Mekons related articles from CT pt.3
TWANG AND SHOUT HARD-COUNTRY SOUND HAS FOUND A NURTURING HOME ON THE EDGE OF CHICAGO'S MUSIC SCENE * Greg Kot 01/25/96 Chicago Tribune(Copyright 1996) The image is both ghastly and comic, a gaunt Hank Williams Sr. as St. Sebastian riddled with arrows. It appears on the cover of a recent local country-music compilation, and it's vivid enough to suggest what poor Hank in his martyrdom might be thinking: Who screwed up my music? His misery would be understandable. The raw simplicity and rarefied spirituality of the music of Williams and the Carter Family, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline and other country giants has been replaced by million-selling pop stars masquerading as cowboys. The sound of Nashville is now defined by commercial acts such as Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery and Travis Tritt, who sing tunes descended from the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor and put on concerts that evoke the arena-rock spectacles of the 1970s. But a corps of local musicians and entrepreneurs are helping keep alive the starker, simpler and more soulful elements of Williams' original vision, and have quietly turned Chicago into an unlikely but vibrant center for roots-country music. It's why the image of Williams as St. Sebastian has special resonance locally; it's an etching by Chicago underground music's man-about-town, Jon Langford, and it is reproduced on the cover of "Hell-Bent," the second collection of hard-country songs released by the local Bloodshot label. The label, formed in 1994 by three hard-country enthusiasts--Rob Miller, Eric Babcock and Nan Warshaw--has turned into a national phenomenon. Whereas the first Bloodshot compilation, "For a Life of Sin," documented the work of 16 Chicago bands, "Hell-Bent" throws open the door to country-roots combos from locales as far-flung as San Francisco, Dallas and, yes, even the dreaded Nashville. Bloodshot is concerned less with documenting a particular scene or a sound than it is with an attitude, dubbed "insurgent country." In this way it parallels the early groundbreaking work of Seattle's Sub Pop label, which in the late 1980s turned "grunge," an over-the-top brand of guitar rock, into a hip marketing term. Just as grunge was promoted as the rawest rock available, Bloodshot crows that it offers the country-music antidote to the Nashville assembly line. It is aimed not at mainstream country fans, those who listen to country station US-99 and herd out to the Rosemont Horizon to see Garth Brooks, but to denizens of the city's underground rock clubs who may find in the music an attitude and honesty similar to punk's. "Putting the steel-toed work boot to the rhinestone-embroidered ass of commercial country crap" is how Bloodshot co-founder Babcock sums up the label's mission, and it has fostered a scene that includes other labels, a handful of clubs, dozens of bands and thousands of fans. Besides Bloodshot, Chicago labels immersed in roots country include Thrill Jockey, which has put out two albums by North Side quartet Freakwater, and Carrot Top, which is about to release its second album by local trio the Handsome Family. Local clubs more noted for their rock bookings, such as Schubas, the Empty Bottle, Lounge Ax and the Double Door, have proven hospitable to the new breed of country bands and are drawing big crowds; a recent show by Langford's Waco Brothers, who record for Bloodshot, sold out Schubas, and the club had to turn away dozens of people at the door. An international portal has opened as well: Freakwater has twice toured Europe playing a style of music that wouldn't have sounded out of place at a 1930s country fair. The cornerstone of the roots-country movement for 25 years has been in West Texas cities such as Lubbock and Austin, home to musical renegades Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Billie Joe Shaver, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. But it's one thing to discover country's outlaw spirit on the Texas plains, quite another to encounter it on a chilly January evening in Wicker Park. Not necessarily so, says Bloodshot's Warshaw, who has been spinning country discs at Delilah's on Lincoln Avenue for years. "Country isn't really a Southern thing so much as a Heartland thing, a Middle America thing," she says. "There's a history of country music here, but nobody took the time to document it." Adds Bloodshot's Miller, "Since we put out the first compilation, there are more (roots-country) shows (in Chicago) and better communication about them. We happened to all like this kind of music and knew a lot of bands out there who were playing it, but who really didn't have an outlet for what they were doing." Country