Bloodshot Eyes the Future
In the late 80s, artists who defied the Nashville formulas with music that was either too traditional (Ernest Tubb worshiper Junior Brown) or too amped up (biker-era Steve Earle) often disappeared into the commercial chasm separating country from rock. That all began to change around 1993, when the fan base for fringe country-rock bands like Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks began to coalesce into a feel-good ghetto for such outcasts, and the gap seemed to close completely earlier this year with the oddly poetic sight of Merle Haggard signing to the punk label Epitaph. But few labels have done more to raise this bastard child than Chicago's Bloodshot Records, founded in 1994 by Rob Miller, Nan Warshaw, and Eric Babcock under the cocky banner of "insurgent country." On Tuesday the label releases the sprawling two-CD, 40-track anthology Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records, proof that the label has not only flourished but broken down even more stylistic barriers. With superb new albums by Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, and Robbie Fulks and forthcoming releases by the Waco Brothers and Alejandro Escovedo, Bloodshot is enjoying its finest and most diverse year ever.
"We were living hand-to-mouth for the first two or three years," says Miller. "We didn't put out a new record until that last one had paid for itself. We had to stick by our guns and establish with media, radio, and booking agents that this punk-and-country thing could exist and develop a critical language around it." Many of Bloodshot's early releases were just short of unlistenable, as bands like Scroat Belly and its offshoot, Split Lip Rayfield, sloppily paired country cliches with hardcore velocity. But the blend was more successful in the hands of Fulks, Old 97's, and the Wacos, who mixed punk attitude with the songcraft that's been a hallmark of traditional country. Miller admits that in its infancy Bloodshot had a pretty limited range. "We had to keep that kind of focus to stake out some territory for a new label. Now that we've shown enough resiliency and dumb luck to stay around for a few years, it's allowed us to do records that we would've wanted to do before, but that we didn't think fit the pretty narrow idea of what we were about."
After surviving the genre's obscurity Bloodshot then had to survive its popularity. As the newly christened "alt-country" picked up steam in the late 90s, labels large and small raced to colonize the virgin territory, handing out contracts to every two-bit combo with a few straw hats and fake southern accents. The craze benefited deserving acts like the Bottle Rockets and Wayne Hancock, but also wooden bores like Jack Ingram and cloddish jokesters like Southern Culture on the Skids. "If anything came close to destroying us as a label, it was that feeding frenzy," says Miller. "We had buyout offers, and we couldn't compete with every A and R guy from every major label that came to town promising bands the moon and the stars. It was really hard to operate then because bands would be like, 'Why should we sign with you?' and some of the bands we already had took a wait-and-see approach about giving us their next album." Robbie Fulks was plucked by Geffen, Old 97's by Elektra. Yet they, the Bottle Rockets (who ditched East Side Digital for Atlantic), and Whiskeytown (signed to Geffen's Outpost label) not only failed to conquer the charts but pretty much dropped off the radar altogether. Only Old 97's have managed to complete two new album projects with the label that signed them.
Bloodshot has reaped the rewards of the majors' scorched earth policy (Fulks returned to the label this year), and in 1998, a year after Babcock departed, Miller and Warshaw began drawing what they call a livable salary--though according to Miller they're not "living large," and he still "paints the occasional house to keep my bar tabs paid up." They now employ three full-timers and two part-timers, and last summer the staff moved into a real office space on Irving Park after outgrowing Warshaw's cramped Wrigleyville basement. "I had to constantly duck under the ceiling fans," says Miller. "It was like a U-boat down there, and with all of the Sosa fans walking around it got to be too much."
Despite the expansion, Bloodshot seems firmly rooted in the local music community: many of the artists on its roster live here, and they've begun to turn up on each other's recordings. "If for some reason we had something that sold five million copies I'd like nothing more than to put people like [bassist] Tom Ray, [stringed-instrument specialist] Jon Rauhouse, and [drummer] Steve Goulding on retainer," says Miller, citing players who've turned up on countless Bloodshot releases. "It's like Taco Bell--the same five ingredients, just arranged differently." You'd never guess it from the variety of sounds the label now embraces: both Fulks and Escovedo are mature, genre-defying writers, and the releases by country-soul thrushes Case and Hogan emphasize full-bodied singing and production whose fine detail seldom compromises its edge. Says Miller, "We couldn't exist anywhere but Chicago, with the communal environment that exists here."
In 1999, 30 years late to the party, the U.S. press and many concertgoers discovered the work of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Tom Ze, key figures in Brazil's Tropicalia movement. They also caught up with current stars like Otto and Carlinhos Brown. Perhaps Tuesday's release of Joao Voz e Violao (Verve) will add Joao Gilberto to the list: along with composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gilberto pioneered the bossa nova sound in the late 50s, spicing up Brazilian samba with a jazzy lilt, unusual harmonies, and dramatically subtle singing. The new album, produced by Veloso, finds the master using spare acoustic guitar figures and his lovely, hushed voice to tiptoe through a mix of new songs and old standards (three of them by Jobim). Rarely is such simple work so beautiful and poignant.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.