Alt. Country is one of those genres that has so loose a definition that it's hard to really pin-point what, if anything, makes a country band “alternative”. It's used to describe loud, punky bands with a country twang to them and quieter more introspective folk-rock bands simultaneously. I've often thought that the term, born about the same time as alternative rock, was just lazy band wagon jumping on behalf of record labels to re-market country rock and in some cases the less serious sounding genre of Cow-Punk. But despite my internal debate over genre definitions, over the years alternative country has produced some of my favourite music.
Lincoln Nebraska's Lullaby For The Working Class were one of the more interesting bands of this genre to appear in the mid 1990's. Whilst they released three strong, clever albums of rootsy, acoustic rock, it was their single “Hypnotist (Song For Daniel H.)” that has earned itself a place on my list of favourite tracks. “Hypnotist” is the rare song that is clever, emotionally honest, meaningful and devastatingly catchy all at the same time.
The first thing that hits you about “Hypnotist” is the chugging, train-like rhythm. Perhaps its the attention grabbing banjo line, or the very traditional instrumentation but “Hypnotist” has a very classic, almost timeless feel to it. Theres something determined and forceful about the song and its minor key sets a somewhat serious tone. It immediately brings to mind the image of rural, manual labor in a bygone era. Building a barn, harvesting crops, or breaking ground on a new railway line in the 1900's. I first heard this song on it's release in 1997 but I didn't get to see the video for it until 2010, when I stumbled across it on Youtube. I was pleasantly surprised to see amongst the other footage, clips of men harvesting grain using scythes, reinforcing my personal visual narrative for the song.
The idea of work is a prevalent one throughout “Hypnotist” lyrics too with a list of literal dream jobs being the backbone of the verses. For me, the song is about progressing through life and how, in the end, all men are independent in that pursuit. As the songs protagonist lists the occupations he dreams of in the verse, he is brought back to earth in the chorus with the realization that “the prophet is a shipwrecked son/Keeps waking up here/The kingdom still is a hoax”. The line “Gotta build your own, son” at the end of each chorus sums it all up succinctly. The line in the first verse where he begs his wife's forgiveness for forgetting “what blessings I should be rejoicing” is indicative of the restless nature of people. That drive that is present throughout the songs instrumentation is mirrored perfectly in this lyric. Ted Stevens' vocals are about as honest as they come. Untreated and beautifully stark against the lush instrumentation, there is something of the average man about his performance that makes “Hypnotist” an even more emotionally resonant song.
This kind of smart, literate, folk inspired music is not an uncommon thing. The Decemberists have carved a very fine career out of just that. But Lullaby For The Working Class came long before this type of music was as popular as it is now. I'm convinced that if “Hypnotist” had been released 10 years later, it would've been a hit. But what measure of success is sales or popularity when the song you're talking about is as compelling and touching as “Hypnotist (Song For Daniel H.)?