by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor’s Note: Jeff Dennis is a singer-songwriter in Lubbock, Texas. As one of my good friends, we typically talk about music on a daily basis. While it’s commonly either through text message or on Monday Nights at The Blue Light, we’ve decided to make the exchanges of ideas and commentary into a monthly piece. Here’s our recap and rehash of the Grammy’s, Sturgill Superfans, and why country music doesn’t need saving. Follow Dennis on Twitter here. Get an insight on what Dennis is listening to here on his curated Spotify Playlist, Rust & Reverb, here.
Thomas Mooney: Koe Wetzel is the most polarizing artist in the state of Texas. That statement is literally, the only thing not polarizing about Wetzel. The entire Koe Wetzel experience is as fascinating as any kind of movement, sound, rise,—however you categorize it—it’s as fascinating and intriguing as anything ever seen in Texas music.
That polarization is just fuel for the fire too. Whichever side you’re on, you’re calling the other side a bunch of fucking idiots for loving or loathing Wetzel & Co. (See what I did there?). It’s either the rise or fall of Western civilization—Everyone is going to hyperbolize it. Granted, one side—the Pro-Koe side—is more fanatic than the other, but that makes sense. I’d challenge you to find a fanbase who’s more ready to lambaste any kind of shade thrown Wetzel’s way than the Wetzel fanbase. They’re just chomping at the bit. Minutemen. Part of the Born Ready crew. Tweet out not something right night, even a legitimate criticism, and be ready for the wrath of Koe Nation. I mean, some are nearly going full Insane Clown Posse level of crazy. But, it’s kind of funny honestly.
Question 1: Is that kind of reaction from fanatics a product of social media or because of Wetzel’s legitimately their Patron Saint of Rumple?
Jeff Dennis: Social media is undoubtedly a huge driver of his success. I don’t use Snapchat much, but I do see lots of chatter on Twitter about all the crazy Snaps people are seeing at this or that Koe show. Moreover, on any given weekend, Koe shows up in dozens of fan selfies. Yet he doesn’t overuse his own social media. He’s accessible, a songwriter for the common man, but also he’s apparently something more to a lot of people.
He’s approaching a million plays for some songs on Spotify, while most bands at his stage are still showing “<1,000” on theirs. I’ve been aware of his name for a year or so, but I think I realized he was a “thing” earlier this year when I heard he had 1500 people pay to hear him play a Tuesday night in Stephenville (yes, 2/28/17). What I can’t figure out, and not much of anyone can, is why specifically Koe is so big? There are 100 bands at the exact career stage who still can’t draw 12 people on a Saturday night in their hometown. If the answer was easy, there are a lot of really great bands that would take the same path.
Mooney: Right. There’s plenty of bands who are just as OK as Koe & Co. are. There’s plenty of potential there. Ultimately, I think what sets Koe apart from other up-and-comers is basically a two-part reason.
1) They’re approachable, charismatic, and earnest. Undoubtedly, they’re hard workers. They play as though they’re not going to ever again. Wetzel’s a frontman. He works the crowd. They’re playing party songs for a party crowd, which, also just so happens to be at a party. They thrive in that environment. You’re not analyzing lyrics in the middle of a singalong—and you don’t want to. 10 beer showers equals free Taco Bell for everyone.
2) Wetzel is both authentic and genuine. I don’t think there’s an On/Off switch with him. He’s not “Show Koe” for the line at the merch booth and “Leave Me the Fuck Alone Koe” at the grocery store. You may find his lyricism sophomoric, but goddamn, it’s genuine. He’s writing about what he knows and has experienced. “February 28, 2016” is genuine. He’s not bullshitting the crowd. Again, you may not relate or care, but there’s something real at its’ core. You have to give him credit for that. I question the genuineness and the authenticity of a lot of artists out there, but Wetzel has both in spades. I mean, THE GUY THREW HIS MUGSHOT ON A T-SHIRT.
