Mekons related articles from CT pt.3

* Greg Kot
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giants has been replaced by million-selling pop stars masquerading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 (, and is being
documented by No Depression, a quarterly magazine published out of
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?

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