The way respected singer/songwriter/guitarist Chuck Prophet sees it, the alt-country movement has taken up residency on the wrong side of the tracks.
"It's less of a scene and more of a ghetto now, you know," says Prophet via phone, from his San Francisco apartment. Prophet has a right to feel protective of roots-rock. As the driving force behind the mid-'80s twangy trailblazers Green on Red, he was splicing folk, country, even a little acid into rock's DNA before it seemed logical.
But that was the past; now he's on touring after "The Hurting Business," his critically acclaimed HighTone release and fifth solo project overall. Guided by Prophet and producer Jacquire King -- the genius behind Tom Waits' "Mule Variations" -- the record is a stunning example of what can happen when technology and tradition cross paths and then ride off together into the sunset. The duo used a computer to manipulate, massage and reassemble Prophet's instrumentations, bringing the songwriter's seeds to full digital bloom.
But these days, anybody utilizing a guitar and drum machine gets compared to Beck. "I can work with that," Prophet responds. "Whenever I first heard "Loser" on the radio ... I was just overcome with this incredible feeling of jealousy, envy. ... It just sounded so incredibly fresh and so homemade. It just had everything I liked about music."
Born and bred in Whittier, Calif., Prophet is a West Coast lifer. "California ... has always been a place where people wave their freak flags high. So I can take country music and put it in the Chuck Cuisinart here and bend it nearly beyond recognition -- nobody's gonna complain."
With the help of his backing band -- "Teenage" Rob Douglas (bass), Paul Revelli (drums), Stephanie Finch (guitar, keyboards) -- Prophet tackles his live show with the same spirit.
"The songs are still living and breathing," he says. "We're kicking the shit out of them night after night, tweakin' em. ... Songs on the record are just songs: You kick those things around in the studio and that becomes the definitive version to one person, and it might've just been three minutes of my life."
Three minutes is relatively brief compared to the lengthy campaign undertaken by Prophet's former frame, Green on Red. Although the band managed to record seven albums in as many years, the ground-breaking outfit never achieved commercial success. Maybe Green on Red was just too far ahead of its time -- or simply too high -- to relate to the masses. "We were just one of those bands that kinda had a white-trash take on guitar music," Prophet explains. "People thought that was just outrageous, which at the time, I guess it was -- but it wasn't."
Along with Finch, Prophet also spends time in the postapocalyptic, phat-party groove combo Go-Go Market. He describes it as a "Dusty Springfield in Memphis meets Dr. Octagon kind of freaky band."
But Prophet's future as a solo artist seems to be the viable option. After this tour, he plans to start work on another solo record, unless he gets sidetracked.
One constant distraction is his position as a highly sought-after session guitarist, one who left his fingerprints on quirky Cake's "Prolonging the Magic" (1998) and country-loving Kelly Willis' "What I Deserve" (1999).
Says Prophet of his piece of Cake experience: "I heard through the grapevine that they were having trouble ... sometimes `you just have to` put the song up on blocks, rotate the tires."