In its rawest form, country-and-western music can be every bit as threatening as punk rock. But now that the genre has hit the mainstream, the outlaw angst of Johnny Cash and George Jones has taken a backseat to the suburban self-pity of trailer-park hacks such as Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks. Today, if a singer were to deliver a cold-blooded line like "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die" (as a young Cash did in 1956's "Folsom Prison Blues"), he'd probably spend the rest of his days ducking calls from the PMRC.
Which is precisely why the music of Denver's Cajun-hillbilly-punk trio 16 Horsepower is so appealing. Unlike Nashville's elite, the members of Horsepower--guitarist/vocalist David Eugene Edwards, bassist/vocalist Keven Warner and drummer Jean-yves Tola--aren't afraid to explore the darker roots of country music. In fact, the trio thrives on them.
"I wouldn't consider anything that you hear on country-western radio stations these days real country music," says Edwards, the man behind most of Horsepower's material. "It's just slick, overproduced crap in my mind. The same thing with new Cajun music. It's all `citified' now."
On the other hand, the surly, acoustic yarns heard on 16 Horsepower Live, the band's new cassette, serve the old masters well. The tape is a hard-boiled collection featuring dusty C&W rhythms and stark New Orleans eccentricity. Throughout, Edwards and company draw from styles that range from the Hackberry Ramblers and Hank Willams to the Gun Club and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
According to Edwards, whose small tuft of a beard leaves him looking like a Kentucky moonshiner, the group also finds inspiration in the reclusive backwoods music made by those who dwell in the Appalachian mountains. "I really respect hillbilly music," he notes. "That's what I like to listen to, and so naturally that's what I like to play. "When I was young," he continues, "that's what my relatives used to listen to. Back then I didn't really think about it. I mean, I was playing in a punk-rock band at the time. So naturally for me, I guess, after I got sick of playing the electric guitar, this is what I decided to do."
The use of traditional folk instruments helps reinforce the band's musical loyalties. On stage, Edwards can usually be found switching between a weathered slide guitar and a battered banjo: "A friend found it in the trash," he explains about the latter. For his part, Warner plays either an upright bass or a one-of-a-kind acoustic bass that he built himself.
Equally uncommon is another of Edwards's instruments--a contraption called a bandonian. "I found it at a used place in Boulder," the guitarist enthuses about the device, which resembles an organ-grinder's squeeze box. "I had been playing a piano accordion, and I hated it. I wanted something more like a Cajun accordion, so I bought it for $130. The people in the store didn't know what it was." He adds, "I didn't even know what it was until after I bought it."
Edwards admits he's always been attracted to what some might see as old-fashioned musical tools. Prior to forming 16 Horsepower, this Littleton native played accordion with the Denver Gentlemen, another local act with a passion for traditional instrumentation. Although the Gentlemen have returned to their namesake town, they were headquartered in Los Angeles in the late Eighties--and it was there that Edwards met drummer Tola. A native of France, Tola had moved to Southern California in 1988 with his previous band, Passion Fodder, a onetime signee to the Beggar's Banquet imprint. When that outfit deteriorated in 1992, the drummer joined forces with the Gentlemen. The next year, both Edwards and Tola left that band and returned to Denver as 16 Horsepower.
With more than a dozen songs under their belts, Edwards and Tola recruited longtime friend Warner to play bass. Three months later the trio performed live for the first time, before a receptive audience of around fifty people. Audience numbers have been increasing steadily since then, and the reviews the band has garnered have been nothing short of glowing. "I think our music is so well received because it's got a certain edge that draws attention, but we don't offend anybody," Warner says. "My mom will even come and listen. I never thought I'd be in a band where my mom would show up."
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Joining Mrs. Warner in the ranks of 16 Horsepower's supporters are folks more commonly found in punk and bohemian sects. As a result, the threesome often shares bills with Spell, '57 Lesbian and other entertainingly abrasive acts that are not exactly known for adhering to the country aesthetic. Despite the group's Western sensibilities, Warner concedes that the players share a thoroughly alternative background. "We've got all the same influences as [local punk musicians]," he says.
These seemingly disparate inspirations have motivated fans to conceive several strange misnomers for the band's sound, including "farm desperation" and "hillbilly grunge." Likewise, 16 Horsepower's penchant for gloomy imagery--for instance, "Dead Run," a track on Live, alludes to vampirism--has led to comparisons to such doomsayers as Joy Division and Leonard Cohen. Edwards, admittedly a diehard Cohen fan, claims that these tags don't tell the whole story. "A lot of people say that our music tends to be depressing," he says. "That's because all the bands that I've liked since I was young have always been more down than what most people would want to listen to, whereas I don't see it that way. It's just what I like, I guess. But I don't think our music is down compared to what we listen to. I think our stuff sounds pretty up."
Dour or not, 16 Horsepower has raised its profile considerably over the past year. The trio sometimes plays as often as four times a week to crowds whose size rivals those drawn by many national performers touring the region. Also, they are preparing to record a full-length album. To Edwards, the question of whether this recording will prove interesting enough either to grab the attention of an indie label or cross over to a more traditional market is irrelevant. He's more concerned that 16 Horsepower's music continues to be heard, hopefully by a more diverse group of listeners. "I'd like to play some antiracist benefits," says Edwards. "I get tired of looking out in the audience and seeing a bunch of white people all the time.
"I just think there's a lot of honesty in our music and a lot of emotion," he adds. "It's not just like, `My baby left me'--you know what I mean? Whether it's punk rock or however you want to look at it, to me it's just an honest type of music."
16 Horsepower. 9 p.m. Saturday, March 5, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, 294-9281.