The Hills of Arkansas
By Ken Lieck
MARCH 9, 1998: The first image I have of Jo Walston, vocalist for the Meat Purveyors, is a revealing one. As I stood around at a party somewhere on West Campus a number of years ago, a frenetic female bolted into the room, lifted her shirt above her head, and in a cloth-muffled voice exclaimed, "My band Joan of Arkansas is playing tomorrow night. Come see us." Down, then, shot the shirt and out she bolted. That moment revealed more than the hills of Arkansas; it not only illustrated something about Walston's nature, it also demonstrated her dedication to her musical projects. Joan of Arkansas was something of a precursor to the Meat Purveyors, a shamelessly offbeat, yet respectful foursome that combines, in Walston's words, "a nice mix of traditional bluegrass, honky-tonk, weird covers, and spunky originals." Bill Anderson, guitarist for both bands, calls Joan a "social club for people who like that kind of music" - that kind of indigenous American music brought about by rural folks who preferred their violins be called fiddles: bluegrass.
"I found this Bob Wills record in my mom's record collection when I was like 14," says Walston, "and I had never listened to or paid attention to country music or anything like that before. I just rejected all that."
For good reason. Walston was growing up in a town this writer knows only too well: Victoria, Texas, a "small town" of 50,000 where country radio plays all the time, everywhere. And the kind of country that was on the radio during Walston's upbringing was pretty questionable - except to the hordes of urban cowboys who had it blaring from their pick-'em-up trucks. In Victoria, you either listened to bad country or you rejected country altogether.
"I was into 'Undercover Angel,'" says Walston, devolving a bit as she starts singing Alan O'Day's sugar-pop hit ("Under-cuvver ain-gel, midnight fant-a-see!"), "That's all there was."
Somehow, though, that one Wills album jerked Walston roughly away from the clean, safe shores of Top 40 pop.
"The fiddle is what pulled me in," explains Walston. "[Wills] isn't bluegrass, by any stretch of the imagination. It's really jazz and it happens to be swing, Western swing, and that led me toward bluegrass. I just thought, 'If this is what my mom has, there has to be some really cool stuff out there!' That was [For the Last Time], which had Merle Haggard on it. That was a two-pronged attack for me; suddenly I thought Merle Haggard was cool, and fiddle music was also cool. And then Merle Haggard led me to George Jones!"
Anderson, well-known in punk rock circles for his involvement in legendary bands like Poison 13, is less specific about the origins of his fondness for music that's normally played by people in big cowboy hats.
"I've liked country and bluegrass since I was a kid," says Anderson, admitting that his current motives in playing with the Meat Purveyors have a practical purpose. "It's attractive to me because my ears were getting fried from always playing in loud rock bands. It's easier to get old playing country music."
Anderson's interest in forming his own bluegrass act, though, didn't come until after he took regular doses of acclaimed bluegrass trio the Bad Livers back when they were playing weekly gigs at the Saxon Pub.
"We're not trying to be the Bad Livers," he says, "Those guys are total virtuosos. But before them, playing bluegrass seemed completely out of reach, like it was another world."
Originally called the Texas Meat Purveyors, the currently just-plain-Meat Purveyors were told to change the name by the actual purveyors of meat who had the name first. The band came about as Anderson and Walston began stumbling across others who shared their interest in bluegrass, and shortly thereafter came bassist Cherilyn DiMond and fiddler Darcie Deaville (whose schedule has since led to her leaving the band).
"Then, while we were jamming," recounts Walston, "this guy stuck his head in and says, 'Hey, I play mandolin, you guys need a mandolin player?' At first we laughed at him."
Soon enough, however, Pete Stiles became a Purveyor as well. So the Meat Purveyors were born, trotting out old chestnuts like Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down," Jimmie Rodgers' classic gender-bend to "Lady Mule Skinner," and treatments of more recent numbers from local rock bands like Poison 13, the Pocket FishRmen, and Glass Eye.
"I have a weird fascination with [Glass Eye's 'Dempsey Nash']," says Walston, "I used to go to all the Glass Eye shows and make them do it. I just totally loved that song, and I knew when I first heard them do that that was gonna be a bluegrass song, like one of those weird, haunted bluegrass songs. And so I made it my life mission to turn it into one...
"Each of us has our own concept of what the band should be doing, but I tend to win out," Walston confesses. "We don't have a bunch of philosophy about this. We just always try to keep that balance."
That balance, which weighs the old and new, the traditional and the original (wait 'til you see the band do their Madonna medley), has the band a bit stymied as to where they belong on the musical map.
"With this variety thing we have going, it's hard for us to get in anywhere," says Walston. "We're not alt-country, we're not traditional bluegrass. Like, at a traditional bluegrass festival, they might enjoy us, but - I don't know what the fuck. If insurgent country is trying to keep it pure, then I guess we're that, but we're not pure, either. Yet what commercial radio calls 'country' is really so not that."
If the Purveyors are sincere in their love of the music, and audiences on the bluegrass festival circuit might like them, shouldn't they be playing alongside the older keepers of the flame? Anderson answers succinctly:
"Poison 13 was a blues band, and we couldn't play at Antone's."
At least one purveyor of traditional bluegrass and country understands and accepts the band: Bloodshot Records, Chicago's famed alt-country indie. Having just released the local band's full-length debut, Sweet in the Pants, the label, also home to Alejandro Escovedo's current album, More Miles Than Money, are more than comfortable with the myriad of influences that make up the Purveyors' music.
"We got in with Bloodshot, because Cherilyn knew the owner," says Walston. "The Waco Brothers, you know, Jon Langford, is friends with Cherilyn also [and he] pushed us onto Bloodshot as well. He was like [affecting a bad British accent], 'Ya gotta 'ere this band, they'uh great!'"
For now, the Meat Purveyors are doing just fine, pushing their album and playing gigs, including a recent Tom Petty Hoot night. They're also looking forward to South by Southwest. "The ball started rolling [with Bloodshot] when we played at a SXSW barbecue with the Waco Brothers last year, and we'll be doing that again."
Grinning, Walston adds, "We'll be doing all Tom Petty songs - Tom Petty and Madonna!"
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