Beer & whiskey in the land of milk & honey

From No Depression #7, January-February, 1997
Reprinted with permission from No Depression Copyright (c) 1997 No Depression.

The Waco Brothers say they’re the world’s most extreme hard country band. Who are we to argue?

by Linda Ray
“When it started, the whole purpose of this band was to get beer and money,” Waco Brothers ringleader Jon Langford says of the band’s $50-a-gig beginnings a couple years ago. In the bargain, club owners in the band’s hometown of Chicago got not only Langford, co-founder of underground British legends the Mekons, but also Jesus Jones bassist Alan Doughty and Poi Dog Pondering drummer Steve Goulding, late of the Graham Parker band and an alumnus of the Gang of Four.

“It was not until Nan said, ‘Make an album,’ which we thought was such a ridiculous prospect to just do a lot of really horrible cover versions, that we thought we’d better try and write some songs,” Langford continued. “Then the band sort of really turned into a band.”

“Nan” is Nan Warshaw of Bloodshot Records, whose 1994 compilation For A Life Of Sin served as a rallying-cry introduction to the insurgent-country community that had begun to coalesce in Chicago. A pre-Waco Brothers project, the disc included a track from Langford credited to “Jon Langford’s Hillbilly Lovechild”, and also sported his painting “Deck Of Cards” on its front cover.

“It’s important to note how magnanimous Jon has been to us,” says Eric Babcock, who co-founded Bloodshot with Warshaw. “He invited me over, offered me beer and then let me choose from his paintings what we wanted for the cover [of For a Life of Sin]. The Waco Brothers wouldn’t exist if the label hadn’t suggested an album, but the label wouldn’t exist if Jon Langford hadn’t lent his credibility.”

According to Babcock and Warshaw, this influence even extends to how Bloodshot’s business is organized. “Jon’s approach with the Mekons helped us realize possibilities in the different ways he looked at a band’s structure,” Babcock says of the famously collaborative punk icons who have miraculously survived 20 years of hard drinking and harder-held leftist principles.

Those Mekon politics carry over into Langford’s country-flavored incarnation as well. Rob Miller, the third partner of the Bloodshot triumvirate, just comes right out with it: “The Waco Brothers are fucking Limey socialists.” This summation of the band’s world view nicely illustrates a distinction between the character of Bloodshot’s country-punk stable and that of their counterparts in the alternative-country world.

As if to underscore Miller’s point, Langford bellows good-naturedly from the stage of the Lounge Ax: “Yeah, we like your milk and honey! We’ll take your milk and honey and spit it right back at you!” Langford has just been holding forth on the subject of capital punishment: “In Europe, we all think you’re barbaric!” Capital punishment is the focus of this night’s fund-raising concert, one of many the Wacos perform over the course of a year to support a wide range of progressive causes. The band then rips into “25 Minutes to Go” in a manner to raise the dead.

But Langford doesn’t need a forum tailored to a point of view to launch one. Earlier in the month at the Beat Kitchen, an exuberant burst of stagecraft put him in mind of another. Concluding a cover of “Baba O’Riley”, the Wacos took turns in the air, solo and in twos and threes. “Yes, we leap,” Jon Langford ranted in red-faced good cheer. “We’re not like you Americans who have to pay for your own health care if you fall down. We’re from Leeds and we leap.”

* * *

Those raucous Wacos pass through rooms with the energy of an 18-wheeler sporting polished chrome exhaust pipes and a major attitude. They’re pissed off about the human condition: the numbing dehumanization of common labor, the corrupting influence of wealth and fame, the hypocrisy of religion, and the perennial power of plain vice. Indeed, the anger in almost any Waco Brothers song could fuel that truck from Natchez to Poughkeepsie.

So how did it get to Chicago? Mostly for love. Three of the four real Brits married Chicago women. The fourth, mandolinist Tracy Dear, insists he came here to escape a woman. It’s Dear who sets the girls’ hearts palpitating when he removes his shirt mid-set to reveal a well-shaped muscle-T. And it’s Dear who sings the infectious, crowd-pleasing “Do As I Say, Don’t Do As I Do”, the emancipation proclamation of a love interest as seen from the flipside, the point of view of the aggrieved lout.

“Do As I SayĆ ” is just one of 14 catchy ideological bottle-bombs delivered by the Waco Brothers for your dancing and drinking pleasure on their new Cowboy in Flames, a just-under-50-minute hard-country collection recorded at Chicago’s King Size Sound Labs. It’s Dear who seems to hold the band’s only romantic view of cowboys and the old west.

“I think people like Guy Clark, just by their philosophy and their songwriting - he’s an unbent man, very true to his word. It’s not about dressing up in a hat and all that. I think this is where it taps into the whole punk thing. It’s about morals, beliefs. We’re just trying to tap into the emotion of it.”

Such sincerity is met with hearty derision from his bandmates. “Whatever he said, it’s wrong,” they chide, howling. “Forget about it.”