with an edge Perched on the outermost fringe of the roots-country movement, Bloodshot has had limited commercial impact; the most popular of its nine releases have sold only a few thousand copies. But the Midwest has also given rise to a handful of rock bands with strong country roots who have been signed to major labels and who sell records in more substantial numbers: Wilco, led by Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy; the Bottle Rockets from Festus, Mo., and Son Volt, from Belleville, Ill. This emerging national scene has spawned spirited discussion on a World Wide Web site on the Internet devoted exclusively to the genre (NoDepress@aol.com), and is being documented by No Depression, a quarterly magazine published out of Seattle. What distinguishes the Chicago scene is its utter lack of frills. Whereas the Austin scene is characterized by the folkish poeticism of its songcraft, and the more popular new-country bands dabble in the classic-rock sounds of the 1970s (Son Volt evokes Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Bottle Rockets rekindle Lynyrd Skynyrd), the Chicago bands revel in the sweat- and beer-soaked release of underground rock. "A lot of the bands and a lot of the local audience are a bit older than the standard rock audience, in their late 20s and 30s," says Bloodshot's Miller, "and they cut their teeth on punk and hardcore. But I think a lot of the older punk audience has become disgruntled with alternative rock radio, and feels the underground has been co-opted. The country-roots bands have the same type of stripped-down, honest approach that typified the old punk scene. Above all, it's really fun live, and a lot of the (darker-toned) post-Seattle rock stuff is not." Paying homage to the greats It's a sentiment echoed by Langford, who discovered hard-country music in the mid-'80s while playing with his ongoing * punk band the Mekons. He was struck by how similar country's simplicity, emotional honesty and heartfelt urgency were to punk rock's: "I like the Ernest Tubb approach. He'd be singing about cutting his heart out over some failed romance, but he'd be smiling from ear to ear." Just as Langford was transformed by Tubb, Freakwater's Catherine Irwin found solace in the Carter Family. Staying power "I started out playing in punk bands and not caring a bit about country music," she says. "Most of the country music I heard on radio, I hated. But I loved the Carter Family, the way they would approach songs about death and dying or being saved and rejoicing the same way. That kind of music seems to age better. I can't see myself playing punk anymore, but this kind of music I can see playing the rest of my life." Irwin's songs tap into country music's spiritual resolve in the face of tragic circumstances. Though Freakwater's approach, with its high-and-lonesome harmonies and drummer-less arrangements, is such an antique throwback that it almost creaks, the songs have a timeless immediacy. "Singing a song like `Out of This World'--`It's almost over, it's almost time now, soon I'll be dead and gone'--I can mean it with every bone in my body," says Freakwater's Janet Bean, recalling an arduous six-week tour of Europe. It's not about fame or money In the burgeoning Chicago new-country scene, no two bands sound alike. The Waco Brothers play with a boozy, rock-tinged looseness and are just as liable to pull out a Jimmy Cliff reggae song in concert as they are one by Johnny Cash. The Handsome Family brings a Gothic strangeness to its lyrics and guitar feedback to its two-stepping melodies, while Moonshine Willy evokes a tamer version of rockabilly wackos like the Rev. Horton Heat. Still another entry in the local roots scene is an upcoming Bloodshot album that teams Langford with his accordion-playing * buddy from the Mekons, Rico Bell, who recently drifted into town from Leeds, England. "It's got a country thing to it, but it's more like punk country soul," says Bell of the album while taking a break from a recording session at Langford's Northwest Side apartment. "It's more about feeling, the way you sing things." And the way things are sung in Chicago these days hardly poses a threat to Nashville's dominance of the country-music industry. Which is just fine with a community fueled by a certain amount of defiance. "If one of the Nashville labels came here to look at some of these country bands, I think they would be terrified," says Langford. "What makes this thing interesting is that it's not really normal. The bands don't have their sights set on selling a million records or conquering the world. They're just doing this music because it's an outlet, it's fun, it's simple and it totally is what it is. There's no b.s. or ambition attached." Are you listening, Garth?