Blood on the saddle

I was musically weaned by Casey Kasem, baptized by Kiss on 8-track, lost my live virginity to the Jackson 5 and Huey Lewis & the News (I’m not too afraid to admit) and I slutted myself out to Echo & the Bunnymen. I was 12 when the Sex Pistols and punk rock found me under the basement stairs at my grandma’s house with my cousin’s Walkman strapped to my ears. In my folks’ house, country came mostly in the form of Charlie Daniels and the Oak Ridge Boys. Occasionally, I’d hear hints of another world coming from my dad’s old copy of Taj Mahal’s De Old Folks At Home and the occasional bout of Willie Nelson sneaking out of the hi-fi.

Each sound, I thought, was a discrete cultural world that didn’t bleed into the others. Somehow I made it to an otherwise-enlightened (though “alternative”-addled) adulthood generally thinking that “country music” was something that Goober & the Peas did and that the Reverend Horton Heat had hijacked.

It is safe to say that I didn’t know shit.

The first time I heard the Waco Brothers album Cowboy in Flames, it was a blistering exhumation of all the things I had buried in my musical headspace junkyard. It posited lots of questions I didn’t at the time know to ask about music — let alone country music.

Cowboy was my first Bloodshot record and it set me down a path that’s led to a strange, overgrown family tree wrapping around Harry Smith, Doc Boggs, the Volebeats, Uncle Tupelo, Loretta Lynn, Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family, Old Time Relijun, Lambchop and Ralph Stanley, among others.

And it’s almost made me forget that Dolly Parton was ever in 9 to 5. Almost.

What is this Bloodshot, you ask? It is a Chicago-based country music record label. And last week, it turned 100. Rather, Bloodshot released its 100th record, a celebratory compilation dubbed Making Singles, Drinking Doubles, that (appropriately) compiles many of the musical highlights the label has unleashed in 7-inch vinyl format.

Besides cuts from the Waco Brothers (and other permutations of prolific leader Jon Langford’s musical self), the comp includes cuts from guys as well-known as Ryan Adams (an early and ongoing Bloodshot cohort) and singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. There are folks as odd as R&B crooner Andre Williams (who here is paired with Detroit’s Two-Star Tabernacle which includes members of White Stripes, Blanche and the Detroit Cobras). And there are the vast majority of the cuts that come from members of the Bloodshot family that are household names mostly in households that subscribe to indie-country bible No Depression magazine. Names like Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, the Volebeats, Rex Hobart & the Misery Boys, Moonshine Willy. Better still, many of ’em pull off the kind of reinventive covers that only seem reasonable on a 45.

“The kind of mentality people go into recording a single with is different,” says Bloodshot co-owner Rob Miller, himself a Detroit ex-pat. “I like the spontaneity that a single occasions — bands maybe choose material that wouldn’t make it on a record. In our convenience-driven society, I’m not sure how many people like to get up off their couch every two-and-a-half minutes to flip a record.”

Case in point is Detroit outfit the Volebeats’ single, a two-part cover of P-Funk’s “Maggot Brain.”

“From a business perspective there’s nothing intelligent about putting out a two-sided single,” laughs Miller. “Musically though, the Volebeats’ single is totally inspired. And it’s fun to know that people will have the chance to hear it now.”

In short, Bloodshot has become synonymous with the term “insurgent country,” a genre moniker that belies the label’s punk-rock roots and its disregard for traditional boundaries of “country.”

“When I left Detroit, the Gories were just breaking up and it’s like everyone was just running for the cover of their MC5 and Stooges records,” explains Miller. “It was really bad. I remember going to the State Theatre, seeing ICP and thinking ‘So this is what it’s come to!’”

Enter a Chicago DJ spinning country music in a punk-rock bar.

“I met Nan [Warshaw] DJing at a punk club that had country Wednesdays. I had just moved here from Detroit and kept going up to her with records saying, ‘Have you heard this? Have you heard this? And she just said, ‘Well, why don’t you DJ too?’”

