The strange motives and skewed romance behind the Waco Brothers

By Bill Sacks

Waco drawingThey are an unlikely group of suspects, these six; three Englishmen, one Irish, one Minnesotan and one from Chicago, all living there now, the majority of whom have come to an understanding of what it might mean to “play country” well into their musical lives.

They insist that their collective work as the Waco Brothers began as a cover-band lark, as a way to pay for weekend nights out at the bar, and that they will continue to work in the tradition only so long as it remains their pleasure.

But it becomes increasingly clear, when each man discusses his own musical past and present ambitions, that it is their sense of the ethical bedrocks of country music, duly separated from the machinery of the Nashville and Bakersfield studio systems, which makes the full seriousness of their recent efforts plain to anyone willing to listen.

What the provisional investments of their two Bloodshot recordings (1995’s “…To The Last Dead Cowboy” and the newly released “Cowboy In Flames”), and their spate of live gigs (most of which have been played around their home base of Chicago) reveal is that they are dedicated to the prospect of bringing a liberating topicality to a style routinely experiencimg near-suffocation at the hands of its memorializers.

On the evening of Thursday, February 20, the streets of downtown St. Louis are glazed with rain. The loft above The Side Door, which functions as a make-shift dressing room with ramshackle couches and rubber tarps for walls, is thick with steam-heat and the smell of beer, and Jon Langford, the Waco’s guitarist and head piss-taker, has something on his mind.

“Would you mind telling me why the f— Hank Williams doesn’t get played on American radio? I’m talking about full-powered FM radio here, not some late-night signal from out of someone’s basement. Is there something wrong with Hank Williams? Is he not pretty enough?”

This, from a songwriter who imagines his band as ruddy cannibalizers of traditional country’s musical corpus.

Langford has spent the past 20 years in an uneasy relationship with popular music’s recent past, first as a founding member of the British agit-punk collective known as the Mekons, then with the equally thorny Three Johns and back to a rebuilt Mekons in the mid-’80’s where he first vested his interest in country music on record.

Jonboy When Langford talks about the possibilities he envisions for the Wacos, he speaks in terms of historical focus and a reckoning with the misplaced spirit of country’s early innovators.

He ventures this answer to his own question: “I think that people take to the idea of liking Hank Williams, of caring about music which they’ve been told has some grand historical importance, but there seems to be a well-conditioned aversion in this country to listening to someone who lays out unsentimental, naked feeling the way he did. If there’s one thing that all the members of this band agree on, it’s that the songs we write and the way we play should be in the spirit of a Hank Williams or Bob Wills - do American kids know that Bob Wills was making rock & roll music on the Texas honky tonk circuit in 1928?- in that we’re going to damned well be raw about it.”

That rawness translates itself on stage into performances marked by wry confrontational moments, when songs like “Dollar Dress” and “Plenty Tough - Union Made” pointedly address a mainstream culture which denies the complexity of work-a-day existence, often smothering it with panderances to knee-jerk nationalism.

The Wacos insist on something more intensely personal, more politically complicated; their work speaks in voices which that mainstream seems dead set on drowning out.

“It’s important for me to have a sense of history behind my work these days, to know that there is this whole genre of music which, at its best, made room for people who didn’t flinch from hard subjects and weren’t afraid to be self-effacing, either. I mean, there are kids out there making techno records or whatever, who think the way I did when I was just starting out with the Mekons - that what they’re doing has no antecedents, that this is their ‘year zero’ and they’re making everything up as they go along.”

“And a certain amount of that is healthy - it keeps you from feeling that some subject is taboo when it shouldn’t be, or that you’ll be shat on if you take musical risks - but it’s also an illusion. Right now, or at least since (Bloodshot Records founder) Nan Warshaw talked us into making a full-length record and we wrote our first originals, that it’s not an illusion I need in order to contribute something fresh. As long as we can continue to find pieces of the country music past which make sense to us and what we want to do as a group, we’ll continue.”

Dean Schlabowske, who shares guitar and vocal duties with Langford and comes to the Wacos after several years of leading the caustic post-punk group Wreck, explains the cultural logic of the recent country turn:

“When I first started playing, I hung around with people who always seemed to have a Hank Williams or Johnny Cash record tucked in with their punk and new wave records. There were plenty of people (around Minnesota and Wisconsin) who saw country music as the antithesis of punk, who saw things in terms of regional identities instead of taking the musicians on their own terms. The people whom I played in bands with who cared about Hank Williams heard the anxiety in his songs and recognized some part of it in themselves, and, of course, there was his self-destructive streak…”

“I’ve really liked exploring the margins of country music because it’s made me open up as a writer; my old band was all about hard-edged aggression, and now I’m able to approach new songs with different levels of intensity.”

A fine example of his new found touch is “Dry Land,” a song Schlabowske sings about romantic alienation which brings out the subtleties in the Wacos’ musical interaction without compromising their ultimate strengths: boozy harmony, a strong rhythmic core (thanks in large part to drummer extraordinaire Steve Goulding - formerly with Graham Parker’s The Rumour and “our ringer,” Langford says) and a dedication to the realities of the blue collar experience.

“Trying to create something which speaks to the most honest music which has come out of Nashville over the past 20 years or so is what this band is all about,” says Tracey Dear, the Wacos’ mandolinist and their most consistently compelling vocal presence.

“When I think about what I’d like to do with this band, I flash back to the best records people like Nanci Griffith and Rosanne Cash have made, and the unaffected personality they put into their work is what I’d like to have us put over. We’re headed off to our first gig in Nashville tomorrow, and there’s nothing I’d rather do than go there and show people a side of country music they’ve never really seen before - if I can take what I know from my background in Irish music and add that to all the different revisions of country that Jon and Steve in particular have been working on for years now, I think we can pull it off.”

The proof is in the shows the Waco Brothers put on: later that night, with Langford roaring hysterically from his beer, each of the band’s lead voices steps forward to put out a series of impassioned pleas on behalf of a musical legacy that unconditionally demands an inventive subversion of banality and hopelessness.

As they blast their way through a version of “Wreck On The Highway” which replaces the Dorsey Dixon original’s sanctimonious tone with seething rage, they shows themselves as a group for whom the commitment to giving the music back its bad conscience is a deep-seeded conviction.

They offer up to the tradition the promise of attracting a new audience drawn to that conscience as an antidote to Music City cliches, in which there might lurk new voices whose own emotional rawness explodes expectations in precisely the way Wills, Williams and Cash once did. Jeffrey B. Remz, Editor & Publisher

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