(FROM PUNK TO COUNTRY
THE EVOLUTION OF JON LANGFORD
by Jon M. Gilbertson
At a time when the most public face of country music can politely be called "conservative," Mekons frontman and alternative-country voyager Jon Langford unearths the older, more weather-beaten face that gazes sympathetically on the problems and celebrations of working-class people. The expatriate Welshman and punk rocker admits he once had trouble seeing that face as a younger man.
"I thought country was rightwing, cornball shtick," Langford says during an interview between stops on a tour. "I ended up getting a tape called Honky-Tonk Classics. It was fantastic. I thought Johnny Cash was like Elvis, this presence and superhero. Suddenly, there was this world that opened up."
Not content to explore this world just within the context of the Mekons-the unorthodox punk rock group he helped to establish in 1977-Langford gradually organized the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Begun as larks after Langford moved from Leeds, England, to Chicago in 1991, these two loose collectives now form a distinct part of his back catalog and his current efforts.
The Waco Brothers started as, and largely remain, a band meant to enliven a night of drinking and dancing at the corner tavern, though over the course of six albums-from 1995's To the Last Dead Cowboy to 2002's New Deal-they've developed a style that gleefully pairs the attitude of Joe Strummer with the sturdiness of George Jones.
With the Cosmonauts, Langford has found a way not only to pay tribute to his heroes-with Misery Loves Company: Songs of Johnny Cash in 1995 and Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills in 1998-but also to engage in a fight against the death penalty. Through Tony Fitzpatrick, a Chicago-based artist best known for his Steve Earle album covers, Langford encountered members of the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project and was inspired by their largely thankless work.
"I had met a lot of posturing lefties with a lot of romantic notions, and these anti-death penalty people seemed infinitely more heroic," Langford says. "They were just fucking bashing away behind the scenes to save lives and get innocent people off death row. I like the idea that social change comes from people not doing it for some kind of pie-in-the-sky glory. I thought the role of the musician would be to get some money together and give it to people who needed it."
Langford called upon a network of friends and associates within the burgeoning alternative-country scene in Chicago, who in turn spread the word. The response was swift and positive. In 2002, The Executioner's Last Songs, Vol. 1, came out on Bloodshot Records, a Chicago alt-country label that handles Langford's non-Mekons output. With a theme of old-time country death songs, the musical backing of the Cosmonauts, and an impressive guest list, including Earle on the traditional folk tune "Tom Dooley," this first volume generated tens of thousands of dollars for the Moratorium Project. (Around the time of that release, then-Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in his state.)
There was such an overflow of people who wanted to participate, in fact, that Langford and the Cosmonauts assembled another twenty-seven songs for volumes two and three of Last Songs, released in 2003. While a few of the artists, like American Music Club's Mark Eitzel, wrote their own contributions, most of the participants performed classic murder ballads ranging from Hank Williams's "Angel of Death" to Roger Miller's "Pardon This Coffin." It was not a fussily recorded Nashville product. "Modern country is fantasy music, this vision of family values and patriotism in a place that never even existed," Langford says. "The underground is kind of free to explore much more interesting things."
Going against the grain is not new for Langford. The Mekons, after all, formed at the very apex of punk rock, when bands were constantly attempting to express their politics through their music. The Mekons took a different tactic.
"It was never about writing songs that were political with a capital P," Langford says. 'A lot of people thought if you got a hit, you could destroy the government. We were much more concerned about how we worked and what we did rather than any smash-the-system lyrics. A lot of that was pretty stupid. Our stuff has a bit more humor in it."
As the Mekons developed a larger audience, they eventually moved from the do-it-yourself ethos to various major labels. While this period in the 1980s generated some of their greatest albums, including 1985's Fear and Whiskey and 1989's The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, it also nearly crushed them in a matrix of business concerns and executive decisions. By the early 1990s, they were at loose ends.
"We kind of ran out of gas," Langford says. "In '93, we were working as intensely as possible, as if hard work was a way to sort ourselves out, but we didn't really do that until we stopped for a couple years."
Currently signed to the Quarterstick imprint of Touch and Go, a Chicago indie that has released most of their records in the last decade, the Mekons have capped their revitalization with Punk Rock, the album they put out earlier this year. Essentially a live recording, Punk Rock documents the band's new perspective on material they'd written from 1977 to 1981. Songs like "Never Been in a Riot" and "The Building" have lost none of their primitive vigor.
Langford has recently extended his explorations. In 2003, he collaborated with the Sadies, a quintet of Canadian alt-country stalwarts, on the slick Mayors of the Moon. This April he released his second solo album, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, which utilizes the fictional Deeds as a phantom stand-in for both the country singers of the mid-twentieth century and Langford himself. From the ragged croak of "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" to the gallows grin of Bob Wills's "Trouble in Mind," Lofty Deeds tells a story of exploitation that would have been as familiar to Hank Williams as it is to Langford. Bloodshot Records co-founder Rob Miller certainly thinks so.
"I look at the record as a cautionary tale of how the mass culture will just use people for their purposes and then spit them out," Miller says. "The most archetypal country music was all made by outsiders in their times, like Bob Wills and Johnny Cash, who wouldn't play by the rules, and the industry was turning its back on them. Jon fits into that tradition. He has been through the major-label grinder."
Not content with being a forty-six-year-old man with a workload that would stun most people half his age, Langford is also putting together an artist-based record label of his own and trying out material with Ship and Pilot, yet another band with drummer Steve Goulding.
On top of that, Langford is a painter and illustrator who does the covers for most of his own music and sells his art commercially to support that music.
Then there is the matter of his family: his wife, the woman he followed to Chicago in the first place; and two kids, the main reasons he puts in all the effort for music and activism.
"I would feel bad later to have them ask me, 'Did they have the death penalty when you were a kid?' and say, 'Yeah, we did,"' Langford says. "I feel compelled to do things that I think are going to make the world slightly better."