“The cowboy is just sort of this weird figure,” Langford says. “It’s been used by a lot of people to represent the situation here [in America]. If somebody comes and does your roof and charges you like 3,000 quid and the roof falls in, they’re cowboys. That’s what a cowboy is in England.”

In fact, the new record’s title track isn’t a metaphor for the defamation of an ideal or even the corruption of country music (that comes in a later track, “The Death of Country Music”), but rather a scathingly suggestive rant on government cover-ups, specifically related to the crash of TWA Flight 800. “It was about what happened when they shot down that plane with an American missile,” Langford says, his voice trailing off in the direction of wistfulness until he catches himself. “They think terrorism comes to America, like the Oklahoma bombing when they were looking for Arabs. It’s like, we’re looking for these white Arabs in cowboy hats.”

Growing up in England, the future Wacos apparently never associated Johnny Cash or Buck Owens or Merle Haggard with either country music or the American West. “It’s white man’s urban blues,” Langford says. “It’s just raw music, honky tonk. Merle Haggard never was on a horse.”

Tracy Dear recalls that Cash was a favorite of his father, a member of the roughneck Irish folk Dubliners from whose groundwork grew the Pogues. “The Dubliners were the tough boys of Irish pub drinking music, and Johnny Cash was one of the tough boys of American music. It was about blue-collar honesty,” he says.

“I remember, in the mid-to-late ’60s, Buck Owens & the Buckaroos,” says Steve Goulding. “When we used to listen to it in England, we weren’t really aware of it being country music. It was just American music. Johnny Cash was like Chuck Berry was like Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Goulding’s considerable range gives the new record a remarkable variety in tempo, from rumba to hand-jive to straight country and honky-tonk to almost arena-scale rock. He deserves much credit for the fact that it never really matters whether you understand what a Waco Brothers song is about. Steel player Mark Durante says, to the nodding agreement of his Brothers, “Steve is the best guy in the band.”

Durante, on the other hand, is breaking new ground on steel. His interest in country music derives from youthful devotion to the ersatz weekly WLS Barndance television show in Chicago, where he grew up. Never mind that he toured with hard-rock bands on his way back to it, among other things as guitar tech for Ministry on the Lollapalooza tour and in a later stint with KMFDM. His interest in steel encompasses its history as well as current practice, which he keeps up with through active membership in both the steel players’ and Hawaiian guitar players’ national associations. His efforts to insinuate real twang into the Wacos’ trademark blasting, churning, country-hearted punk deliver mixed, if usually interesting, results.

Durante’s playing is just plain poetic on the gorgeous “Dry Land”, one of only two songs on Cowboy in Flames that have no apparent political message beyond an interpersonal one (the other being Johnny Cash’s “Big River”). “Dry Land” is an intimate account of that universal, if subtle, feeling when an end may be in sight to your sense of being at sea. You know the one - it’s the unease you feel when there’s something going on with the other party in your relationship (and whatever it is, it doesn’t include you), followed by the mixed sense of foreboding and relief you feel when it might soon be resolved, one way or another.

On “Dry Land”, rather than yield its churning intensity, the band channels it into the rhythmic surge-and-clap of a disturbed sea, with the vocals and the steel guitar gentling over the changes. While the Wacos are pretty consistent about crediting the entire group for everything, they freely credit “Dry Land” to guitarist Dean “Deano” Schlabowske, who also sings it, and to a man they are unembarrassed about acknowledging that it’s a beautiful song.

Schlabowske, one of two native Chicagoans (along with Durante) counterbalancing the band’s four Brits, came to the Waco Brothers from a guitar noise outfit called Wreck. “We were sitting around our bass player’s loft and I was playing Curse of the Mekons. I liked the production on it and I was telling him we ought to find Jon Langford to produce our record. A guy who was hanging around there developing pictures just kind of shouted over, ‘Well, he’s spinning disks at Crash Palace [a punk hipster hangout] tonight.’”

In addition to “Dry Land”, Schlabowske also cops to two other standouts on Cowboy in Flames: “Out There a Ways”, about what he calls “the bizarre effects” of celebrity, with Michael Jackson as a metaphor; and “Fast Train Down”, the most traditional-country-sounding song on the record. The latter gives voice to the despair and alienation of a man stuck in a dehumanizing job, knowing that even his dream of escaping it is an illusion fostered by those who would profit from it. “‘The boxes go in and the boxes go out,’” Langford muses, quoting a line from the song. “It’s what I like about country music - the politics of that. It’s like a Merle Haggard song.”

“I can’t claim to have ever listened to much country on the radio growing up in the Midwest,” says Schlabowske, the one Waco whose voice occasionally, and convincingly, opens a country crack as wide as the interstate. “For me the initial figure was Hank Williams. For some reason, all the people who were into punk rock were into Hank Williams. It makes a certain amount of sense because they’re both real raw, simple. The themes stem from the frustrations of everyday life in the working class.”