You may think it’s dumb as hell, but you believe Wetzel when he says “if he asks me to blow, I’ma tell his punk ass to take me to jail.” Fans believe it. He believes it. His band believes it. Maybe even that punk ass cop believes. That’s more than you can say about a lot of songwriters. And something connected to that is this: Deep down, fans want to believe they too would tell an officer off in the same given scenario—even though they wouldn’t dare dream it. It’s Wetzel’s “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
Dennis: Ahh, now that’s a great point we’ve debated regarding other artists—Colter Wall, Aaron Watson, CoJo, Zephaniah Ohora, etc., are they genuine and/or authentic? I think you’re exactly right. Koe tells you who he is, and you can take it or leave it. Perhaps his greatest artistic accomplishment thus far is being able to tell his own story in a straightforward manner. Maybe there’s some life imitating art in there too. Regardless, the passion added in—Koe believes in Koe Wetzel too—means a lot to people.
Even if I’m not a huge Koe fan, I respect the process by which people seemingly become popular overnight. All told, I’m an alt country/Americana guy. I have a lot of friends who have never given Texas Country/Red Dirt a chance. Yet I’ve always been drawn to it, both as a cultural phenomenon, but also find the diamonds in the rough. Turnpike Troubadours are a great example of fitting that latter category. Arguably one of the few to come up almost entirely in the scene who never defaulted to cheap content or tired ideas.
Where does Koe fit? Look at the comments on the SCM article and the average Americana fan is repulsed by him. I don’t spend a lot of time with his music, but I remain intrigued. I watched Cross Canadian Ragweed once in Fort Worth, around 2001, play to a room of 50-ish people. Six months later, I tried to go again and there were probably 100 people in line OUTSIDE the door (I didn’t make it in). That energy is such a fleeting and intangible thing. But every few years, lightning strikes some band that has been working hard for five years prior.
Koe’s trajectory is similar to Ragweed. Further, he’s got more garage rock in his sound (like Ragweed) than 99% of TX/Red Dirt bands. Musically, he shouldn’t fit in this scene at all, but it is working. People like to wear rose-colored glasses about Ragweed as icons of the Red Dirt scene, but 15 years ago, the divide between Americana and Red Dirt was much wider. And as such, many in the alt-country scene didn’t take them seriously. What they became was much more than the early fan favorites (“Carney Man,” “Boys from OK”), although arguably the energy and even the quality were already apparent (“Alabama”).
So to finish this thought, maybe you don’t have to be different to get big in this scene, but I think it’s what worked for Koe with his rock leanings (and Ragweed). Man, go back to early Nirvana YouTube videos, and their sound was so raw. They didn’t get big because they sounded pristine and perfect. They had a message and a whole lot of energy and they put it out at just the right time and it just exploded.
Mooney: Right. The best comparison for Wetzel is early Ragweed. And like Ragweed, they don’t really fit anywhere nationally. Too country for rock, too rock for country. You know the drill. It’s hard to imagine him having this kind of success anywhere outside of the Texas-Oklahoma Region. People don’t want to hear it, but that’s a double-edged sword. The region’s support helps you out immensely when you’re on the come up, but can be a hindrance once you’re ready to branch out. It can stunt your growth as an artist. There’s a reason some Texas or Oklahoma folks try and distance themselves from the “Texas Country” label.
Interestingly enough, had you asked me anytime in the last five years, to create a hypothetical band who’d I’d have thought would be a “next big thing,” it’d have been something similar to Flatland Cavalry. They’re maybe the only band who’s eclipsed Wetzel’s rise. They’re not nearly as polarizing and I can’t remember anyone really questioning their integrity or intentions—like if you come across Flatland haters, they still “get” why they’re popular; they just choose to not listen.
So I slightly disagree on predicting the next big thing. You can’t predict who, but you can definitely predict what. Now, that may just be semantics. But, the Texas Country-Red Dirt music scene is still dominated (popularity wise) by college-aged kids who binge drink on the weekends and argue about why their school is going to win the Big 12 Championship in football.
