The Cankickers Take Their Unique Brand Of Punk-Folk On The Road

By Dan Pearson
Published on 08/27/2002

Three weeks from today, a rented utility van will pull into the parking lot of a paintball arena in Fort Worth, Texas. After a complimentary game of paintball, the three men traveling in the van will take the stage and perform in a music hall in the rear of the arena.

The crowd in attendance will consist of teen-age punks, cowboys, folkies and elderly bluegrass fans wearing coveralls and work boots. The band will play traditional folk and blues songs written before World War II, but the young people will dance. The band's drummer will dive off stage and destroy a washboard, leaving splinters of tin and wood scattered across the floor.

When they are done, the band will drive the utility van onward, to New Orleans, Oakland, Portland and then, after more than a month on the road, back to their home in New London.

This is only one example of the short, but already exceedingly strange, history of the Cankickers, Connecticut's only country punk-bluegrass-folk trio.

After playing local clubs such as the Secret Theater and the El 'n' Gee for the past year, the Cankickers soon will leave New London for a national tour that will take them to at least 16 shows in 14 states.

It is one of the only times in recent memory that a local independent band has been able to coordinate a tour on this scale. What makes their tour so remarkable is that the Cankickers, who have two independently released records, have organized it entirely on their own. The Cankickers have no support from any label, promoter or recording company. They have organized the tour after months of faxes, e-mail, phone calls and persistence.

What makes it even more remarkable is that the Cankickers play what it is called American, old time or Appalachian music: early American folk and blues more associated with Kentucky mountain men or Mississippi Delta farmers than 20-something New Englanders who grew up with hardcore, classic rock and reggae. The Cankickers are three Connecticut College graduates: Doug Schaefer, a native of Mystic, 21, washboard and drums; Daniel Spurr, 25, originally from Massachusetts, banjo and guitar; and, Dan Thompson, from Bethany, 25, fiddle.

There's no club too big or small. We'll play anywhere, says Spurr.

The best way to learn about the Cankickers is to clear up some misconceptions and explain what they are not. First, the Cankickers are not an Irish folk band, as once advertised in Maine.

Bates College called us a Celtic band, says Schaefer. They had no idea what was going on.

Second, the Cankickers are not classically trained.

We're like the Ramones, Spurr says. We're not about virtuosity. We're more about energy.

But the Cankickers are improving. In fact, Thompson recently won third place in the Trick and Fancy Fiddling category at a fiddle contest in Roxbury.

I went 'trick' and played the fiddle behind my back, Thompson says. But I was beaten by two six-year-old girls in the 'fancy' category playing the 'Orange Blossom Special.' Man, that's a hard song to play.

Unlike other bands leaving for a national tour, the Cankickers have no illusions about fame and wealth.

In a sense, we're clueless, says Schaefer. But we're pretty sure we won't make any money on this tour. It will be successful if we cover the cost of gas.

Lastly, the Cankickers were not brought together by a love of old music. They were unified by their dislike of the new.

We all hate Top 40, Schaefer says.

The Cankickers say their fascination with early American music is an extension of a national trend to explore the roots of modern music. In recent years, many bands have been drawn to country and bluegrass by way of the No Depression movement, initiated in the 1990s by such performers as Uncle Tupelo, the Bottle Rockets and Lucinda Williams. No Depression, the name of a Carter Family song, is also the name of an Uncle Tupelo record and a Seattle magazine dedicated to the alternative country genre.

No Depression bands, like the Cankickers, grew up on independent rock but look back to Gram Parsons, Patsy Cline, Delta Blues and Bob Dylan for role models. Early music received international recognition recently through the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coen brothers film that featured bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.

The Cankickers and other like-minded groups derive inspiration from older music, especially that gathered in Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, the magisterial collection featuring Leadbelly, the Carter Family and the 1920s banjo player Dock Boggs, a major Cankickers influence.

Thompson attributes the trio's knowledge of early American music to WCNI, the New London independent radio station. Several weekly shows exhibit comprehensive collections of bluegrass, gospel and western swing.

The punk ethic and aesthetic in the Cankickers' music is evident in performances and in their promotional philosophy. Live, Schaefer is notorious for stage-diving, howling and screaming, and destroying his washboard in the fashion of The Who's Pete Townsend slamming his Rickenbacker guitar off the face of a Marshall.

Schaefer learned to believe in the power of do-it-yourself recording and publicity as a member of the local hardcore outfit The Afflicted. Influenced by independent bands such as Fugazi, he believed a band could survive without the help of a label or agent.

He booked the shows by making phone calls and going online to learn about clubs and venues. He then made hundreds of phone calls, sometimes waking up at 2 a.m. to dial a West Coast number, and spent hundreds of dollars of the band's money mailing out copies of the Cankickers' two records, “Dead Music I” and “Dead Music II.” The most difficult aspect of booking was avoiding excessively long drives between gigs. Ten hours will be the maximum driving time.

Of course, the tour is not the type of epic affair associated with Led Zeppelin.

The Cankickers face a strange lineup of gigs. One night, they will play in a former boxing ring in Eugene, Ore. They'll play a vaudeville cabaret hall in Tucson, Ariz., and a show at The Bandito Burrito in Huntsville, Ala.

They expect their most lucrative night will be in Nashville, Tenn., where they will perform for money on the street outside a minor league hockey arena.

It doesn't matter if there's 100 people at a club or nobody at all, Schaefer says. It just feels awesome to be in total control. This is the most fun we've ever had.