If our national culture so often considers Pittsburgh a punchline -- the place the movie's bumbling burglar comes from, or where the jet-setting celebrity's plane is grounded for 24 zany hours -- then, I ask, whither West Virginia: A state whose half-jokingly touted cultural capital is an afternoon's drive -- and a legal border -- away? The punchline used by Pittsburghers when referring to the sticks and implying drunken couch arsonists? A place for which most Americans' only reference point is "squeal like a pig?"
But there is another West Virginia: One of exploration and New Rivers, of fierce Appalachian pride -- the bold West Virginia of the imagination. It's the heart of the rugged and ragged individualist dream of America, a land of tall men and taller tales, a place where people have off-road vehicles for traveling off roads. Last summer, Pittsburgh-based alt-country band The Deliberate Strangers joined forces with Mountain State-born writers Chuck Kinder (Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale) and Lee Maynard (Crum) for a tour of that West Virginia. Playing barrooms and libraries, porch-parties and rock clubs, the tour amounted to a cultural exchange: I'll give you these songs and stories, and you give me the raw materials for more of the same.
Outlaw Writers Tour documents one night of that tour. It turned out to be at least a footnote night in recent American history -- a night when huge swathes of the Northeast were bathed in confusion by blackout, and when Charleston, W. Va., where the recording was made, was looking over its shoulder as a D.C.-style sniper seemed to be roaming the town. But inside the Empty Bottle, a rock club on the regional college circuit, things were going as planned. The all-acoustic, three-piece Deliberate Strangers will just feel more at home in the dark, and no sniper's gonna fuck with Chuck Kinder, not while he's got that cane.
The Outlaw Writers Tour disc, recorded live to one-track by Deliberate Stranger Jon Manning, is one of the least produced discs you're likely to hear this year. One night, one take, one track -- and while Kinder's reading, nothing but one voice. As the first official release from the acoustic Strangers, it's a good introduction: The disc is more like a whiskey-sipping evening around Kinder's pond, resonator guitars imperfectly fretted and "Daisy Dukes" sing-a-longs and a few stories in between, than some studio bull. But similarly, for the Strangers' seven songs, it's a hit-and-miss affair. The lead-off "Honky Tonk Lane" sounds a little closer to out-of-tune than soulfully rickety, while a cover of "Prodigal Son" is just about perfect in every way -- shaky juke-joint energy and punchy rhythmic oomph. The Strangers' originals like "Pussy Whipped" have all the storytelling humor and crass stomp we've come to associate with the band. But it's the culminating old-timey version of "Rockin' Chair Money" that's the real treat, showing the streamlined acoustic Strangers to have at least as many musical options as their electric version.
Kinder's and Maynard's contributions to Outlaw Writers Tour are a half-drunk Appalachian alternative to the grad-student malignancies of the "fiction reading" -- a kind of This God-Damned American Life. Neither man needs to cater his material to the audience, because West Virginia is the primordial muck from which each has risen. No doubt each Mountain Stater present -- whether a Charleston dorm-room dweller or a bandana-clad Kentucky-hater -- knew a "Tommy Hatfield" bully like the title character in this unpublished chapter from Maynard's Crum, the novel-potion of gasoline, vinegar and spit that gained its author the crown "West Virginia's J.D. Salinger." And Kinder's "Stars and Bars" begins by invoking David Allen Coe and those roadside bars that one can't get to -- or from -- without driving. (And their inhabitants: "...rowdy river rats ... with their tattooed trollop babes. ... Rank with the smell of cheap perfume, and sour beer, and barbecued pork rinds.")
Kinder's story, probably from his unpublished collection of West Virginia reminiscences and travelogues, refers at one point to the lack of distinction among entertainers at the various beer-joints he fancies -- the "Rock Guard Bluegrass Boys" versus "The Boy Reb's Group." He and Maynard are probably fans of -- and certainly jive with -- The Deliberate Strangers because the band is so like their stories, and the way they always hoped these bands would be in the West Virginia of their imaginations. Familiarly rooted in American classics -- Hank and Hemingway, J.D. and Johnny Cash -- but just dark and twisted enough to be a little bit outside the law.