"Ugly Stick: Cowtown Punk"
By Robert Loss
Originally published in Ghettoblaster Winter 2011
When you're ambivalent about the "cowpunk" label, being a band from a city referred to as "Cow Town" doesn't help you avoid the tag. Of course, Ugly Stick is not from Columbus, Ohio, per se, but a rural college town just to the north, Delaware, known for its annual Little Brown Jug (the second leg of the Triple Crown of Harness Racing) and for birthing Rutherford B. Hayes. Neither of which helps much, either.
Twenty years down the road, Ugly Stick is still making music, and it still has mixed feelings about the "cowpunk" label. With a hint of exasperation, bassist Ed Mann says, "The whole description bothers me because I don't get the 'cow' part. We thought we were punk rock. 'Look, X does these interesting things with their songwriting where they drop down a half-step. Or the Minutemen have these weird parts that don't seem like they should fit together, but who cares, that's the song.'"
Ugly Stick's best bet for shedding the label is simply that you listen to their wild and idiosyncratic music. On their first two recordings—a self-titled debut in 1989, and the 1991 follow-up Shaved, both recently reissued by Hovercraft Records as the two-disc set Pick Up the Hatchet—what you'll hear are yelping cries of dissent and freedom from four late-teen friends hearing themselves for the first time. Ugly Stick crossed the boundaries between Delaware's farm land, diners, and night-time philosophy classes, borrowing the language of country and punk, yes, but adding in early R.E.M., the Minutemen and the Pixies. Nothing else sounds like it.
Between the band members—Mann, lead singer and guitarist David Holm, lead guitarist Al Huckabee and drummer Jeff Clowdus—there are differing ideas about and experiences with country and punk, which suits a group in which everyone has a voice of his own and yet harmonizes with ragged beauty. Huckabee recalls that in the band's early years, "The amount of country I was listening to was zero," but when Holm notes the influence of the Rolling Stones, Huckabee agrees that the band "absorbed and turned around…this weird, 60s and 70s English imagination of what country music is." Still, Holm remembers that "Holy Ghost", one of the first songs he co-wrote with Huckabee, "was a funk/dance song to begin with until Al's girlfriend vetoed that. She said it should be more like a Roy Orbison song, and wrote some of the lyrics."
If the way songs came together was a natural product of friendship, which shows so clearly on all of Ugly Stick's records, it was also a combination of time and place. In Delaware, it's a quick walk from the austere campus of Ohio Wesleyan University down to the Hamburger Inn, the epitome of greasy spoons. The tension between the students and residents is a common tale in college towns, but what if you're both? "We were in the middle," Holm says, "especially with Jeff and I going to Wesleyan. Every time we'd go into a bar, they'd say, 'Oh, you up to the college?' 'Well, you know, I grew up here.' We'd try to play some bars in Delaware and people would just yell at us."
They did more than yell. The same night bassist Ed Mann was asked to join the band, he and Huckabee were jumped by a townie. "He was like, 'You guys are Wesleyan fags' and he was really efficiently beating the crap out of us," Huckabee says, laughing.
"You went to high school with him," Holm says.
"I went to elementary school with him," says Mann.
That event became the song "Hardly Believe" on Ugly Stick, one of many tunes in the Stick repertoire to tell a story about the tense absurdities of class, place and late adolescence. The ambiguity of those stories sets Ugly Stick apart from "cowpunk", along with the way a single song can leap from a backwoods stomp to a beautiful if distressed melody, as on "Las Vegas Bound". You may hear country in Holm's brittle howls, Huckabee's twangy guitars and the gang vocals, but elements like the angular bridge of "Gon' Die" and the troglodyte two-step of "Lettuce Farm" (on Shaved, the harder of the two records) take the songs well beyond country, beyond even punk.
The "cowpunk" brand was stamped on the group partly because it was young and still figuring out its sound. Some critics even took their songs for parody, which might be justified by "Ma, I Burnt the Kettle", or the title of "Stiff Family Robinson". But even if there were moments of caricature, as Huckabee explains, "If you imagine a girl wearing high heels for the first time and trying to walk, that looks like a parody, but it's not. It's her trying, but she just doesn't have any idea what she's doing."
There's a certain joy that comes from not knowing what you're doing. You tend to ignore certain respectable, limiting rules of genre. That's what you hear in Ugly Stick's earliest music, and though they grew much more capable and even subtle—see 1993's seminal Absinthe or their most recent album, Still Glistening—Ugly Stick has never lost touch with the exhilarating terror of that first contact with adulthood, its freedom and danger, and the pleasure of doing things their way, tags be damned.