Adopted Country: The Waco Brothers' New-Found Love

ItÕs a clear winter night in Chicago, and after several hours of drinking and one well-lubricated performance at a Christmas party for the Cook County Public Defenders Office, the Waco Brothers are smashed. Staggering onstage at the Elbo Room, a cozy spot on the cityÕs North Side, the group digs into a sloppy, slurred set of originals and country standards that validates their self-proclaimed title as "ChicagoÕs #1 Wasted Swing Band." While not all Waco Brothers performances are as boozy or ragged, thereÕs no question this is a band motivated more by fun than fame or fortune. The six Wacos, with the exception of mandolinist Tracy Dear, have all done time on the rockÕnÕroll circuit Ñ most notably guitarist-vocalist Jon Langford of the legendary Mekons. United by a desire to escape either the seriousness or futility of their other bands, the Wacos are bound by a shared love of country music. "ThereÕs good country music and thereÕs bad country music," explains Langford later, between sips of beer. "The way I see it, the good stuff kind of fits in with punk rock. I grew up with punk rock, playing two-chord songs that addressed everyday life, not escapism Ñ simple songs that talked about the way you lived." But what began as a lark has now attracted the unexpected interest of major labels, a development that has only some of the Waco Brothers pleased. After all, Langford canÕt forget the MekonsÕ frustrating days signed to labels such as Virgin and A&M, though he hasnÕt ruled out involving the Waco Brothers with a major in the future. "We knew we werenÕt going to be huge pop stars in the Mekons," says Langford. "It was such a weird band. Then the people who signed us left, and we ended up with a lot of accountants who didnÕt know what to do with us. Every time IÕve signed to a major I lost control, and the reason for doing it. But it might not do that this time."When the Waco Brothers got started, they did little more than cover classics by Hank Williams, George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. It all began in 1993 when Langford and his pal Dean Schlabowske, former guitarist-vocalist for the hardcore band Wreck, accepted an invitation to perform a casual, unannounced gig. Drinking buddy Tracey Dear, whoÕd received his first mandolin as a gift three months earlier, came along for the ride. They had such a good time that soon they were playing regular gigs at neighborhood bars with drummer Steve Goulding (a veteran of the Rumour, Mekons and Poi Dog Pondering) and bassist Tom Ray of the Bottle Rockets (later replaced by Alan Doughty, of English pop-fops Jesus Jones). Pedal steel player Mark Durante, who plays with KMFDM, also joined up, becoming with Schlabowske the only other Yank in an otherwise British contingent. "We used to change the band name every week so the people whoÕd seen us and hated us would come see us again the next week," Langford laughs. Among the more memorable monikers were Jonboy & DeanoÕs Church of Country & Western Music, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Elephant Ears, Hillbilly Lovechild, Khomeni Lightbulb and, eventually, Waco Brothers: A Tribute To Country & Western Music. "I wanted something to do in Chicago, Õcause IÕd never been in a band that played regularly in my hometown," explains Langford, sharing a booth with his bandmates at the Beat Kitchen, a favorite Wacos Brothers hangout. "Alan and I were both playing in loud, big-deal bands with lots of clashing egos," says Durante. "It got to be a bit much for me. Playing with the Wacos was fun, and everyone was nice and low-key." "It was a release for both Langford and me because at the time we were both in bands where everyone was miserable," says Schlabowske. "It was refreshing to play music just to have fun and not have to worry about record companies." But in the fall of 1994, record company interest changed things. Early in the year a tune called "Over the Cliff," attributed to Jon LangfordÕs Hillbilly Lovechild, appeared on a compilation of so-called "insurgent country" called For a Life of Sin, the inaugural release on ChicagoÕs Bloodshot Records. Before long, label partner Nan Warshaw approached Langford about making a Waco Brothers album. "We had no intention of writing any original songs when we started," says Langford. "After Nan approached us we had no idea what we should do, so we just wrote a bunch of songs that were supposed to sound like all of the other three-chord songs weÕd been playing. WeÕd do Johnny Cash and George Jones songs, but when we played them they didnÕt sound anything like the original artists, so we wrote songs that could theoretically be done by those artists, but naturally they came out sounding like us." Armed with nearly 30 new songs, the band entered Kingsize Studios with engineer Dave Trumfio in January 1995. The bandÕs debut, ...To the Last Dead Cowboy, was released almost a year later. By that time Durante had joined and Ray had been replaced by Doughty (who, like Langford and Goulding, had settled in Chicago after marrying a local woman). Now playing mostly originals, the bandÕs following had rapidly expanded and they were starting to get national press. Bloodshot gently nudged them out on tour. The band reluctantly agreed to a handful of New York shows, plus a gig at South By Southwest, where a typically raucous performance elicited raves. Still, the band remains hesitant about touring. "IÕd like to see the band get as popular as it can be," Schlabowske explains, "but I also respect the attitudes of everyone involved. WeÕve all been convinced at one time or another by a lot of people to beat our brains against the wall touring for no apparent reason, but IÕm not about to do it again unless it makes sense." "ThereÕs no reason to play in Wichita on a Wednesday night when no oneÕs gonna be there," elaborates Langford. "No one goes out in this country anymore, unless itÕs a weekend." With no careerist impulses guiding the band, the Waco Brothers see no need to live out of a bag for months at a time to boost albums sales. "For thousands and thousands of years probably, bands like ours have existed," adds Langford, "Just some guys in town who did other jobs and went out to play on Friday nights for their neighbors. They probably sang songs that were vaguely political, like, 'Those bloody landlords have been hanging us for years.