Wetzel’s material isn’t any different when it comes down to that. Drinking? Check. Womanizing? Check. Party? Check. Catchy? Check. The difference comes down to that early Ragweed thing. They were doing garage rock mixed Oklahoma folk roots music. Wetzel’s just doing pop-punk. Instead of Pantera or Alice in Chains or Nirvana, it’s Blink-182 and Green Day (when they were good) and Brand New. I’ve heard some criticize Wetzel’s songs for all sounding the same. I think there’s something to that. But, they said the same about The Ramones too.
Dennis: That Intro track to his record is the most Blink-182 thing to ever happen to Texas Country.
Speaking of genuine & authentic: Just learned via the “Walking the Floor” with Chris Shiflett Podcast that Blink went to the same high school as Sam Outlaw, who is a sort of polarizing in the California country scene, although maybe just because he’s named Outlaw and has a song called “Bottomless Mimosas.”
What were we talking about again?
Oh yeah. Is that “Don’t Need You” video by Ragweed still around? If so, that was the most Nirvana moment in the Red Dirt scene.
Mooney: Sam Outlaw. He’s like the high brow version of this—I don’t necessarily understand why him either. I did like a few off his Angeleno, but I’ve probably not invested enough time to understand if I like it or not. I mean, I like the idea of Sam Outlaw—California Country from the valley—but again, that’s also ultimately Midland. Again, I question how genuine this all is.
Back to Koe and his fanbase. They’re as passionate a collective as any out there. They’re passionate about Koe’s raw, unabashed genuineness. That’s their battlecry. Their mantra—even if they don’t know it—that’s what they were searching for and found. Everything hinges on that. But what’s really perplexing is how that doesn’t necessarily go further than a few artists. We talked about questioning the genuine and authenticity—the intent—of other artists earlier. There’s plenty of beer ad jingles being written in Texas Country. I guess what I’m saying is that I wonder just how many of Koe’s fans are also fans of CoJo, AaWa, Earl Dibbles Jr, Fowler, Mike Ryan, Kyle Park, Donahew, etc. I find a lot of that as “bad” music, but also “bad” because it’s so vanilla and feels so cookie cutter—it’s all the shit “Texas Country” diehards say “Nashville Country” is coincidentally. I bet there’s a pretty large cross-section. I bet they’re undoubtedly bigger fans of Koe’s, but attend the Donahews of the world as well when they’re around. Maybe not because they’re actual fans, but because they enjoy the party atmosphere around those shows. But I’d argue, at least when Koe’s selling you a party, he’s genuine with his intent and not going back to his bus after to get away from you. It’s not country music, but it’s music for people from the country.
I guess that goes to a larger, more broad question though—why listen to and ultimately support music—even in the most cavalier of ways—that you’re just alright with? Why eat McDonald’s when the mom & pop joint is right down the street?
Dennis: The Texas scene is all about loyalty. There’s a subset of people in it that I really like, yet I watch them help promote new records that are terrible by most standards. Of course, it’s mainly because artists know they have a fanbase and hope to get support in return. Further, negativity is received very poorly in the scene. Overall, it’s not a bad thing that bands support each other, but I think it hyper-inflates the popularity of some acts that just aren’t that good. A limited few have found big success outside the scene. Eli Young Band and Randy Rogers found pretty good mainstream success, but Pat Green & Ragweed never really became national radio standards. It’s barely even up for debate that Pat is far more iconic than EYB as far as the Texas scene, but they have had more success at the national level. (And EYB has 1.5 million Facebook fans to Pat’s 219K, which isn’t everything, but I think signals their reach.)
Rhett Miller talks some about this on the “Walking the Floor” with Chris Shiflett Podcast. Old 97s came up as a rock band with country influence at a time when there was almost no crossover between rock/Americana and Texas country. Start 10 years later, and they theoretically could be drawing 2,000 people at Nutty Brown Cafe. They never broke over into that scene, nor did they try to cater to its fans, but I think they are fine not being an LJT band. Sure, they would make way more money if “Timebomb” was the song everyone waited for at LJT where everyone poured beer down each other’s pants, but at some point, you surely don’t want to live just to be that act every year.
