Neko Case may be the lone country artist on a portion of this year's Lilith Fair tour, but she has no interest in leading a women-must-twang-together campaign. "That would be preaching to the choir, wouldn't it?" she asks.
Too bad, because Case would make a fine spokeswoman for such a cause. In conversation the spunky 28-year-old has plenty to say about practically everything from the state of the country-music field she's rapidly torching to the merits of one of her favorite pastimes.
"I like pornography a great deal," she divulges. "I don't really have to explain why I like that, do I? I mean, duh--how can you not like it? Good pornography, mind you--not your everyday, run-of-the-mill stuff or anything like that. I like the artistic merits of some of it, and sometimes it's just funny. There are a lot more women out there who like it but just don't admit to it.
"Sometimes pornography needs to be stuck up for, because it gets a bad rap," she adds. "Not all of it's good, but I'm excited about the fact that there's a new dawn of pornography coming, where women are going to be really involved. There's going to be more quality, and it'll be more equal opportunity and less male-dominated. And there'll be more regular-looking people of all shapes and sizes, and women won't have to wear stiletto heels anymore. They can wear other kinds of shoes when they're doing it."
Case's admitted fondness for porn is hardly the only thing that makes her image different from that of the typical country artist; this recent graduate of Canada's Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design is also a devoted kickboxing enthusiast. But although her pedigree is hardly C&W pure (she still serves as the drummer for Maow, a Vancouver punk-rock trio), the music she writes stands nearly as tall as the towering hairdos of her bygone musical heroines. And she pumps more grit and gasoline into one song than most of today's watered-down belles pour into a career.
These attributes are in full bloom on The Virginian, Case's brilliant new release on the Mint imprint. Loaded with stellar musicianship, the CD is a sincere and stately collection that recalls the days when the term "pop country" was associated not with musical treacle, but with honest songwriting wrapped in fresh ideas. Its most impressive feature, though, is Case's voice, a full-blooded, crystal-clear instrument capable of slipping deftly from breathy sighs and inviting aural winks to spine-shivering soars. Her cow-grrrl swagger, accentuated by a muscular delivery that recalls early k.d. lang, is heard to good effect on the giddy "Timber," as well as on such heart- and glass-breaking weepers as "Lonely Old Lies," "Jettison" and the sweeping title track. And when Case decides to burn barns, her sweet charms morph into a lethal flamethrower. She knocks out wonderful honky-tonk renderings of favorites by Ernest Tubb and, of all groups, Queen--and she transforms the Everly Brothers' "Bowling Green" into a rousing anthem. As for "Karoline," it's a mule-kicking showcase that sounds like a cattle-driving Lori Collins growling alongside a raging Rockpile.
In other words, The Virginian should be required buying for fans of country music, be it in or out of the mainstream. "I certainly don't want to be known as an 'alternative' country artist," Case warns. "It's kind of a slap in the face, in a way. Since 'new country' or AM-radio 'rock country' has taken all the meaning from original country music, you can't even claim the word 'country' as your own anymore. So now they've had to come up with this alternative country thing, but I don't want to do that. I don't want to be deciding if I'm in some weird little camp or some offshoot of country music. I want to have the same kind of goals and be able to do the same kind of stuff that all my idols did. I don't want to think that the Grand Ole Opry is just for Billy Ray Cyrus; it's not. And I don't think there's no room for me because there's Shania Twain. There's room for everybody." She pauses before nailing down her point: "I play country music. Period.
"And another thing that's really bad about all this is that some people think that the people who listen to this new country are bad and have bad taste," she continues. "But you can't blame them for new country. The fact is, they're just not all college students who hunt for music and are super music enthusiasts. They love music but just listen to what's on the radio, and if they hear something a little bit different on the radio, they're not going to turn it off. Just because they don't get to hear it doesn't mean they wouldn't like it."
Thus far only a relative handful of listeners have gotten to sample Case's sound; she's received precious little airplay on commercial country stations and virtually no attention from the Nashville elite. When she's asked if any big leaguers have come a-calling, she laughs out loud. "Oh, heavens, no. Lots of people who work for major labels love my record and always want free copies of it, but you know, I don't think they think I'm that marketable. I don't think the people that market music really care about it. I mean, it seems like every hit song has to have a catchy hook and a double meaning for the chorus, and it's also got to have a list in it. If you don't have a list in it, don't even think about it being on the radio. 'I can walk my dog, I can spank the kid...' Check it out--there's a list in every song now, unless it's a slow ballad. It's the Brooks & Dunn formula or something. I don't know who put the template out there, but it's out there. It's revolting."
Just as depressing for Case was the dearth of female role models on the radio during her formative years. "There really wasn't anybody to look up to," she says. "I mean, thank God for Joan Jett and Heart and stuff like that. The point that I realized I wasn't hearing enough women's voices was when I couldn't believe that Poison Ivy played guitar in the Cramps. I felt really ashamed about that--for not being able to believe it was girl playing guitar. That's sad. It always makes me think of that Robert Palmer video where all these women are standing around with the guitars, all made up. Ooh, that pissed me off, especially at that time. How could anybody even dare to do that? Man, I needed to see a woman playing a guitar sooooo bad back then. It was a total slap in the face."
Given this state of affairs, it was only natural that Case would channel her anger and resentment into punk rock. But after a few years she hungered for the sort of feminine musical companionship that was sorely lacking in the mosh-pit genre. This yearning led her back to country music, which her grandmother had played for her during her youth.
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"Patsy Cline was one of the people that got me back into country music," She recalls. "And Loretta Lynn: She's a huge favorite of mine too, because she wrote her own songs and played guitar, and comes from a strong standpoint. But it's not a heavy-handed standpoint; it didn't seem like so much of a feminist agenda as it did an individualist agenda. And I hate even using words like 'agenda' when I'm talking about music, because it's not like that. It's more, 'I feel this way, I'm going to write this song'--because she was pissed off. And she said it very eloquently. I think a lot of women were very excited to finally hear that on the radio. I know I'm really glad there were women like that as a kid."
After presenting a similar image to many of this year's Lilith attendees, Case is scheduled to open up for Westword profile subject Southern Culture on the Skids ("On the Skids," July 18, 1996) on a fall tour. According to Case, her love of skin on film played a role in helping her land the coveted spot; she was chosen after sending the band a nude Polaroid of herself. "I don't think it's the only reason I got it," she concedes with a chuckle. "But it's nice to pretend that's why."
Is this a marketing ploy Case would advise other groups to employ? "Oh, yeah," she says. "Give everyone nude photos of yourself. Okay!"
Lilith Fair, with Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Paula Cole, Cowboy Junkies, Lisa Loeb, Joan Osborne, Mary Lou Lord, Neko Case and Nina Storey. 3:30 p.m. Sunday, August 23, Fiddler's Green, $31-$45, 830-