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Rolling With the Doe

Talking children's music, the Fourth of July and manly footwear with a country-punk legend

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Whether rocking out with his legendary punk band X or his side project the Knitters (featuring Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin), or putting on his figurative cowboy boots as an alt-country solo artist, John Doe is a legend any way you slice it. His new album, A Year in the Wilderness, is a roots-rock masterpiece that incorporates everything from the thundering mid-tempo guitar rock of "The Golden State" to the beautiful melancholy folk of "A Little More Time."

Tucson Weekly recently spoke with Doe via telephone.

My 16-month-old is a fan of yours. You and (family-music rocker) Dan Zanes teamed up on a Woody Guthrie song, "So Long (It's Been Good to Know Yuh)." How did you get hooked up with that project?

My band X and Dan Zanes' old band the Del Fuegos used to tour together a lot. My brother now lives in Brooklyn, and Dan just happened to be walking by and said, "John, what are you doing here?" I said, "Visiting my brother." Dan said, "You should stop by and record a song with me." I said, "Sure, when?" And he said, "Tomorrow." So that's how it came about.

Dave Alvin's version of "4th of July" sounds great, but since hearing you and Exene (Cervenka) sing it, I feel the song is better with a woman's voice. Do you think X's is the better version?

I can't imagine a situation where I would have to brag to Dave about bettering one of his songs. I think that's one of the reasons he left the Blasters, was because he felt some of the songs he wrote, he could sing better, with different inflections. I feel a good song is like white pumps: You can wear them before Memorial Day and after Memorial Day. A good song has an extended shelf life.

Not to make you sound old, but what's cool about my son dancing to your voice is the fact that my dad played (X's) See How We Are over and over again until the record warped. So there are three generations of Doe fans in my family.

I don't think any artists can see themselves very far into the future when they're just starting out. You hope you can make a couple of good records. You hope you can find an audience. You hope a lot of things. And then there are times you can even imagine yourself being king of the world. What most often happens is that you fall in the middle there. Sure, I'd rather have the bank account, but I'm not going to mouth off and start bitching and moaning. I got what I got, and I'm lucky.

How did the tight deadline on this new record affect your songwriting?

Well, I actually wrote (A Year in the Wilderness) as we were going into the studio. It was equally frightening and challenging. You know, record-company deadlines are way out ahead now. An artist of my stature has to be careful and only put out a record every few years to guarantee people pay attention and write about it.

They want to avoid what they call "oversaturation"?

It's called bullshit, is what it's called. But that's how it goes. I don't get to be Ryan Adams, who puts out an album every year. And I'm glad I'm not Ryan Adams.

What was the idea behind writing your duet with Kathleen Edwards, "The Golden State"?

It's about coming to terms with a relationship you feel physically, and I started to consider that there were a lot of adages about love that were just that--the lump in your throat, etc. So the song is about recognizing how significant a relationship is, the feeling of freedom and opportunity it can afford, that anything can happen. There's a melancholy side to any relationship, too--a sadness.

How did your heartbreaking song "Big Moon" come about?

Once in a while, I get to stay in upscale hotels, because I act in some movies. The song is about nobody specifically; I'm not singing it to anyone in particular. It's just a wish that someone would come see me in this nice hotel.

A professor in Nevada just published a book, Proud to Be an Okie, about the politics of country music from Guthrie to Haggard. Are you old enough to remember Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee"?

I just thought it was a dumb song, but I liked the poetry of it. I mean, the footwear line? "Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear." Is that antiquated or what? I was just a kid when it came out, but I just remember thinking, "Hey, fuck that guy!" Of course, Haggard was smoking reefer, driving by in his tour bus, looking at us and thinking, "What is this?"

Do you follow today's mainstream country? Or is it too painful?

Let me tell you one thing about today's country music: I was performing at Stagecoach, a country music festival that follows Coachella, where there was a main stage, and there was an alternative-country stage with people like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and the Drive-By Truckers. And as we're getting ready to set up, on the main stage, there was someone playing a GNR song. That's so perfect. (Def Leppard producer) Mutt Lange produces Shania Twain, which is why the snare drum always sounds like shit. But the country-music industry always wanted to make a lot of money, and they got what they wanted. Garth Brooks has always owed more to Bon Jovi than to Hank Williams.

Do you follow today's punk music? Or is it too painful?

There's still some good punk-rock music out there, like the Riverboat Gamblers. There's the pop layer of punk that I don't like too much. It all sounds too much like Cheap Trick, though Cheap Trick is a good band. Green Day's Billie Joe (Armstrong) is a good writer; he can really write his ass off. Even the concept record he did was good.

Country star Toby Keith has his own restaurant called I Love This Bar and Grill. What would you name your eatery?

Mom's Diner.

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