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The Boston Phoenix New Traditionalists

Bloodshot's insurgent country

By Allison Stewart

JULY 17, 2000:  In Chicago, in 1993, the Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair were already as famous as they were going to be, and the city was cooling off as an alterna-rock destination. Although alternative country was beginning a national resurgence, Chicago's own bustling alterna-country scene wasn't getting much attention. Then, after scratching out plans on a cocktail napkin one night, Rob Miller, Nan Warshaw, and Eric Babcock scraped together a few thousand dollars and put out a 17-track sampler of local artists entitled For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Chicago Insurgent Country Bands. Two more compilations followed (copies of all three are still available on line at bloodshotrecords.com). Bands who'd previously had nowhere to go started calling. Miller, Warshaw, and Babcock (who has since left), began signing them up, if only because they couldn't think of a good reason not to, and Bloodshot Records was born. "It started out as a complete vanity project," Miller remembers. "We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into."

Five years after its official inception as a bona fide independent record label, Bloodshot is the world's leading purveyor of underground twang. In the intervening years, it has weathered the rise and fall of at least two media-hyped alterna-country movements and has outlived and out-prospered just about every other like-minded label. And Miller and Warshaw have gone from merely documenting an insurgent country scene to being one of its main focal points, an evolution exhaustively charted in the label's new two-disc compilation, Down to the Promised Land: Five Years of Bloodshot Records.

The compilation is a raw and rollicking, if occasionally mournful in that way that country music will always be, tour of the Bloodshot aesthetic -- a mixture of the kind of true country music that no longer has a home in Nashville, and the kind of roots rock that's equally indebted to the Ramones and Hank Williams, the Replacements and Jerry Lee Lewis. "It isn't a grand artistic statement, just an attempt to capture the spirit of our label," explains Miller. "We basically approached everyone we liked in the world and asked them to be on it." It's a testament to Bloodshot's enduring influence that almost no one said no.

The line-up is a who's who of insurgent country. Every Bloodshot artist is accounted for -- from Mekon veterans Jon Langford and Sally Timms to newer faces like Neko Case and Kelly Hogan -- along with bands who used to be on Bloodshot like the Old 97s, a rootsy Texas outfit who went on to sign a deal with Elektra. There are also a few bands who sound as if they ought to be Bloodshot artists, like Chicago's Handsome Family, a mournful rootsy trio who prefer the darker side of Americana.

But for all the attention accorded certain artists on Bloodshot's increasingly celebrated roster, the majority of the selections on Down to the Promised Land are from the label's lesser-known meat-and-potatoes acts. These are outfits you're more likely to find rockin' out at some anonymous roadhouse joint on a Saturday night than in the pages of Spin magazine: Devil in a Woodpile, Trailer Bride, the Riptones, Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys, unpretentious working bands who sling timeless honky-tonk for people who're too young to have experienced it the first time around but love it with a deep, earnest nostalgia anyway. Of course, the average Bloodshot act appeals to old-line country purists as well: this isn't Pavement-style country for ironic college kids but unglamorous, lunch-bucket country that's alternative only by default (i.e., because the Nashville establishment isn't interested in anything that sweats or twangs). The compilation's standout track is the uncharacteristically glossy power-pop/country confection "See Willy Fly By," a collaboration between two Brits who have adopted the US as their home and Americana as their muse: Graham Parker and Mekons frontman John Langford with his Waco Brothers. (Parker's affiliation with Bloodshot seems so natural, it's a wonder no one thought of it before now.)

The most telling track, though, is Robbie Fulks's mock-old-timy "Bloodshot's Turning Five," a not entirely affectionate recounting of the label's history: "They took the twang of a steel guitar/A little trendy left-wing jive/And they made a sound that the whole world loves/Now Bloodshot's turning five." Fulks's feelings here are famously mixed. Bloodshot helped establish the singer/songwriter, whose early records were among the first big releases the label issued. Then Fulks defected to Geffen, toned down his twang to make a middling pop-rock album (1998's Let's Kill Saturday Night) that pretty much stiffed, and ended up back on Bloodshot last year. In fact, the label is fast gaining a reputation as a fallback home for alterna-country heroes who haven't been able to make it on a larger label: Alejandro Escovedo landed on Bloodshot after his deal with Rykodisc soured, and Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams jumped to Bloodshot for his soon-to-be-released solo record, Heartbreaker, after his deal with the Geffen imprint Outpost went south.

