That's Why They're Called Bars
The Waco Brothers travel a road from punk activism to country rock despair.
By Chris Herrington
SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: Fronted by Jon Langford, co-founder of the Mekons, the last surviving first-generation British punk band, the Waco Brothers may be the only socialist country band on the American club circuit. Like the Mekons before, the Waco Brothers are engaged in the righteous endeavor of connecting progressive impulses in American country/folk -- from dyed-in-the-wool lefty Woody Guthrie to pure products of old-time religion, such as Johnny Cash to the radical political aims of British punk. They're a band whose unlikely aim is to turn the American country song into a Molotov cocktail.
Their debut album, 1995's To The Last Dead Cowboy, leapt from the gate with the labor anthem, "Plenty Tuff Union Made." "Things were bad but things got changed," Langford asserted over his band's rousing rockabilly. Then he took dead-aim at his adopted country and told the hard truth: "Cowards cringe and traitors sneer/Like the class war never happened here/But don't forget as future fades/Plenty Tuff and Union Made."
This self-proclaimed "World's Tuffest Country Band" has latched onto a movement, fitting into the subculture of "alternative country" where The Mekons, especially in their mid-'80s glory days, flew solo. The Waco Brothers are as visible as the Mekons have ever been, serving as the flagship band of one of the loose movement's most vital record labels, the Chicago-based outlaw Bloodshot. But still, they are a bit of an aberration in the alt.country movement, and not just because there are four Brits in a band whose sub-genre is also referred to as "Americana."
Frankly, alternative country, whatever its virtues (and there are many), is a cultural development whose appeal lies partially in the anxieties of an audience more conservative than they would like to believe, a perhaps unconscious reaction against a pop scene dominated by hip-hop, R&B, and dance-friendly pop. But the Waco Brothers are different -- outspokenly political and progressive in a way that goes beyond the fuzzy class consciousness in most alt.country circles. Other bands in the genre, like indie rockers before them, may express an inchoate uneasiness with inherited privilege, but the Waco Brothers lay it all out, denouncing white-male corporate oppression (to borrow an intentionally clunky expression from Sonic Youth) and railing against political battles in which "no one asks the black or the Latino." Specificity and defiance are only two of the reasons why the Waco Brothers will never draw the kind of frat-boy crossover crowd that bands such as Son Volt and Wilco have.
But their latest effort, Waco World, finds the band's political bent downshifting into something less precise. The Mekons were remarkably animated in their disgust for the Reagan/Thatcher years, and they weren't alone. That decade seemed to inspire trenchant political complaint not only from flowers in the dustbin like the Mekons, but also from heavyweights such as Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen. But in the '90s even the margins have become depoliticized. Could it be that progressive politics are so co-opted in the Clinton/Blair era that good radicals like Langford and his comrades can't figure out who to shoot?
On the Mekons' two landmark mid-'80s records of life during (Cold) wartime, Fear and Whiskey and The Edge of the World, the music was that of people who found themselves objects of history but were struggling to regain subjectivity. "It's Hard to be Human Again," Langford admitted, but he sounded like he was winning the fight.
On Waco World, it sounds like the struggle's over; the voice that emerges here is one helplessly steamrolled by forces beyond its control.
Previous Waco Brothers albums were marked by anthems of defiance. To The Last Dead Cowboy was held in place by '"Plenty Tuff Union Made." Cowboy in Flames (1997) closed with a bit of visionary honky tonk called "The Death of Country Music" in which Langford discovers that "the bones of country music lie there in their casket/Beneath the towers of Nashville in a black pool of neglect." What does he do? He grinds the bones down and snorts up the ashes of "the [George] Jones and the [Johnny] Ca-ashizz" and is consumed by the spirit.
But on Waco World, a subjective act like that doesn't seem possible. This is the record that should have been called Fear and Whiskey because, drenched as it is in alcohol-fueled hopelessness, those seem to be the only options left. It makes one think that what attracted Langford and his fellow Mekons to American country music in the first place wasn't its raw honesty or progressive potential but its fatalism.
On Waco World, Langford introduces "The Hand That Throws the Bottle Down" by singing, "I had long suspected that we'd better be prepared/To give up on the notion that someone really cared." The class war is unavoidable and unwinnable, the song asserts, with Langford sneering at the conclusion, "With one arm tied behind the target on your back/You were born to take the fall, you were bred to hit the mat/ Don't expect a helping hand from someone up above."
"The Hand That Throws the Bottle Down" is followed by "Regrets," where an existentially homeless protagonist, like the hero of Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," lashes out violently and indiscriminately. "I'm gonna take out anybody's face that fits," Langford spits, "I'll drink that whole bottle of whiskey down/Then smash it all to bits."
These are songs of refusal so severe that they sound like the bleakest possible acceptance. It's almost too much for even the most hardened cynic to take. When Langford closes the album with one of his most memorable lyrics, it ends on a note no less harsh (or true):
"Drown me in beer, soak me in wine/That why they're called bars, 'cos they keep me inside."
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