Sometimes, to get to the top of the mountain, you have to go up the hill backwards (to nick a line from Bowie). That’s how it was with me and country music. Having grown up in Virginia, I held a lot of biases against anything that remotely smacked of Nashville. Thus, before Patsy and Johnny and George & Tammy made their way into my record collection, before Lone Justice and Dwight Yoakum, and even before I made my peace with Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, I dipped my toes in the water via Rank And File.
Along with Jason & The Scorchers, Beat Farmers, the Knitters, and any other young maverick who dared to wear a Stetson hat or invoke Hank Williams in the pre-No Depression, early 1980s, Rank And File were lumped under the dubious umbrella term “cowpunk.” Which was fine by me. That “punk” tag made the music seem more palatable, less likely to act as a hellish gateway to purchasing Barbara Mandrell LPs in lieu of Nina Hagen. Certainly, nobody could quibble with Rank And File’s underground credentials. Brothers Chip and Tony Kinman had been part of early LA punk act The Dils (“Mr. Big”), while Alejandro Escovedo (yes, that one) had previously played in the Nuns, one of the support acts at the Sex Pistols final show in San Francisco.
To this day, my go-to cut on their 1982 Slash Records debut, Sundown, remains “The Conductor Wore Black,” a chugging number that inverts the timeworn locomotive-bound-for-glory formula, welcoming gamblers, panhandlers, and other ne’er-do-wells into the passenger cars. Naturally, my all-time favorite by the quartet is more esoteric: the cassette-only “Post Office” (which I discovered via the 1984 Warner Bros. comp Revenge of the Killer B’s). With its rowdy first-person narrative of a disgruntled, downsized individual who turns to a life of crime, this ditty is ripe for rediscovery as the latest economic recession kicks in. And speaking of digging into Rank And File’s back catalog, like-minded Texas outfit the Meat Purveyors already did, covering “Amanda Ruth” on their 2004 full-length Pain By Numbers.
Rank And File went on to issue a couple more albums, 1984’s Long Gone Dead and a self-titled 1987 swan song. I like the former okay (although Alejandro had moved on by then), but have never investigated the latter. All three are available on CD, and Rhino Handmade put out a swell, limited-edition compilation of the first two, plus four rarities (including “Post Office”), back in 2003. Naturally, it sold out faster than their Josie & The Pussycats anthology, and fetches sick money on eBay and GEMM. But you know what? Both Sundown and Revenge… (which also features cuts by Talking Heads, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Depeche Mode) are easy to find on second-hand vinyl. And looking for them in the used bins seems like a fine way to celebrate Record Store Day on April 19. Just a suggestion…
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.