This has been happening to me way too much recently: I start talking to a guy about hillbilly music, which I consider to be a dark and beautiful American art form, and he ends up telling me about hanging from hooks inserted in his hamstrings and shoulders for a Ripley's Believe It Or Not recognized 4½-hour ride in the back of a glass-enclosed truck driving through the pothole-filled streets of Las Vegas in front of 50,000 people.
Such stunts, says Jason Punkneck, are "what got me to L.A."
What gets him to Rochester, for shows Thursday at Abilene and Friday at Monty's Krown, is music that will remind you of a fresh, new version of Southern Culture on the Skids. Now a quartet with the recent addition of a bass player, Jason and the Punknecks is rockin' hillbilly, with a sense of the music's history told from a hilariously contemporary white-trash point of view. "One day, baby, I'll buy you that trailer you've always dreamed of," coos redneck dream gal Polly Punkneck, residing somewhere between Dolly Parton and Gwen Stefani. "We'll be smokin', drinkin' whiskey with our fans."
"We want to be the Motley Crue, the Who of bluegrass," Jason Punkneck says, "because rockin' is what we do."
Although raised in Nashville, "I've always been a punk rocker. I always hated country music growing up," he says. But while running a tattoo parlor in Corpus Christi, Texas, and seriously into the practice of "flesh hanging" (leading to the Ripley's ride through Las Vegas), Punkneck decided life has "gotta be more than something like this. I figured I'd start a band, some kind of dirty punk-rock thing, and it just kinda went country."
Punk and nonmainstream country frequently walk the same road.
"It's going into the area that's always been your dark spot," Punkneck says. "But that dark spot is kinda pretty. It's a place that nobody really knows. A lot of people are scared of the dark."
The heavily tattooed Punkneck wears his fears where you can see them.
"I tattooed my face to get off the heroine and cocaine," he says. "That killed normality. If I tattoo my face, I can be a lot stronger."
It gets darker. His own exhibitions in flesh hanging can be wince-inducing (he's evidently well-known in these circles as Jason Price). Punkneck talks of friends into "body modification, people who take individuality more serious than anybody, and self-expression, and changing their bodies. They add horns and implants, file their teeth down, sew their lip so it looks catlike, put spikes in their head. Some people grab their skin and shoot a bullet hole in it. (I don't know what kind of thrill they get out of that.) Or drill-tap their skull, like a Mayan, to get this rush.
"A lot of my best friends are damn near borderline psychopaths. Prison-bound, self-destructive people."
And yeah, he admits, other friends just get in the way. He and the charming Polly Punkneck ("You wouldn't believe how big our lesbian following is," Jason crows) were married about a year ago, but it wasn't easy. As Punkneck tells it, after getting the full story on his interests, some of the bridesmaids and the minister who was to perform the ceremony decided that a wedding intervention on behalf of the 24-year-old Polly might be a better idea.
"Everybody thought it was just a phase," he says. "It's not the first time I've had somebody try to intervene in my life over a chick. So we found a punk-rock minister, a guy who married gay people and atheists. He married us at the honky tonk we were drinking at.
"It sounds kind of cultish, but it's not. Sometimes you get tired of pain, trying to overstand stuff, rather than understand it. When you have a pretty radical childhood, you don't want to get hurt anymore. ..."
And the extreme helps insulate you. Or explain something you can't explain.
In "Seen This Before," Punkneck sings, "I've been livin' my life like a black man, standing here in my white shoes, so many times people don't understand, what you get ain't always what you choose."
Years ago, country acts like the Louvin Brothers walked the line between sin and redemption. Johnny Cash owned it. Punkneck is digging even deeper now, readying an album called Drinkin', Druggin' and Jesus. It's what he calls his "outlaw gospel record."
"It's my views on religion, and how I found my personal religious guidelines," Punkneck says. "We play in the darkest areas, we have temptation all around. I wouldn't say we're Christians, but we're Christian anarchists. We sing for the drinkin' and druggin' Christians. The people who are really hurtin', not the ones tryin' to save everyone."
IF YOU GO
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 4)
Where: Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way.
When: 9 p.m. Friday (Sept. 5)
Where: Monty's Krown, 875 Monroe Ave., with the Lovesick Heartstabbers and Hellcat Maggie
For more: 271-7050 or www.punknecks.com