Country Punk

Letting Chip fall where he may

"As a drummer, let me tell you, in my experience it's all the same," says Chip Hanna, longtime skin hitter for punk stalwarts U.S. Bombs and One Man Army and, nowadays, country singer, songwriter, and guitar player.

We're discussing the similarities between punk rock and country. "If it's on the radio or somewhere else, if there's drums to it, it's all the same — this meter called 4/4," Hanna says. "And there are only a certain number of chords; when the individual puts themselves into it, that's what makes it unique."

It's a little after five o'clock and we're sitting outside Last Exit Bar & Grill in Tempe on a Wednesday, before Hanna's solo happy hour set. The subject of punk rock's relationship to country caught my attention when AZPunk.com had a thread about one of Hanna's shows on its message board, where a member posted, "So when is singing country considered punk? I forgot that this is a taboo subject that no one has the balls to talk about."

I have the balls to talk about it, and I was prepared to discourse on country's legendary outlaws and the attitudinal similarities between the best traditional country music and punk rock. I think that artists like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings were precursors for punk rock and embodied the rebellious, underground aesthetic that punk rock would come to represent. And I don't think that's a taboo subject — anyone who's familiar with traditional old-style country music and punk rock's development over the years can see the similarities.

But Chip Hanna had a better perspective on it, one that I think holds even more water. "The way I see it, there's just two types of music — the kind you like and the kind you don't," he tells me in his Louisiana drawl.

Hanna grew up with country music before he encountered punk rock. Living in a trailer in rural Louisiana, he'd watch his mom sing country when he was a tot. He started playing drums back then — on his MySpace page he has a photo of himself in a cowboy suit behind his first drum set in 1971. When he was 22, he moved to California to play music.

His break didn't come until he was 31, when he joined the U.S. Bombs in 1996. He recorded four albums with them and toured the world extensively. Even then, his hick roots were showing. "The funny thing is, when I started thinking I should write my own songs, the Bombs would tour with Agnostic Front. We did two tours with them, one in '98 and one in '99. Me and [Agnostic Front guitarist Vinnie] Stigma would hang out and sing country music, getting drunk after the shows. It became like a custom, a tradition. To think that that son of a bitch, godfather of hardcore, knows 'Dixie on My Mind' and all these George Jones songs, I was tickled to death. We got to know each other good and we'd just sing; it really pissed Roger [Miret, vocalist for AF] and all the Bombs off."

Hanna moved to Tempe in 2003, after One Man Army had broken up, because his wife/manager Erin is from there. With plenty of time on his hands, he got a job at Rawhide, the Wild West theme park, where he'd become a stuntman, acting in gunfights and falling off buildings.

Working at Rawhide also afforded him the chance to hone his songwriting and guitar-playing chops. "I started out at the bottom, the lowest fucker you can be there, but I had a lot of time on my hands, so I'd play guitar. They call it atmosphere. The best thing about Rawhide is it really gave me an avenue to learn how to do it in front of people. Before the stunt shows, I'd go out and sing one song. It was like being on live TV — you get one chance. Sometimes you fuck up, sometimes it's great."

Hanna also started playing drums for local bluegrass boys the Busted Hearts while writing his own songs, learning an extensive catalog of traditional country tunes, and adapting others to country music. When I watch him play at Last Exit, Hank Williams and Ralph Stanley songs are mixed in with Bouncing Souls and U.S. Bombs covers — and the latter sound perfectly attuned to country music, proving the point that the distance between punk rock and country isn't very far.

"As far as country and punk, it's all in the attitude. I think there's good in all of it. There's at least one Garth Brooks tune I like," Hanna says. "If you get to that level and all these people like you, you gotta be doing one thing that everybody likes. You can please all the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time. I don't want to be any kind of elitist; I think it's whatever suits your fancy. I never claimed to be a punk, and Duane [Peters, of U.S. Bombs] told me a whole lot of times that I wasn't one, so . . ." he says, laughing.

When you see Hanna play "True Believers," originally by Bouncing Souls, or listen to the track on his new CD, Chip Hanna & the Berlin Three, it's clear as day that, quite simply, good songwriting is universal.

I'd seen Hanna play the Flogging Molly after-show party at the Stray Cat on St. Patrick's Day as well. He'd toured with Flogging Molly and got to know the band well. Flogging Molly (and, obviously, the Pogues before) brought traditional Irish music to a punk rock audience, and Hanna claims Flogging Molly as his inspiration for what he wants to do with traditional country.

"That's where I got the idea. Just thinkin', fuck, this is traditional Irish music. Somebody needs to do that for country. It all comes from the same shit. I'd like to see kids out there moshing to Bill Monroe. That's my vision."
Sun., April 4, 9 p.m., 2010

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