Coincidentally, this meeting of like minds happened at the same time as Chicago’s turn in the alt-rock hype spotlight. Acts like the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair and Urge Overkill made the city a musical mecca. There was also a bustling roots music scene bubbling underneath the straightforward boys ’n’ guitars noise.

“There were all these bands playing that were touching on roots stuff,” says Miller. “It was in the post-Nirvana explosion and A&R people were raiding Chicago.”

So Miller, Warshaw and now-departed third partner Eric Babcock pooled a couple grand each and decided to start a label. According to Miller, it really was just that simple.

They knew they had hit on something when they started to get calls from critics around the country. After the first flush of attention, the trio started seeking the bands that they loved and began putting out their records.

This is, of course, where upstart labels and the people running ’em get into trouble. Miller, Warshaw and company made a decided effort to keep their expectations firmly in check and grounded in the economic realities of music-making. It seems like a pretty simple plan.

“Once we got established, people just came out of the woodwork,” says Miller. “But we approached it from a bottom-up perspective, a grassroots approach. I don’t want to say it’s ‘a family,’ ’cause that’s contrived and gross — especially this time of year — but it really is.”

If you look through the label’s back catalog, it’s remarkably consistent — a portrait of a non-Nashville-based country music that came to light in the early ’90s, flirted with crossover success in the mid-’90s and settled into its niche in the late ’90s; it’s still flourishing and branching out stylistically thanks to artists like Kelly Hogan, Neko Case and, closer to home, the folks from Two-Star Tabernacle who now spread very different-sounding versions of the same roots gospel via the White Stripes and Blanche.

According to Miller, what set Bloodshot apart were the things that have allowed it to survive and thrive throughout the ’90s and now into the ’00s — even after other, better-known labels have been relegated to the dustbin of musical history.

“It’s kind of weird combination of being timid and naive and making intuitive business decisions,” he says. “We don’t have any specific criteria. Good records are like pornography: You know it when you see it.”

Keeping things grounded has allowed Bloodshot to keep a clearer view of how to deal with the business end of the music biz.

“From the get-go we’ve had reasonable expectations and we haven’t done stupid things that compromise what we’re going to do. If a record sells 5,000-6,000 copies, that’s comfortable for us. The difference between 2,000 copies sold and 8,000 copies sold can make a big difference.”

But that doesn’t mean Bloodshot hasn’t had its share of major-label crossover, either. Traditional country troubadour Robbie Fulks dabbled in the waters with Geffen — and he’s written a damn funny essay about the fiscal realities of it too if you can get your hands on a copy of The Best Rock Writing 2001 (Da Capo). But Bloodshot’s best-known export is Ryan Adams, who released his solo debut, Heartbreaker, with the label.

“Ryan Adams’ record has done 125,000-150,000,” says Miller. “And it’s allowed us to put out some great records.

“And because we approach stuff the way we do, there doesn’t seem to be anything disingenuous about us putting out a record by him. It doesn’t seem like we’re cashing in.”

“So much of the music industry is based on a boom-or-bust mentality,” says Miller. “With labels like Twintone and SubPop, once the boom was over and their big bands left, there wasn’t anything for people to be loyal to. Nothing killed SubPop like instant fame.”

To bastardize Sir Elton, is life more wonderful now that Bloodshot’s in the world? Let’s not canonize them just yet. But, yeah, it’s not overstating it too much to say so. For people who are curious about the role roots music plays in the Smashmouth arena of modern pop culture, Bloodshot’s a good working example. It’s also a place where even musically sheltered nimrods like yours truly can get a piece of the sonic education they’ve been seeking ever since Mr. Kasem told ’em to “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”

Do yourself a favor and catch what all this means in action. Go to CPOP Gallery on Saturday, Dec. 21 and hear the Blanche family. The band recently started letting people in on some recordings they made with Warn Defever and bandmember Dave Feeny (and they’re pretty close to capturing the striking and pleasantly unnerving Blanche live experience). They’ve also joined the masses on the Web too (dig it:

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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