Õ ThatÕs what weÕre like."Although Langford claims the groupÕs debut album doesnÕt capture the genuine spirit of a Waco Brothers gig, the hard-rocking, twang-drenched affair effortlessly conveys the bandÕs rootsy bluster and dressed-down charm: theyÕre unabashed rockers who love country music but who are wise enough to avoid a slavish reverence for it. Indeed, apart from DuranteÕs ubiquitous 10-gallon hat and the occasional cowboy shirt, the Waco Brothers come off as typical motley rockers. Their live energy is much closer to what youÕd feel at a punk rock club than a honky tonk. Beneath the catchy melodies and unadorned playing, the Wacos manage the elusive trick of singing about politics in a manner thatÕs neither topical or heavy-handed. Whether examining class struggle in "Plenty Tough Ñ Union Made," lamenting the homogenization of American culture in "...To the Last Dead Cowboy," or describing the hapless machinations of a well-meaning loser in "HarmÕs Way," the band views politics through the eyes of the average American working stiff Ñ at least as much as a mostly non-American group can. A new CD, Cowboy In Flames, contains the rawness and exuberance Langford felt was missing on the first album. A perfunctory, goofy run through the George Jones standard "White Lightning" seems a token acknowledgment of the bandÕs early days, but whether grooving with the amped-up Bo Diddley beat of "Out In the Light" or appropriating a T-Rex shuffle in "Out There a Ways," the record avoids the forced quaintness of most country revivalists. Again the lyrics traffic in personal politics and the economic struggle of the working class, but the perspective is even more jaundiced this time. The narrator of "Fast Train Down" seeks to escape a stultifying existence working in a warehouse, but the alternatives are little more than fantasies Ñ catching a train without a destination or gambling his savings away. There is no escape Ñ unless you consider the fate delivered in "Wreck On the Highway," where we discover once again that drinking and driving donÕt mix. The albumÕs final song, "Death of Country Music," takes aim at Nashville, delivering Music CityÕs eulogy by the time itÕs finished ("The bones of country music lay there in their casket/Beneath the towers of Nashville in a black pool of neglect"). Langford claims the song is less an attack the industryÕs bland contemporary output than a chastisement for denying its history. "I think they buried Cash, Haggard and Jones, the people that gave the genre its whole backbone," he says. "They donÕt even acknowledge them. George Jones wanted to be on the CMA Awards but Wynonna Judd brought on fucking Michael Bolton, so he couldnÕt get on." While it may be suspect for a native Briton to criticize AmericaÕs most consistently populist indigenous music, thereÕs no doubting LangfordÕs love for countryÕs golden era. Though he grew up in Leeds listening to Johnny Cash, it was when he started touring America with the Mekons and his old band the Three Johns that Langford became truly bitten by the country bug. "All I was interested in was getting old records, discovering people like Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb," he recalls. "ThatÕs the fantastic thing about America. That was the main reason Ñ apart from my wife Ñ that I moved here, because it felt like a huge fucking box of things I liked. When I go back to England now I get homesick for the States."sidebarSALLY TIMMS: Home On the RangetopLike fellow Mekon Jon Langford, singer Sally Timms moved to Chicago for love. But lest anyone gets too romantic about the fate of the worldÕs unluckiest band, Timms says these days itÕs money Ñ not love Ñ that lures the "old and knackered" Mekons onstage. "We all hate each other too much to tour," she says, her voice betraying a hint of deliciously arch wit. The group now concentrates its energies on tony, high-profile gigs, like their recent collaboration with writer Kathy Acker on Pussy, King of the Pirates and performances at places like ChicagoÕs Museum of Contemporary Art. "The moneyÕs good, the hours are short," she says. "WeÕre responding to big carrots." Timms tries to sound like sheÕs all business, but she admits to a rather leisurely work schedule; sheÕs been "vaguely recording" a new solo album for years. The problem, she says, is that all her friends keep disappearing from the project after landing big record deals, leaving her music to languish. In the meantime, sheÕs just released the five-song EP Cowboy Sally (Bloodshot), featuring the Waco Brothers and other pals on a mixture of odds and sods recorded over the past decade. Though she doesnÕt do much country anymore, and says that some of the older material was "so Õ80s sounding" that it needed retooling, the EP has a pleasant, casual pace that shows off her rich vocals. The title comes from her recurring role on TNTÕs "very surreal" Rudy & GoGo World Famous Cartoon Show, in which she plays an English cowboy and dancing foil to a pair of screaming marionettes and a goat. "You just do what someone shouts at you," she says of her role on the show. "I feel quite inhibited, quite wooden. They like that." Though she likes the one-day shoots and the fact that she gets a tiny slice of Ted TurnerÕs vast pie, Timms isnÕt planning to quit her steady gig with the Mekons. Besides her own record, the Mekons are planning to release an album later this year. "It seems impossible to stop," she sighs. Ñ Erik Pedersen

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