“If I can’t make it out of this ditch/I better make a home of it,” Dave Hause sings in his song “The Ditch” off his 2019 album, Kick. It’s a school of thought I’ve been trying to adopt since 2020’s pandemic plotline went off the rails. If this mess isn’t going to end anytime soon — and thanks to good ol’ American dysfunction, that seems to be the case — we have to adapt to living in the ditch.
But that doesn’t mean resignation. Instead, it’s about evolution. One of my favorite subgenres is that of the punk troubadour: solo artists who got their start in loud, brash rock bands and evolved into Americana-leaning, introspective singer-songwriters. A friend disagreed with me that it’s a subgenre of its own at all. He argues it’s “the democratized, modern mold of folk.” He’s probably right.
Here, then, is a collection of songs by punk troubadours and the bands that spawned them. It’s the sound of modern folk, emo Americana, or acoustic punk. However you describe it, it’s a playlist about adapting, transforming, and, dare we say, maturing — without losing your edge.
Brian Fallon, “21 Days”
Fallon picked up on a therapy theory — that it takes 21 days to change a habit — and adapted it for this cinematic slow-burner about his attempt to quit smoking. The ballad can be about a relationship, too, with its lyrics about missing “you most in the morning.” Make it what you want.
Gaslight Anthem, “American Slang”
The ’59 Sound gets all the love, but its 2010 follow-up, American Slang, finds the New Jersey band equally as dialed-in, if more troubled and less nostalgic. The fever-dream title track is a flailing eulogy — (“I called for my father, but my father had died”) — propelled by a menacing floor-tom beat and a commanding chorus. Fallon’s just-beneath-the-surface semi-chorus (“In a dream I had/Oh, in a dream I had”) is both frightening and gorgeous.
Dave Hause, “C’mon Kid”
Hause is a tattooed motivational speaker in “C’mon Kid,” a track off his 2011 solo debut, Resolutions. Like his city’s fictional hero, the Philadelphia songwriter absorbs life’s punches, but keeps getting up. As Rocky himself said, “That’s how winning is done.”
The Loved Ones, “The Bridge”
Hause’s scrappy Philly band preached accepting who you are and the choices you’ve made in this fan favorite off 2008’s Build & Burn. Its squirrelly, spiraling guitar riff ties the song together in the most circuitous of ways, like a bridge imagined by Escher. But it’s Hause’s howling vocal about getting home that lights the way.
Jesse Malin, “Shining Down”
This gentle strummer is Malin in peak Americana mode. Inspired by witnessing Tom Petty’s last live performance before his death, at the Hollywood Bowl, “Shining Down” came to be about Malin’s dad, who died while his son was finishing up the record. Part spiritual lesson, part hard-won advice, it’s about the need to keep moving forward. Whether you’re in a limo or a hearse, Malin sings, “You don’t look back.”
D Generation, “Capital Offender”
Lucinda Williams co-produced Malin’s Americana high-water mark, Sunset Kids, last year, but nearly 25 years earlier, he and his punk-glam outfit D Generation were taking direction from the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, who oversaw 1995’s No Lunch. “Capitol Offender,” written by D Gen guitarist Richard Bacchus, was a standout, an indictment of American capitalism and all the cash, flash, and “expense account meals” that go along with it.
Tim Barry, “Dog Bumped”
Johnny Cash sang about shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” In Tim Barry’s modern-day murder ballad, the narrator has a reason to kill: watching his P.O.S. brother-in-law physically abuse his sister. “One quick minute got me 28 long years,” Barry sings with little emotion, in complete acceptance of what he has coming.
Avail, “Scuffle Town”
Richmond, Virginia hardcore heroes Avail raged against a polluted James River and an apathetic public in this screamer off their 1998 Lookout! Records release Over the James. Barry screams himself hoarse, and it’s glorious.
Chuck Ragan, “The Boat”
This playlist owes a debt to the Hot Water Music frontman: Many of the artists included are alumni of Ragan’s Revival Tour, a collection of punks with Americana tendencies. “The Boat” is Ragan’s masterwork, a reminder that even in the most vicious of storms, there’s a safe harbor to be found.
Hot Water Music, “Drag My Body”
“Stand to hold steady now,” Ragan barked in the bridge to this steadfast anthem about staying the course under dire circumstances. With a pandemic raging unabated, politics rotten to the core, and the U.S. anything but united, it’s as necessary a listen today as it was upon its release in 2012.
Greg Graffin, “Backroads of My Mind”
Bad Religion’s sandpaper-voiced co-founder allowed himself to indulge thoughts of — gasp! — bucolic bliss in the opening track to his third solo album, Millport. “Backroads of My Mind” is an homage to the serpentine roads around his upstate New York retreat. It’s also country AF, especially when Graffin would play it live with Telecaster and fiddle in the mix.
Bad Religion, “Infected”
Graffin and the band share their SoCal origin story in the just-released book Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion. But in this Stranger Than Fiction radio hit — a rarity for Bad Religion — he couldn’t be less enthused about opening up. “Let’s talk about nothing,” he growls.
Mike Ness, “Dope Fiend Blues”
By covering Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Social Distortion never hid its affinity for rootsier, even country, sounds. Frontman Mike Ness embraced those vibes wholeheartedly on his 1999 solo debut, Cheating at Solitaire. Still, he couldn’t leave behind his band’s more grim subject matter. “Dope Fiend Blues” is a tale of desperation, track-marked by the stabbing notes of X guitarist Billy Zoom.
Social Distortion, “Bad Luck”
Being on the wrong side of a black cat has never sounded so appealing. Even Springsteen can’t resist this unlucky number — he’s covered the track off Social D’s Between Heaven and Hell three times, always with Mike Ness as a special guest (in one bootlegged performance, a clueless fan can be heard asking, “Who’s Mike Mist?”)
Laura Jane Grace, “Apocalypse Now (& Later)”
“Don’t have ‘happy ever after’/just have ‘here and now,'” Laura Jane Grace reminds us in this track off her 2018 solo debut, Bought to Rot. With shades of R.E.M., the jangly “Apocalypse Now” breathes new life into the carpe-diem trope.
Against Me!, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”
Sometimes the revolution can become a drag. That’s the theme of Against Me!’s pop-punk sing-along, with lyrics that detail the death of a movement: “I was a teenage anarchist/But then the scene got too rigid.”
Frank Turner, “Live Fast Die Old”
English punk-poet Frank Turner made a convincing case that growing old is better than dying young in this rambunctious call to arms. He’s not suggesting you play it safe, however — just smartly.
Million Dead, “I Am the Party”
As the lead screamer for hardcore band Million Dead, Turner got his message across with sheer volume. In “I Am the Party,” he begged you to “ignore every word I say.” In other words, kill your idols.
Ben Nichols, “The Last Pale Light in the West”
The Lucero frontman followed his muse west to make a 2009 concept record based on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The title track was especially dusty, suited for getting lost in the desert.
Lucero, “Everything Has Changed”
Unlike some of the artists on this playlist, Nichols is still going strong with his band. In 2018, Lucero reteamed to release the dark LP Among the Ghosts. “Well, my friend,” Nichols whined, “everything has changed.”