When seminal southern California punk band Social Distortion released its cover of Johnny Cash's iconic "Ring of Fire" in 1990, some fans were perplexed by the group's inclusion of country music into its hard-driving sound. But the folks who had been paying attention knew the group had been working classic country covers into its live shows for a few years, and that lead singer Mike Ness was a devoted student of American roots music.
Now, four decades into a stellar career, Ness is as strong of a believer in the ties that bind country and punk together.
"There's a stigma attached to that four letter word: punk," the 55-year old singer says in his trademark rasp. "But seeing the connection between punk and Americana is easy, because both are singing about the working class and working-class issues. It's not stadium rock. There's a direct connection between the Carter Family and Hank Williams Sr. to bands like the Clash and X."
It's been six years since Social D released a studio album, but the metamorphosis from straightforward punk band to a more well-rounded rock act has been in motion for far longer.
Once the band slows down its touring schedule later this year -- long after the band performs at Billy Bob's Texas on Sept. 3 -- Ness says a new record will begin to take shape and that fans can expect much of the same, muscular American rock they've heard in recent years. Even though Ness is synonymous with the Southern California punk scene of the 1980s, he sees his band's place in punk history as just that: history.
"The punk movement, as significant as it was, was more of a revolution that took place 35 years ago," he says. "It came and it changed things, but it has evolved, because it was the beginning of something. We're not the same band we were back then."
Oh, and be careful what label you try to apply to Social Distortion's music.
"It's about singing from the heart, regardless of what anyone calls it. But don't call it cowpunk, I hate that term; such a lack of imagination. At the end of the day, it's rock 'n' roll, so let's [expletive] call it rock 'n' roll."
That the group will perform in Fort Worth at the historic honky-tonk Billy Bob's is more than a kitschy notion. Social Distortion headlines this year's Burning Bubba Festival, which for five years has offered a bill that blends country with southern rock and a number of other styles. Ness says it's "about damn time" his band plays the massive venue, because for him, "it's up there with getting to play the Ryman Auditorium. It's a historic landmark for any country music fan."
Being such an admirer of country and punk history, Ness knows his is far from the first band to bring rough and tumble punk sounds into a neon-lit Texas dance hall. In 1978, British punk act the Sex Pistols, one of history's most notorious bands, toured the U.S. and wreaked havoc just before they broke up. During the San Antonio show, bassist Sid Vicious reportedly struck a fan with his guitar, and their Dallas stop at the Longhorn ballroom featured Vicious covered in his own blood after possibly being head-butted by a fan. But Ness is indeed a pro, so his hopes for this Stockyards show are understandably a bit more mature.
"I think it's absolutely appropriate that we're playing at a honky-tonk like Billy Bob's," he says with a slight sarcastic chuckle. "But, hopefully, our show will go differently. Hopefully we won't break any bass guitars over anyone's head."
Burning Bubba Festival featuring Social Distortion, Whitey Morgan, Quaker City Night Hawks and more; 5 p.m. Sept. 3 at Billy Bob's Texas, 2520 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth. $30-$35. Details.