Mooney: Give me something to believe in. That’s great and all. But what I hate is when bands or artists—it can literally happen to anyone—is when they start believing their own hype. Overdose on The Cool. Getting high on your own supply. Etc. Etc. It’s one of the most tragic things that happen to bands. You can only hope Koe and Co. don’t think they’re as great as nineteen-year-old kids are telling them they are. That sounds harsh, but it’s also a reality.
It basically goes two ways once that happens. 1) They have such a passionate fanbase that it won’t matter what Wetzel writes, they’ll eat that shit up. Or, 2) They have a such a passionate fanbase that they’ll know when they begin to mail it in and they’ll turn.
That’s one thing most people get wrong about me. Haters gonna hate thing. I’m not rooting for people to fail. OK—some people I am because I think they’re selling bullshit to people and everyone would be better off without it. But for the most part, I’m rooting for good music to happen. I’m rooting for the evolution of an artist. I’m rooting for improvement and forward progress. I just want there to be some integrity and for an audience and fanbase to demand good music.
I want to go back to the Flatland and Wetzel comparison for a minute. Both have been essentially exploring the highs and lows of college life. You can’t do that forever. OK—you can, but you can only write “100% Texan” so many times. You have to move on and mature with your audience. You’ve already seen a slight turn with Flatland. You go from “Love Me in the Water” and “Summertime Love” onCome Mayto “Humble Folks” and “Tall City Blues” on Humble Folks. If you’re Flatland, you’re hoping to fade Come May out of the setlist by 2020ish. The worse part of writing an anthem is having to play it every damn night. Ask Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Dennis: That’s a place I remember Ragweed getting to. They got older, had kids, became better musicians and writers, and they just didn’t want to play those old party songs despite all the chants for “Carney Man.” You have to wonder if Wetzel is going to be loving singing about Taco Bell when he’s 35. We have no idea where he’ll be artistically when that time comes (and this piece isn’t trying to figure that out).
We’re currently watching a few different artists try to make their material more mature without losing the fanbase that shows up to drink beer and ultimately pays their bills. When you get successful, you have a lot of mouths to feed (band members, manager, agent, tour manager, assistant to the tour manager, guy who always skips his Friday classes to ride along in the van, but really just drinks green room beer, etc.). At each level of success, you get dependent on that $500, $2,500, $25,000 every night and you have to keep making the paying fans happy. However, I think the “good guy” narrative insulates most acts against this. Everyone promotes everything, good or bad. We see a bunch of marketing about how much this new batch of songs means and how the artist is more proud of these songs than any they’ve ever written and on and on. There’s some sort of pride about being a songwriter that makes people record only their own mediocre songs instead of mixing it up more and recording those by lesser known, but better writers. What if Joe Ely had never recorded Butch Hancock or Tom Russell songs? We still might not know “If You Were a Bluebird” or “Gallo del Cielo.”
Mooney: Two Things.
1) I’ve come a long way on the whole “you have to compromise to successfully pay the bills for 1) your standard of living and 2) to pay the people who work for you” thing. I can understand the reasoning behind all that. People do that all the time in the business world. And I know part of this is business, but it’s also supposed, in theory, be fucking art. I used to be way more of an absolutist and uncompromising when it came to that. But I still think you either 1) you get a watered down legacy or 2) you wind up having just as much (or little) as you would if you had fewer fans and fewer people to pay. Maybe you’re playing big shows in every weekend, have a bus, an entire crew, a guy who skips his Friday classes to drink green room beer, etc but I wonder how often you—the artist—walk away with the same damn paycheck total as you did doing it your way.