The Cowboy in Flames track “Take Me to the Fires” concludes with an outright subversion of Hank’s classic line “I Saw the Light”, going completely over the top with hand-clapping, soul-stirring, old-time gospel call-and-response. Tracy Dear makes the fires of hell sound at least inviting as the wake enjoyed by the survivors, with the best booze and the loudest damned band you ever danced to.

Similarly, in the record’s rendering of the Dorsey Dixon classic “Wreck on the Highway”, it’s impossible to tell if Langford is angrier about drunk driving or religious hypocrisy. Throughout the song, Goulding’s drumming sustains the level of intensity at which U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. climaxed “Hawkmoon 269″, mimicking the heart-pounding shock of coming upon broken bodies dying, faithless, their blood mixed with traces of their booze in glass smashed by the impact. Langford’s delivery implies a dare: Who would save them?

In such classics as this, as well as “Big River” and “White Lightnin’”, the significant, if unorthodox, contribution of Alan Doughty’s bass is clearest. The Wacos’ first record, To The Last Dead Cowboy, featured the Bottle Rockets’ Tom Ray on bass. By his third or fourth gig with the Waco Brothers last year, on the Beat Kitchen’s roomy stage, Doughty was still bumping into his bandmates. There was not yet quite space for his lurching, roving, altogether alarming stage presence.

Within just a couple of months, though, Doughty showed the stuff of which he was made when Goulding missed the first set of a gig at Schubas Tavern. The famously hard-and-fast Wacos played percussion-free and, apart from the impossibly syncopated “Honky Tonkin’”, held together. Langford allowed that the mellowness suited his mood; Schlabowske quipped, “These kids today, they don’t want to hear all that racket.”

An Alan Doughty bassline does handsprings and loop-the-loops where a proper one would thump along the bottom with some discipline. “It’s all nervous energy,” Doughty explains. “I really have no idea where I’m going next with something. I don’t know anything about theory. It’s all new to me every time I play.” Doughty continues to work with Jesus Jones, which will release a new album in March. “It’s been four years and two months since the last one, so this almost qualifies as a comeback record,” he says.

Long a favorite with hard-drinking country music lovers, “White Lightnin’” takes on new meaning performed by a band that took its name from an inflammatory incident involving “G-men, T-men, Revenuers, too.” The theme of government malfeasance runs throughout the Wacos’ work, particularly in songs Langford sings. Besides the title track, Cowboy in Flames features Langford on two songs with obvious messages related to government and big business: “See Willy Fly By”, which touches on several topics related to the “us vs. them” paranoia of government leaders; and “Dollar Dress”, which treats the general bankruptcy of the American Dream.

* * *

One Tuesday night in October, a basement stage in Wicker Park morphed into something like a private living room where songwriters and guitar pickers supported, then lifted, polished and outshone each other’s music. In chiaroscuro just at the edge of the theatrical lighting onstage, Langford hunched thoughtfully in black over his white guitar. He picked out delicate, mandolin-like fills for Chris Mills’ cover of a Hank Williams tune. Langford had just finished his turn, with former Texas Rubies singer Jane Baxter Miller providing harmony on his own “Half Past Drinks at Half Price 8″, a song he claims was vetoed democratically by the Waco Brothers for their new album. The song is all about counting and includes the line, “At last count there’s nothing I want at all.” The repose of an angry man.

Mills, a much-buzzed-about Chicago songwriter who just turned 21, is one of the many younger musicians, including Schlabowske and the Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks, who have benefited from Langford’s mentoring. “A lot of musicians around town think of Jon like sort of a nurturing father, like a really cool dad,” says Julia Adams, co-owner of Chicago’s legendary Lounge Ax nightclub. “Jon and Susan [Miller, her Lounge Ax partner] and I have a camaraderie because we’re sort of the old people in the business [age 39, she says]. But we all can still rock!”

If Langford’s age has anything to do with anything other than inspiring young musicians, it at least doesn’t seem to slow him down. He continues working with the Mekons, most recently on a collaborative show, Mekons United, involving an art exhibition and combination show catalog/essay collection, with accompanying CD. He also has side projects with Doughty and Goulding, among others.

While not without ambition - “We have set out to be the most extreme hard country band,” he says, with competition barely in view - Langford and the Wacos have discovered the value of enough. “If you set out to make things bigger and bigger,” he says, “you never actually get to the point where you can say, ‘This is quite a good size to be.’

“Before the last 100 years, music was a lot of people sitting around playing in a lot of bars. Your favorite band was the band that was playin’ in your little tavern or whatever on a Friday night. That’s kind of what it is for us. I think there’s no reason why it has to be any bigger than this if it works successfully. We’re at a point where we sell enough records to make the next one. I don’t care if we sell more. It doesn’t mean anything to me.”

Linda Ray is a regular contributor to No Depression and midwife of The Original Alt. Country Community (Whatever That Is) Cookbook.

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