THE KNITTERS at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Sunday (August 7). $22.50. 416-532-1598.
It all began as a lark. Little did the members of Los Angeles punk kingpins X realize that when they got together with the Blasters' Dave Alvin as the Knitters to record their favourite country songs, they'd be doing it again 20 years later.
"You know, we never really stopped playing as the Knitters," explains John Doe over the phone from his Los Angeles pad. "Every three or four years we'd meet up for a run of West Coast dates.
"At the end of it we'd look at each other and say, 'Damn, we gotta record this shit - it's good, and it's fun, too!' But we'd never get around to it. This time, since there was a war going on in Iraq, we figured we'd cut a Knitters record to act as a counterbalance."
They're all older and somewhat wiser, but Doe and company haven't lost their sense of fun - which you'll notice as soon as you see the Hee Haw-inspired cover art on their reunion disc, The Modern Sounds Of The Knitters (Zoe/Rounder).
"One of the best things is going on picnics while we're travelling. Anything that would normally be deemed foolish by people in other bands is just right for the Knitters. So we put on our best clothes, went down to Sears and, as the country folks say, we got our picture made. That's what you see on the cover. It cost us $99 bucks."
The good-timey vibe carries over to the choice of cover material, which finds John Doe and Exene Cervenka tempering their darker originals with twanged-up runs at Porter Wagoner's bar-room pounder I'll Go Down Swinging and Steppenwolf's Born To Be Wild.
It's the Knitters' respect for old-school country combined with their ability to see the humour in what they're doing that sets them apart from most of the alt-country crop that followed.
"There's definitely not very much humour in the alt-country I've heard. If you've got a career to worry about, I can understand the need to take things seriously. But with the Knitters, we don't have any such concerns.
"At the end of the night, while we're powering through our version of Born To Be Wild, I can look around and see all these faces smiling back at me. It makes me think, 'Yeah, this is worthwhile. '"
Asked about the alt-country movement for which the Knitters helped blaze the punk-to-country trail, the characteristically self-deprecating Doe is reluctant to take any credit. Yet he seems pleased to have inspired a younger generation of bored punks.
"I guess we are partly to blame for all of that, but I'm not going to accept the whole rap. There were other bands at the time doing similar things, but I guess we were a little more trad country than most. As Dave Alvin would say, 'If we could get punk rockers listening to country music and not thinking it was just stupid shit for old people or squares, then we'd be doing our job. '"
Perhaps the most notable of those punks lured by the Knitters down the country path were the founders of the Bloodshot label. The Chicago-based alt-country powerhouse released the Poor Little Knitter On The Road tribute compilation - a song-for-song homage to the Knitters' 1985 debut album - which still makes Doe chuckle.
"When we heard what Bloodshot had in mind, we were incredulous. It was like, 'You wanna do what? You're joking!' I mean, to record what is ostensibly a tribute record, and then have someone come along and do a track-by-track tribute to that tribute - how crazy postmodern is that? I think someone needs to call the Guinness people.
"But it was fun, and we were all very, very flattered by the gesture."