The California punk scenes of the ’80s were unlikely incubators for country and roots talent. Alejandro Escovedo and John Doe are two obvious and still relevant examples. There are lesser-known instances as well, such as early Latino punks the Plugz’ transformation to the roots-influenced Cruzados. And of course there’s The Blasters and numerous cowpunk bands. Each example found punks embracing facets of California’s two main hillbilly-influenced musical legacies – Bakersfield’s counter to the Nashville sound and the cosmopolitan country-rock that emanated from Laurel Canyon.
Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin follows this lead on his latest solo album, Millport. Graffin, with Bad Religion bandmate Brett Gurewitz as producer, goes the Laurel Canyon route, celebrating as 50-somethings the music they rebelled against as teenage punk rockers.
Although the album smacks of country-rock influence, from the seminal Byrds to the unfairly dismissed Eagles, its best moments find Graffin digging deeper to uncover roots music traditions. “Lincoln’s Funeral Train” employs historical storytelling while sounding like a blues-rock number from Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s heyday. “Sawmill,” a straight-up bluegrass tune, laments the loss of California’s natural resources. It’s basically the folk-punk equivalent of Skynyrd’s “All I Can Do is Write About It.”
By delving into roots music traditions, Graffin was bound to stare down songs that center on Christ, and the hope religion promised for struggling workers. How would a guy from a band called Bad Religion, with a history of speaking on behalf of evolution and atheism, handle this facet of old-time music without being hypocritical? The answer is found in “Time of Need.” It’s a story of surviving troubled times, with sonic elements of old spiritual tunes. The twist is in the chorus, where Graffin reveals that prayer and faith are not viable answers to life’s struggles. It’s like a counter argument to old country songs like “A Tramp on the Street,” which told victims of the Great Depression that their only hope was Jesus.
Not every song delivers. “Too Many Virtues,” for example, sounds way too much like “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” to warrant a second listen. But for the most part, Graffin does a great job adding a personal touch to his source material. The end result is a heartfelt nod to music and traditions that surely seemed painfully uncool when he and Gurewitz dreamt up “The Voice of God is Government.”