“They’re gonna feel almighty
When I can barely stand
I just tell them I couldn’t turn down
One more glass of the blood of the lamb.”
About a month ago, I had the good fortune to see Lydia Loveless and Wild Flag on the same day (October 29). I actually saw Lydia twice. She and Ben Lamb, her standup bassist/husband (not necessarily in that order) played a 30 minute in-store at End Of An Ear, followed a few hours later by a 45-50 minute opening slot at the Hole In The Wall. The timing was perfect because once Lydia finished at the Hole, I had time to get to La Zona Rosa to see the Flag kick out the jams. All in all, a formidable day of music and one so female-centric my estrogen levels were through the roof for like 48 hours. Trust me, I know my body.
I’ve waved the Wild Flag on a couple of occasions [here and here], but Lydia Loveless was a new discovery. After hearing two sets, two albums, and a few random bits online, I have to ask, “What the hell am I not supposed to like?” She sings plainspoken country songs almost equally informed by punk rock fuckyouness and folkie singer/songwriter angst I usually mock. But, in her hands it works. On record, I’d say her sound is about 50/35/15 country/roots-rock/folk, but when I saw her and Ben, it was just driving acoustic guitar and thumping standup bass. Straight up Sun Records. Oh, and have you actually heard Lydia’s voice? Yeah, that might help.
Lydia Loveless – Jesus Was A Wino
Shake It Records, Cincinnati, OH
September 22, 2011
(Might have to turn up volume and treble)
I wish this recording were about 20% better, but regardless, Lydia’s voice jumps out like a brassy horn in front of a freight train.
I chose “Wino” for two reasons: 1) I love the word “wino.” People don’t say it nearly enough. Do they think they’re making a Sanford And Son reference? Winos are all around us, usually in minivans driving kids to soccer practice. Plus, the word “wino” is so much fun to say. Props to Lydia for being a positive ethno-linguistic role model. 2) “Wino” is my favorite song on Lydia’s new Bloodshot album, Indestructible Machine. I love how it uses a fairly traditional country/rockabilly framework to flip a lyrical bird, like a 2011 version of “Fancy” (YouTube) or “Harper Valley PTA.” (YouTube)
Lydia Loveless – Jesus Was A Wino
Indestructible Machine, 2011
“I grew up in a strongly Presbyterian area, and I was around people all the time judging other people who drink or smoke. It’s not an anti-Jesus song, it’s more an anti-uppity-Christian-attitude song.”
—Loveless to Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
Clearly, the album version is more polished and roots-rockin’ than the live duo version, but that only makes it excellent for different reasons. There’s the same boom-chicka-boom foundation, but here it’s fleshed out with giddyup drums and a sinewy Telecaster lead. It’s like Marty Robbins on speed. Oh wait, Marty Robbins on speed was named Johnny Cash. My bad.
On a personal note, as much as I hear Neko Case (specifically “Mood To Burn Bridges” from Furnace Room Lullaby) and as much as I get the Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, and Rose Maddox references, this recording reminds me more than anything of the Old 97’s.
Old 97’s – Timebomb
Too Far To Care, 1997
If “Jesus Was A Wino” came out in 1997, it would’ve been instantly labeled alt.country just like the Old 97’s were.
- Johnny Cash train beat: check
- Economical, but effective Tele work: check.
- Booming lead vocal from hot chick lead singer: check and HEYO!!!
I would’ve pointlessly argued that “Wino,” like “Timebomb,” is really just a country song, so we should just call it country, but if we absolutely had to qualify it, wouldn’t roots-rock or country-punk make more sense than alt.country? Alt (or alternative) doesn’t mean anything. At least punk evokes urgency, the aforementioned fuckyouness (in content and production), and a general DIY spirit, all of which might describe Lydia. What the shit has alt (or alternative) ever meant? Alt is amorphous to the point of formlessness.
“Having her on my brain’s like getting hit by a train.”
While I consider my argument technically sound, the alt.country tag would’ve stuck for the same reason every other tag sticks. People don’t care about taxonomic accuracy, they care about talking in the same language. Therefore, if enough people agree at a specific moment in time that alt.country describes “Timebomb” or “Jesus Loves A Wino,” then alt.country will stick, and I can just put that in my roots-rock/country-punk pipe and smoke it.
Damnations – Corona
Where It Lands, 2002
I’m including this third song because it completes the twangy punk rock trilogy. Most people recognize this as the Jackass theme song. Of course, they SHOULD know that it’s one of the hidden gems on Double Nickels On The Dime by the Minutemen, probably one of the 10 greatest rock albums ever made. I like The Damnations‘ version because it expands upon the song’s tex-mex engineering with Austin, TX, know-how. The Damnations typically showcased sisters Deborah Kelly (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Amy Boone (vocals, bass,pi) on angel harmonies, but “Corona” features Deborah singing with guitarist (and future husband), Rob Bernard.
I love the gloriously ragged harmonies, but this tune is all about Bernard laying down the sweet D. Boon/Curt Kirkwood guitar riffs over the underrated Boone and Conrad Choucroun (drums) rhythm section. I probably should point out a couple things. First, Rob is probably best known around these parts for founding Prescott Curlywolf. Also, he plays a Tele largely because of the Boon influence (well okay, along with Keith Richards). So, there’s that.
“The people will survive … in their environment.”
“Corona” is also important for tapping into the beautifully ramshackle nexus where punk rock meets country and it’s that territory that unites The Damnations, Old 97’s, Minutemen, and Lydia Loveless. They’re all part of the same badass continuum leading back to Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis, etc.
Lydia’s voice is a powerfully elegant instrument and I chose my final track largely because of it. However, I’m including this third version of “Wino” to illustrate a point about songwriting. When a song is so versatile that you can hear three different versions and they all work, it’s a reliable indicator of quality. In this case, I think that’s true of the song and the songwriter.
“This $6 bottle is just about all that I can afford
And if I can’t find a corkscrew
I’ll just smash it open right here on the floor.”
A beautifully stark version of “Wino” that’s about as pure country as you can get. No rock, no rockabilly, maybe incidental folk. You really need to hear the entire KDHX webcast, which is Lydia performing three songs solo. I also recommend listening to her Daytrotter session, recorded on October 18. Girl’s got game.
I’M LOVELESS, I’M LOVELESS
Buy Indestructible Machine (available on vinyl, CD, and MP3)