Jon Langford: Capturing The 'Atmosphere' of Country Music in Paint
Alt-country artist displays his paintings of country music heroes.
RW Deutsch reports:
AUSTIN, Texas — For a quarter-century, songwriter/guitarist Jon
Langford has enjoyed a loyal following for his music. Whether
performing with the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, the Three Johns or on
his own, Langford emerged from the punk scene playing music without
any posture or pretension.
But Langford has recently also gained a following for his artwork
folk-art-like paintings that explore the tradition and heroes of
country music. A selection of his latest works is now on display at
Austin's Yard Dog Folk Art gallery.
"Like rabbits frozen in history's headlights, they are trapped
beneath layers of nicotine and neglect." — Jon Langford
"As an outsider and not being part of the [American] culture," the
Welsh-born Langford said, "country music was something fairly
exciting. I somehow found a lot of things in common with it I didn't
expect to. I kind of realized there were a lot of parallels between
what we did and what people like Merle Haggard, George Jones, that
tough sort of honky-tonk, and Johnny Cash [did]."
Langford's paintings — acrylic paint, pencil and marker on
depict images of Cash, Haggard, Hank Williams and other country music
icons and imagery. While those stars of country music look proud in
the paintings, there is always an element of sadness in them as well.
Langford said this was part of what he was trying to communicate with
them — about his shared experiences with this other culture and
"I'm just trying to describe some of the atmosphere in the paintings
the music and the way the industry treated the people who made the
music, which has a darker side," Langford said. "I'm just trying to
come to terms with that.
"To some extent these paintings are classic country western singers,"
Langford continued, "but they're actually paintings of photographs of
classic country western singers, which is kind of the point. They are
[taken from] publicity photographs [which are] photographs used to
sell a product. They are also kind of autobiographical in the
experience of trying to make music and the way that music and words
For the exhibition, Langford wrote lyrically about his own
work: "Like rabbits frozen in history's headlights, they are trapped
beneath layers of nicotine and neglect. Pearl buttons still gleam as
they sign their contracts and stare out of the honky-tonk shadows
with glazed promo-shot grins."
In the same way that the musicians he depicts, in his opinion, were
chewed up by the industry and are now abandoned by mainstream country
music, Langford feels popular music has abandoned the kind of music
"I've got this very big love-hate relationship with America,"
Langford said. "The culture in this country is just amazing. When I
started to do these paintings, I couldn't believe how little the
people I was in contact with knew about what had happened [musically]
in this country over the last 50 years. It's amazing that it's a
fringe thing to be interested in Bob Wills and Jimmy Rogers —
just bizarre. Nothing is really valued here. Nothing is really given
any respect, even though that's what I would be proud of if I was an
American. People are just proud of money. It just drives me insane."
On the other hand, Langford thanks America, and especially Chicago,
where he's lived for the last ten years, for giving him and his music
a new lease on life.
"When I came to the States, I'd really kind of, like, given up," he
recalled. "I wasn't interested in playing music, but then Chicago was
great for me. There was pressure on me to keep doing things. In
England the pressure was on me to go find a box to pull the lid down.
It was like, 'You're 30, man, and you're still trying to play music.
What the hell are you thinking?' But over here, I think we've done
some of the best records for the Mekons and the Waco Brothers that
I'd been involved in over the last five years."
With the Mekons' 1985 release, Fear and Whiskey, Langford and his
band dove head-on into country music, abandoning their earlier
explorations of the more avant-garde edge of punk rock. Their latest
album, Journey to the End of Night, continues the band's journey into
country folk traditions. He also released this year, along with
fellow Mekon Sally Timms, a limited eight-song EP, Songs of False
Hope and High Values.
"As long as people keep telling me I shouldn't be playing, I'll just
keep at it," Langford said, laughing.
At the exhibition's opening on Saturday evening, Langford treated the
packed crowd to a 20-minute set in the backyard of the gallery, both
he and the audience momentarily forgetting the low 40-degree
temperature outside as his voice and guitar pierced the night air.
The exhibit of Langford's work will continue at Yard Dog through the
end of December.
[ Wed., December 6, 2000 3:02 AM EST ]