North Carolina's "Research Triangle" of Durham/Raleigh/Chapel Hill is home to perhaps the most active Alt Country scene in the land. The Backsliders, Jolene, and Two Dollar Pistols are but three of the most popular acts to crop up in the brackish areas between the tobacco fields and the college dorms. Pistols singer John Howie's gruff, been-at-the-bottle-again growl is surprisingly agile, rolling as easily as a log in a lake. There's a certain lowdown meanness in that voice, but it's so drenched in sentiment you know he's just a big softy at heart. In 1999 Howie and Co. joined ranks with Carbines crooner Tift Merritt for an album of duets that belongs in the jukebox of every honky-tonk in heaven. But if it's hell you're more interested in raising, then check out the 1998 live set Step Right Up, a barnburner of an album that'll give you the beer sweats just touching it.