Somewhere amid the intellectual clang of alternative rock, the hyperactive twang of funk-punk and the radical bang of hip-hop, a Northeast Kansas country band called Sundown is playing some hot tunes in a genre that's been called white man's blues.
And at least one Sundown member thinks country is the sound of these recession-burdened times.
"There are a lot of songs that deal with when things are bad,'' said Kurt Shobe, the founder of the group. "`My wife's cheating on me, I can't pay the rent, I've been out of work two or three years.' It's that kind of working-people-oriented lyrics that are relevant now.''
Shobe, a Topeka resident and a Kansas University graduate student, plays lead and bass guitar. He's joined by Mark Woelk of Lawrence on drums, Jed Wymore of Junction City on lead guitar, Mike Hagemann of Manhattan on keyboards and Arthur White of Emporia on the bass guitar. They all sing.
THE GROUP performs throughout the Midwest and in June won the Northeast Kansas Country Showdown at the Topeka Performing Arts Center. They were the runner-up act in the Kansas state Country Showdown on Wednesday in Hays.
The band aligns itself with the faster, hipper strains of the new country generation whose more popular proponents include Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus. Shobe and Woelk, interviewed last week in Lawrence, say they don't try to copy the sounds of these country superstars, but they definitely want to appeal to a younger audience.
"I'm after a hard drum beat,'' Woelk said. "People like to watch me play. I definitely put a rock edge into country music.''
The band plays mostly its own material, although the group rehearses covers to keep up with audience demand. Unlike Nashville and Branson, Mo., where the mega-stars with large theaters crowd out smaller clubs, Northeast Kansas and the surrounding states harbor numerous honky tonks and fairs where the band can ply its trade.
SUNDOWN ALSO gets airplay on area country stations, and they've recorded demo tapes in Lawrence. Eventually they would like to parlay their connections in Nashville into a recording contract.
Shobe first got interested in country music down in his home town of Independence. The southeast Kansas city is home to a top country promoter, and country music dug deep roots there.
"I listened to pretty much all kinds of popular music growing up,'' Shobe said. "I grew up on rock 'n' roll. I started playing the guitar when I was 12, and when I was 15 I got into a rock 'n' roll band in Independence.
"But a year later I started a country band in Independence. I found that playing rock 'n' roll was hard work, and the band members were doing some things I didn't particularly care for a lot. So my friends were into country, and there were a lot of jobs playing country down there.''
SHOBE STUDIED at Independence Community College and Emporia State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in earth sciences. He played with a variety of bands, sometimes in unusual circumstances. Non-country fans think of a country music club as a place that puts the band behind protective chicken wire. That's virutally never the case, Shobe says, with one exception.
"I did play that kind of place once,'' he said. "The crew went into a little hole-in-the-wall in Kansas. They actually put chicken wire up on stage, and we actually had to set up in there. Our lights were the only things that were outside of it. The place was a mess. We started playing, and about three or four songs into the act they (the audience) started throwing empty beer bottles at us, which scared us to death. Then the manager told us that means they liked us, it was a tradition there. It was really bizarre.''
IN EMPORIA, he joined up with the original band that was called Sundown. That band earned a solid reputation and opened for several nationally known ensembles and artists. But by 1989 Shobe was teaching at Topeka High School, and the band ate all his free time. He quit.
"It was really hard keeping the band together after I left, and then they split up,'' he said.
In 1990, Shobe decided to revive Sundown. He gathered the current lineup of musicians, all of whom had extensive country experience, and then started back out on the road. Despite the physical distance between the players, Shobe said the group rehearses frequently and is kept together by the promise of bigger things.
BOTH WOELK and Shobe complain about the lack of places to perform in Lawrence, although the Jayhawk Cafe expressed interested in booking them. They see a large market here for their new-fangled country beat.
"Somebody needs to figure out what the national trends are and set something up here for contemporary country,'' Shobe said. "A lot of people at KU don't know me, but they get really interested when they find out I play in a country band. I can't tell you how many people ask me when we're playing next in Lawrence or Topeka.''
In the meantime, the Sundown band members intend to keep singing about what they know and what country fans care about the down-home, God's country kind of things that hard rock doesn't necessarily supply.
"Country music has traditionally been conservative, it's true,'' Shobe said. "I write about relationships, I write about rodeo and farming. I write a lot of the time about the band members and their experiences and what we've gone through.''