Although they got their start in the fast and loud world of the southern California punk rock scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Orange County rockers Social Distortion have long embraced American roots music, incorporating country, rockabilly, folk and blues influences into their songwriting and overall sound.
Founding member Mike Ness — who as the band’s singer, guitarist ,and chief songwriter has guided Social Distortion for 35 years now — can pinpoint an experience he had growing up to when he first made a connection with early 20th century American music.
“It was probably on those Smithsonian Folkways sets that we had around the house — but when I heard the Carter Family at about eight years old, there’s just something about those recordings from that period, the late ’20s, and ’30s,” says Ness over the phone from a tour stop in Oregon.
“Maybe I was internalizing their strife, it just resonated with me, we didn’t have much money growing up, and it just really hit home—and I didn’t really even know at the time.”
That sense of kinship with the pioneers of roots music went on to inform and influence Ness when he started Social Distortion and has continued to help shape the group as they have evolved over the years — a major reason that he is proud to be performing with his band at this weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco (4:45 pm on Saturday at the Towers of Gold Stage).
“I’ve heard it’s just really cool and eclectic — and that it’s huge. I remember when we used to do the ‘Street Scene’ in San Diego and it was downtown, and feeling that the whole town was there, like how it must have been in the old days when you were peddling your elixirs and you had the whole city there in the town square.
“I imagine that’s how it will be there. I think it’s a pretty cool idea. Whenever you get to play in the city, and see the cityscape right there from the stage, or in the park, it’s a very cool feeling.”
In addition to taking cues from the classics when writing his own material, Ness has also made it a tradition to perform many of his favorite songs by other, older artists both live in concert and on records — in fact, he released an entire album of covers back in 1999, the excellent solo effort Under The Influences, in which he paid homage to singers and songwriters such as Carl Perkins, Marty Robbins, and Hank Williams.
While his fans enjoy Ness’ cover versions for having their own unique sound, the performer himself laughs when asked if he has a particular approach for shaping or crafting the songs to be a little different from the originals.
“It’s never been a conscious decision to change them to make it my own. Sometimes I kind of wish I had played in Top 40 bands just so I could have learned different stylistic things, because really, when I pick a cover song, I do pick it because I love it and it’s a personal favorite and I’ve been singing it in my living for a couple of years already — but it just comes out the only way I know how to do it!” Ness laughs.
A couple of other acts on the bill this weekend were artists that Ness went to see in concert while growing up and had a large impact on him, particularly Dave and Phil Alvin (who play Friday afternoon) and their band The Blasters.
“That period of time was just so neat. We were 17 years old, driving from Fullerton to Hollywood every night watching bands and going to these underground clubs, I feel so lucky to have been able to be a part of that — I cut my teeth on that, and The Blasters were a big part of that.”
“These were bands that were already making that connection between punk and American roots music, whether it was rockabilly or folk music or blues. By the mid ‘80s, punk had really started to stereotype itself; a lot of the bands were all just starting to sound the same. We felt the need to separate and stand out, and that really helped me.”
Ness says that fans can expect Social Distortion to play some special tunes for their Hardly Strictly Bluegrass set.
“I definitely want to acknowledge the fact that it’s a roots festival, and pay homage, so we’ll be altering our set a little bit for the festival. Essentially, now Social Distortion is the Carter Family with Les Pauls, you know?” says Ness.
“It’s three chords, it’s the melody, it’s very simplistic. But it’s very honest and heartfelt writing.”
Sat/4, 4:45pm, free
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Golden Gate Park, SF