Cracker have been weaving subtle yet undeniable country twang throughout their sound since their 1992 self-titled debut. See "Mr. Wrong" from that album, or even "Lonesome Johnny Blues" from the 1993 follow-up Kerosene Hat. But with their new double album, Berkeley to Bakersfield, out December 9th, the alt-rock radio band known for such hits as "Low" and "Get Off This" dives headfirst into the California country sound. At least on the Bakersfield portion of the album. Listen to an exclusive premiere of the track "Almond Grove" below.
"I remember when we delivered the first Cracker album to Virgin, our A&R guy said something to the effect of, 'OK, good songs, but are you sure you want to deliver a country-rock album when Nirvana is at the top of the charts?'" Cracker's David Lowery tells Rolling Stone Country. "And he was right. But because [the album's lead single] 'Teen Angst' came off as such an alternative-rock track, no one really noticed how much of a roots-rock album it really was. We had songs that got played on alternative radio, but you basically have a record that is more influenced by mid-period Stones, the Band and the writing of Jim Lauderdale."
Cracker, co-founded by Lowery and Johnny Hickman in 1991, were an amalgamation of two distinctly California sounds: the country of the Inland Empire and the rock and punk of the Bay Area. Berkeley to Bakersfield then is the group paying tribute to those influences. "If this was the last record we ever made — and I'm not saying it is — it sums up what the band does very well. It sums up our history, our career," says Lowery, who prior to Cracker formed the cult-fave band Camper Van Beethoven. Upon starting out, the group would alternate playing shows at a honky-tonk and a punk club in Santa Cruz.
Berkeley to Bakersfield isn't Cracker's first album foray into country music — but it is their first of all-original material. In 2003, the band released Countrysides, a collection of mostly covers, including Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition," Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" and even Bruce Springsteen's "Sinaloa Cowboys."
"We knew there was a harder edged, shit-talking part of country music, the more honky-tonk stuff, that was not really being addressed by our peers. And part of that is a tradition of having this tongue-in-cheek wordplay in country music," says Lowery. "With Countrysides, we wanted to embrace that."
Lowery indulges a darker side of that wordplay on the loping country track "Almond Grove," from Berkeley to Bakersfield. A story of a guy who lost his family and longs to reunite with them, the lyrics reveal a surprise sad ending. Lowery acknowledges that it's similar to "Green, Green Grass of Home," the doomed prisoner ballad made famous by Porter Wagoner.
"It's a dark song and I'm playing with that 'Green, Green Grass of Home' archetype. You don't really know what he means by 'going home' until the third verse. You think he's getting $100 for a bus ticket; you think he's going to go back home to the family homestead to the almond groves and cotton fields," says Lowery. "But he spirals down and purposely ODs."
Berkeley to Bakersfield marks Cracker's 10th studio album, a milestone that isn't lost on Lowery.
"If somebody had told me I was going to be in the music business for over 30 years, when I was first forming Camper Van Beethoven, or that Cracker would still be playing 23 years later, I really would have been very surprised by that," he laughs. "I would have asked them what they were smoking."