Bloodshot may welcome defectors with open arms, but insurgent country can be an exacting mistress, as Fulks will tell you. The label just passed on his newest album, telling the singer it wasn't "country" enough. Bloodshot's loyalty is to its aesthetic, not to its artists. "That's the limitation with Bloodshot," says Fulks. "They've figured out a niche, and they stick to it."

By not adapting, Bloodshot has survived. The label, which continues to recruit the majority of its acts from the still-thriving Chicago scene, has never wavered from its mandate to provide straightforward country without ostentation or irony -- you won't find, say, Ween's next country album here. "We get a lot of wink-wink demo tapes in the office, believe me," says Kelly Hogan, Bloodshot's former publicist, its unofficial den mother, and a rising star in her own right. "But to put stuff like that out would be sort of misleading your customers. To Bloodshot, it isn't just music, it's sort of a cause, too."

After years of uncertainty, Bloodshot appears more financially secure than ever, thanks to a string of recent successes, Neko Case's much-vaunted Furnace Room Lullaby and Hogan's collaboration with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Beneath the Country Underdog, among them. The label recently moved out of its submarine-like space in Warshaw's cellar, an area so tiny it used to give Hogan panic attacks. But these folks still operate on a shoestring, with what little extra money they have going toward the promotion of an ever-expanding roster of artists. There are more good releases than there are label employees to flog them -- or, for that matter, fans to buy them. So Miller still has to work odd jobs, and he and Warshaw have been forced to limit their release schedule to less than one record a month.

Despite the pressure and the growth, Bloodshot employees, who relish their reputation as The Little Label That Did, are almost obscenely nice. The label still has the feel of a mom-and-pop operation; employees go out drinking with the bands (many of the employees are in the bands), and most everyone is awestruck when Escovedo comes into the office. And at a time when the alterna-country genre is showing signs of becoming moribund, Bloodshot continues to attract high-caliber talent. Most of the promising bands who came up during Bloodshot's early days have either moved on to other genres (Wilco, the Jayhawks) or become stuck in place (Son Volt). The Dallas-based Old 97s are the genre's best bad example: still Bloodshot's most famous alumni, they released one Bloodshot album that established their credibility (1996's Wreck Your Life) before moving on to Elektra during a short-lived alterna-country feeding frenzy. They haven't been as successful, or as interesting, since.

"Roots music has always had an ebb and flow, but I think it's become less of a curiosity now," Miller reflects. "At least these days there's more acceptance of the notion that country music isn't appalling."

These are indeed heady days for Bloodshot, which has not courted hipness but, thanks mostly to Case's rapid ascent, has had hipness thrust upon it. Even so, the label is less an agent of change than a haven from it, a place where genially retro washboard thumpers like Devil in a Woodpile will always find a home. Bloodshot has also launched a Revival series, unearthing previously unreleased offerings from neglected mid-century honky-tonk greats like Spade Cooley and Governor Jimmie Davis. It's still the most genially ragged label around, even if old-timers like Hogan bemoan the polish of some recent releases. "From [early signees] Scroat Belly to Alejandro Escovedo is sort of like going from Z to A, but this little cocktail umbrella of insurgent country has turned into a golf umbrella," Hogan figures. "It's like Rob always says, all this started with a cocktail napkin. Who knew?"

Bloodshot's Top Five

Robbie Fulks, South Mouth (1997). Perhaps the label's defining release, and one of its all-time top sellers. A minor masterpiece of misery and acerbic wit, South Mouth includes the infamous anti-Nashville ode "Fuck This Town," and it positions Fulks as Bloodshot's answer to Elvis Costello.

Alejandro Escovedo, Bourbonitis Blues (1999). A spindly orchestral country gem, this nine-song ode to binge drinking suggests a rebirth for Escovedo, a former member of Austin's groundbreaking True Believers, after years of wandering in the record-industry wilds.

Neko Case and Her Boyfriends, Furnace Room Lullaby (2000). Case channels a more street-smart Patsy Cline on this ode to the beauty of heartbreak. Lullaby is Bloodshot's shiniest record, its most attention-getting, and its most irresistible.

Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills (1998). Bloodshot's version of an all-star team, the Cosmonauts include John Langford, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, members of the Bottle Rockets, Edith Frost, and Alejandro Escovedo. Offered in posthumous homage to Bob Wills (whose daughter Rosetta gave her imprimatur to the project), this is a ragged, infinitely good-natured gem.

Hank Thompson, Hank World: The Unissued World Transcriptions (1999). One of the most interesting offerings in the Revival series, this honky-tonk/swing classic includes Thompson's own liner notes.

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