Larry Pierce’s foul-mouthed country music is too filthy for even the most delicate, carefully asterisked descriptions. So, if you weren’t at the Heights Theater last night for the regional premiere of the Minnesota-produced documentary about the honky-tonk George Carlin, I insist: go to iTunes and listen. Then ask yourself if the cultural watchdogs shouldn’t be patrolling small-town garage parties instead of hip-hop videos next time they want to unearth some real smut.
One might assume that a film calling itself Dirty Country would focus on the strange marriage of red-state-entrenched country music and its obscenity-twanging fringes. Or that the filmmakers would find some outraged parents in Pierce’s hometown of Middleton, Indiana, who want to run him out of town. Nope. The fast-paced doc, an audience winner at South by Southwest, follows Pierce, a third-shift factory worker with a talent for writing country songs who gets a mid-life shot at a big-time music career.
When we first meet Pierce he’s a married-with-kids fifty-three-year-old with a second life recording smutty, comic country songs that are distributed at truck stops by a label called Laughing Hyena Records. He sings and plays guitar to an enthusiastic, boozy group of friends and family, but they’re hardly just amusing him. The guy's got a voice like a poor man’s Waylon Jennings and a quick wit that’s put to service in decidedly profane but nonetheless well-constructed songs.
It turns out Pierce has more fans than his ad-hoc garage concerts might suggest and they include -Itis, an established Colorado power-pop band that includes Pierce covers in its anatomically obsessed setlist. The group, headed by Chris Daughtry look-alike Craig Soderberg, track down their idol, who they’re surprised to learn doesn’t have a band and is struggling to make ends meet after having been forced into early retirement from the GM plant. The country singer and the rock band click, of course, and before long Pierce is playing his first real gig with –Itis at the Main Event in Fridley.
Dirty Country tells its feel-good underdog story well, letting its (often unintentionally) hilarious cast of characters tell their own stories without a lot of wink-wink-nudge-nudge from the filmmakers. It also gives some nice context to Pierce’s peculiar brand of outsider art through interviews with professors, music journalists, and other dirty-music cult favorites (the sequin-caped rapper Blowfly and white tuxedoed piano man Dr. Dirty) who cultivate their rabid fan bases despite no airplay and little in the way of traditional marketing.
In Pierce’s case, the best marketing seems to be his own understated charm, and his fortuitous friendship with -Itis frontman Soderberg, who seems to be having as much fun transforming Pierce’s life as Pierce is living out his dreams. The band and its new elder statesman now play shows together around the country, including one last night at the Cabooze after they fielded questions at a post-screening Q&A with the film’s directors, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett—childhood friends and Wisconsin natives who also seem kindred spirits.
The Dirty Country filmmakers never get in the way of their raunchy, surprisingly affecting doc, no small feat from the guys whose touring Found Footage Festival of discarded industrial training videos and strangers’ abandoned home movies is but one indication of their offbeat tastes. So why is it they’re still shopping Dirty Country around for DVD or theatrical distribution? Somebody, please, get these guys hooked up. Pierce has plenty of audiences yet to defile.