And now for country completely different

Brian Wahlert, January 1996

What happens when you throw together five veteran musicians who played music ranging from punk to R & B to hard rock in bands with names like Human Sexual Response, The Lyres, The Zulus, the Savages, and Concussion Ensemble?

Well, they form a country/rockabilly band in Massachusetts, of course, and call themselves the Country Bumpkins.

The Bumpkins just independently released their first self-titled CD that they hope will lead to bigger and better things.

The band started around nine years ago when Lynne Lenker and her brother Allan Sheinfeld sat down at her kitchen table one day and started plotting out songs, working out the vocal parts to Sheinfeld's guitar.

Then they put together the rest of the band: Rich Gilbert on steel, Chris MacLachlin on stand-up bass, and Judd Williams on drums. But they may not be known by those names onstage where Lenker becomes Mimsy Farmer, Sheinfeld turns into Roy Sludge and Gilbert transforms into Peckerhead Gilbert.

The Bumpkins rehearsed together for about a year before taking their act into the Boston club scene, where they have played infrequently ever since.

The off-beat CD is patterned after a band appearance on MIT radio station WMBR's Pipeline show when "we decided to do something different," Lenker said. "My brother jotted down a bunch of jokes - he's got a great sense of humor , (and) it went from small introductions in between songs to skits. It was something of big discussion among the band members."

But the result is a very entertaining CD. The skits range in duration from the 27-second "Klutzy Comedy Corner With Lem 'n Clem" to nearly three minutes in the case of "Roy & Th' Reakin' Deacon," a preacher parody that introduces the song "Mercy Mercy Me."

Skits also include laugh tracks and applause, sometimes seriously misplaced, as when the audience cheers Roy's description of truck drivers as "big, bonecrushing men, hairy, smelly men, who aren't afraid to, well, hit other men or take showers at seedy truck stops with other men." In fact, the following song, "18 Wheels," is one of the tamer songs on the album, but the disc's other trucking song, "The Bull & the Beaver," is introduced, probably correctly, as "the world's first pornographic truckin' song."

Lenker said, "We try to take obscure or semi-obscure material and make it our own." She said in the future she would like the band to focus on writing more of its own music.

Even if not original, the material the band came up with for this disc is hilarious. Perhaps the song that gets the most attention is "LSD," in which Sheinfeld sings, "Well, I took some knives and I killed some wives/And took off in the night/When the LSD wore off of me/I didn't know what I'd done."

Lenker said her brother found it on a tape he had made, but no one in the band knows who the name of the original artist. They assumed it must have been a local act, though, because the song's murderous husband goes to Walpole Prison, which is in Massachusetts. "It's just an amazingly wild, weird song," Lenker said.

While most country bands sing a few humorous songs, the Bumpkins make songs like "LSD" and "The Bull and the Beaver" their specialty. For example, in "Hog Tied," a twisted song about crazy things that two young lovers do to each other, Sheinfeld sangs, "And then you'd grab a shotgun and right before you'd shoot/Your mom would grin and say, 'Them younguns, mercy, ain't they cute?"

"Po White Trash" takes listeners to "the world of common trailer trash, the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth," as Roy says in the introduction. In the song Lenker sings with apparent joy, "In the swamp I live /In the swamp I die /For po' white trash no one will cry."

As humorous as the lyrics on this album are, the band takes its playing very seriously. The Bumpkins play a sparse '50's/'60's honky-tonk style that is a far cry from the music appearing on modern country radio. Also, Lenker and Sheinfeld have been performing together since they were kids, so their duet and harmony vocals are naturally in tune with each other.

With its CD just released, the band is ready to "move on to the next echelon, the next rung," Lenker said. She admitted, "We made the CD to sell but more so we could get signed," and in fact the band has received an offer from a comedy label.

Lenker isn't completely comfortable with the band's reputation, however. "We're not a comedy band; we're just a band," she stressed. "Not every song in our set list has an elbow in the ribs, but a lot of them do. If it were up to me, there would be a little more Patsy Cline ballad stuff in our shows."

In fact, Patsy Cline's greatest hits album was the first country record Lenker ever bought.

But she came to country in a roundabout way. As far as she knows, none of the band members listened to country growing up. Lenker named the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and the Monkees as some artists she listened to as a kid and says she "was a complete fan of Michael Nesmith, who wrote songs for the Monkees. I always liked his songs the best. It was a major crush of a 16-year-old."

When Nesmith went solo and began to lean toward country-rock, Lenker continued to buy his albums, which included lists of important country albums. Through Nesmith's recommendations, Lenker bought Patsy Cline's and Loretta Lynn's greatest hits records and eventually got turned on to rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson and the Collins Kids, "these teenagers with the most incredible high voices singing tight, tight harmony." The rockabilly musical style and family harmonies are also a big part of the Bumpkins' music today.

Right now Lenker said, "We're able to play at the big clubs, and in fact we opened for Wanda Jackson last week, which was a big thrill for me."

Sounding happy with the band's progress, where does Lenker hope the band will be in a few years? "Ideally, touring Europe, selling records, touring here." But then she reconsidered. "I've never wanted to be like, 'The career runs my life,'" she said.

Lenker said the band hoped "a reputable record company will sign us and help us arrange tours" so that the band can progress "in a controlled fashion, touring, making records, making videos, making a living from it."

Unfortunately, Boston is not the best location for a country band, according to Lenker. "I don't think you could pick a worse place to play country," she said. "In places like Europe or down South, maybe the West or California, we might have better luck."

For now, though, the band seems to be stuck playing clubs in Massachusetts, although Lenker said with an optimistic sense of humor, "I'm trying to spread out all the way to Providence."
She realized, too, that the band can never make it on "new country" radio, nor does she wish for that type of success. "I hate modern country with a passion. It sucks," she whispered so that her kids can't hear her swear, but her emotion for the subject comes across loud and clear.

"Not one person in the band likes modern country," she said. "It's humorless. It's not even country...It all sounds the same...There's a slim chance that we might slime onto the Grand Ole Opry someday, but I doubt it."

If they don't want to be a modern country band, then what do the Bumpkins consider themselves? "I see us as alternative country, but that's not quite right either," Lenker said. "We usually play in alternative country clubs," like Junior Brown and the Austin Lounge Lizards, two similar acts she named. Other people have called their music "crazed, kinda rockabilly country, psychobilly, psychobilly country," Lenker said with a laugh. In her opinion, though, "It's very country. We love country music, but our own version of it."

"Why not stress the original? Why try to blend in?" Lenker said. "We're just gonna do the stuff we like."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •