for Poco before joining the Eagles, to Cake, Forever Goldrush, Jackie Greene and the Freight Train Riders of America—project a serious countrified vibe. It’s in the dirt. We can’t get away from it.

This may explain why a lot of people are picking up guitars, fiddles, banjoes and mandolins these days. Or, perhaps it has more to do with the sense of collective dislocation we feel as a result of experiencing tumultuous current events. As Gwamba put it, “During times of crisis in America, war and whatnot—that’s when that good ol’ music, man, just takes hold of people.”