[14 June 2002]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
A weird little trend that’s been growing over the past few years has been bluegrass bands covering tunes from other genres, and in that time we’ve heard some doozies. There was that version of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” from a couple of years ago that Austin’s Gourds nailed so perfectly it bordered on genius. Or how about that recent album of bluegrass AC/DC covers by country punsters Hayseed Dixie? Another Austin band, the Meat Purveyors, are culprits as well, recording an infamous 7” single called “The Madonna Trilogy”, a brilliant piece of work where they cover Madonna’s early tunes “Lucky Star”, “Burnin’ Up”, and “Like a Virgin”. Now, reunited after splitting up in 1999, they’re back with a new album called All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail, with another mind-boggling cover song in tow. More remarkably, though, is the fact that underneath the layer of hillbilly quirkiness is a band comprised of gifted musicians, talented bluegrass songwriters, and best of all, artists fully in tune with the darker side of a genre that is often too preoccupied with down-home niceties.
But it’s that cover song that first grabs you. Their choice of song isn’t from out of left field . . . it’s from more like foul territory, and it’ll have you going, “What?!” upon first listen, and hitting the repeat button to hear it again and again. Of the five notable cover songs on All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail, it’s not their version of ABBA’s classic “S.O.S.”, a great cover of the Seventies pop classic done more out of love for the song than just merely cheeky irony. It’s not the touching cover of Nick Lowe’s “Without Love”, neither. Nor is it their faithful rendition of Ronee Blakley’s “Dues” from Robert Altman’s great film Nashville (the second Bloodshot Records artist to cover the tune, following Kelly Hogan’s version on the Tribute To Robert Altman’s Nashville album earlier this year), or the rollicking cover of Ralph Stanley’s “Love Me Darling”. No, the song I’m talking about is by, of all bands, Ratt.
Yes, Ratt. The same L.A.-based, poodleheaded, fashion-metal band whose popularity last peaked in 1985. And it’s not their metal-goes-west, mythical cowboy-rocker “Wanted Man” the Meat Purveyors tackle, either. Nah, that’d be too easy. Instead, the band attacks Ratt’s biggest hit, 1984’s “Round and Round”, and if I may use the same lame baseball analogy again, they zero in on this tune like it’s a high heater, swing for the fences, and blast it out of the freakin’ park so hard that it wakes up a snoozing Stephen Pearcy behind the counter at the AM/PM somewhere in suburban Los Angeles. Over a triple-speed, galloping acoustic guitar riff, singer Jo Walston (hilariously described in the band’s bio as “a cross between Hazel Dickens and Squeaky Fromme”) chimes in with those absurd lyrics I’ve known by heart for 18 years now: “Out in the streets / That’s where we’ll meet / You walk the fine line / I always cross the line.” Fiddler Darcie Deaville and bassist Cherilyn Diamond kick in with full force, and from then on, straight through the whiplash-fast mandolin/fiddle solo by Deaville and Pete Stiles, the song is theirs.
But those people smart enough to shell out the bucks to buy this CD will know that the Meat Purveyors are more than just a novelty act. The seven original songs, written by both Stiles and guitarist/primary songwriter Bill Anderson, hold up very well on their own. “Hey Little Sister”, the album’s opening track, gets things off to a serious, somewhat dark, start. Over fast, jumpy accompaniment, Walston sings about spousal abuse in a snarky, but foreboding manner that succeeds in a mere 111 seconds, whereas the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” failed by going for cheap laughs: “Hey little sister / Just ‘cos he hits you / Don’t mean that he loves you / Don’t let him stand above you . . . I’ve seen that bruise on the back of your arm / If I find that man’s been doin’ you harm / I’ll cut him down.”
Both “2:00 A.M.”, with its images of “stale bowl[s] of beer nuts” and staring into empty beer glasses, and “Circus Clown”, with its typical circus-like scenarios (“I kept the plates spinnin’ as long as I could . . . Do I look like a circus clown to you?”), are both lovely, forlorn waltzes. The barfly rave-up “Thinkin’ About Drinkin’” could fit perfectly beside the Replacements’ early albums (“When I’m not drinkin’ / I’m thinkin’ ‘bout drinkin’ / When I’m not thinkin’ / I’m drinkin’ ‘bout you”), while Stiles’ mandolin playing reaches a frenetic pace on the scorching “Truckers Speed”. The equally crazy-fast “Stanley Joe” is a nasty little tune about an unfaithful lecher (“He gets more ass than a toilet seat”). Best of all is the white-man-blues feel of “I Have A Devil In Me”, a wicked country-blues stomp that sounds like it was recorded for Folkways seventy years ago, where Walston’s voice is in fine form as she sings like she belongs on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, “I have a devil in me / The way the wind blows the trees / The way it rustles the leaves / The voices talking to me / He makes me put down the phone / He makes me pick up the gun / I have a devil in me.”
I heard Steve Earle mention once how the main reason mainstream country radio is so lame is “because they don’t play songs about killing people”. Hey, even the most mainstream bluegrass album out there, the wonderful O Brother, Where Art Thou?, won’t get airplay, despite its massive popularity among latte-sipping urbanites who think they’re listening to the latest world music craze. With All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail, the Meat Purveyors, incredible talents hidden under the guise of sardonic musicians, delve even further into the backwoods of country music, coming out wearing what looks like an ironic grin that’s really a subversive sneer. It’s fun, heartbreaking, and deliciously nasty. The kind of stuff commercial radio is afraid of. By that reason alone, it has to be great.