2) This is probably an entire subject all on its own. I threw that question out once on Twitter—the why don’t we see people recording other people’s songs like we used to? Willie, Waylon, Merle, Cash, all the way down to Ely, Crowell, Jerry Jeff—even Guy—they all weren’t too proud to do someone else’s song. Why don’t we see that happen these days? Drew Kennedy had a couple of hypotheses on the reasoning. The biggest being, most of those guys, they were on some kind of label—which, no matter how shitty back then, would at least be worth something today. When you’re an independent artist and you can only afford to record an album every few years, by damn, you’re going to record your own songs. It’d be cool as hell to see Hayes, Baumann, Jamie, Drew, or Slaid to get a song recorded by whoever, but no one from Texas is going to really do that (EDIT: Though, I do guess there are a few Sean McConnell cuts in there). It’ll almost always be Nashville folks who do—again, coincidentally, people on labels. Lee Ann Womack did “Chances Are” a couple years back. We all know about Baumann’s “Gulf Moon” nearly getting cut by Chesney. Bruce Robison and Dixie Chicks.
In saying that, even just a decade back, Ragweed was cutting Snider, Hubbard, Chris Knight, Tom Skinner, Bob Childers, and Boland songs. Boland’s basically done a Childers cut on every single record. Hell, Stoney’s biggest songs are almost all other people’s songs. But that honestly may be a distinct cultural difference between Okies and Texans—Childers, Skinner, McClure, all the way back to Woody, they may not be as critically acclaimed as Townes, Guy, Shaver, Blaze Foley, etc—but damn, they’re more passionate about their cultural significance and heritage. Texans would rather tell you we’re better just because of Whataburger, Shiner Bock, Blue Bell ice cream, and the Alamo.
I digress, though. None of that technically had anything to do with the Koe Wetzel experience, but whatever.
Dennis: It is interesting how Oklahoma artists seem to have a better grasp of their own cultural music heritage, whereas so much Texas country relies on “of course were the best at everything because it’s Texas.” People talk a big game about being into Townes, but you don’t see many people doing deep cuts from his catalog. The average, cheap Texas country song is just so far away from Townes and Guy, it’s probably for the best anyway. Pat Green covered “Snowin’ on Raton,” and sure there are others in there, but those worlds don’t mix well. I think that’s why Hayes Carll has always kept a safe distance from being a “Texas Country” guy.
I feel like there’s got to be something else in there that keeps Texas guys from covering the best songs of each other’s more, but I don’t know what. Pride. Maybe it’s a pain to sort out royalties when you’re basically self-distributing. That seems as likely to me. It’s just easier not to mess with it.
I’m not sure this one is going to get back to where we started. Koe Wetzel is an interesting phenomenon, but your average Americana fan is still turned off by his style of music. However, as I mentioned before, I heard the same things said about Ragweed and Boland 15-17 years ago. Now those guys are considered elder statesmen of the scene.
Mooney: Royalties have to be part of it. Keep what little money you’re making selling CDs and digital downloads in house. This is another subject we’ll have to dive in on, but I think that’s why co-writing culture is so much more prominent now. With that, you’re getting the bump and notoriety of doing a song with whoever, but also keeping a cut of the credit.
Anyway. We keep using Ragweed, Boland, etc as the prime examples of maturation and growth within this scene. And people used to call them buzz bands when they first started. I think we’d be doing them a disservice if we didn’t at least mention that for every “Carney Man,” “Boys From Oklahoma,” or “Pearl Snaps” recorded, there was a “Proud Souls” or a “17.” There were some redeeming qualities in those songs.
I mean, talking heads of the scene are always talking about wanting something sincere, real, and compassionate. Wetzel captures in its rawest form and they go “Yeah, but not like that.” It’s hypocritical. But, I feel I have to drive this point home. Just because you’re genuine, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. And vice versa. And there’s a lot worse happening in Texas than Koe Wetzel. In some ways, he’s ahead of the curve just solely on the fact that he’s not recorded a stupid song about his love for Texas.