Influential Alternative Record Labels: Bloodshot Records and the New Traditionalism

Iain Ellis

Like a latter-day Alan Ladd as Shane, Chicago-based independent label, Bloodshot Records, has taken upon itself the role of savior of the sagebrush, mixing it up in the robber-baron world of corporate Country.

Flipping up and down the FM radio dial while driving across the American heartland, one is vividly struck by the contemporary condition of Country music. Certainly, there's no shortage of stations; however, the play list rotation barely reaches into double figures, and those songs that have been deemed the chosen ones are largely characterized by a saccharine homogeneity of production, sound, and lyrical content. This cookie-cutter Twilight Zone that one enters does, though, enable the listener to become blissfully distracted, perhaps to nostalgically reflect on a few decades ago, when the Country genre was populated by an array of eclectic artists with distinct sounds and voices, who engaged the concerns and interests of working class America with down-home wit and (for the most part) earthy wisdom. One can only imagine Hank, Bill, Willie, Johnny, Merle, and George listening to country music today and exclaiming with exasperation: "What have you done to our music?"

It would be short-sighted to merely indict Country radio; in this Clear Channel age, limited play lists are the norm for most mainstream music stations. But, at least for rock fans, a haven can be sought through College radio and the occasional "alternative" channel. Within Country circles, there is no such retreat. Moreover, Country radio is but one participant in a long chain linking a broad coalition of forces strangulating the form. Beyond the profit-blinkered, payola-driven consolidation of the radio stations, Nashville has fostered a conveyer-belt production method that keeps the music sanitized, the artists generically processed, and the prospects of diversity, innovation, and creativity slim-to-none. It is as if the industry -- drunk on the breakthrough success of Randy Travis and Garth Brooks in the 1980s -- has proclaimed its final commandment: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Next, the hegemonic process continues unabated. Should an independent, or alternative (a term with great latitude in this field)-sounding Country disc slip by the industry arbiters, one need not be unduly encouraged: the corporate squeeze will continue at the marketing and distribution stages, as the large record companies push their roster of proven artists into the "Wal-Mart" retail machine. In turn, sure-buy product is churned out to the unsuspecting public. "Buyer Beware", some may counter; but, in such an oligarchical system, how are mainstream consumers supposed to be aware of any new sounds that might be struggling in the margins of their radio dials, or languishing on the shelves of some rare specialist backstreet record store?

As this tight, pernicious cycle returns to the songwriters' drawing boards, Nashville artists and writers know full well that they need no longer ask what "type" of songs they should or should not write, should they wish to earn a living within the Country music industry, for the die has already been cast for them.

Despite this quasi-conspiratorial, closed shop system, there is a ray of hope on the horizon. Like a latter-day Alan Ladd as Shane, Chicago-based independent label, Bloodshot Records, has taken upon itself the role of savior of the sagebrush, mixing it up in the robber-baron world of corporate Country. Riding in from the wilderness (i.e. outside Nashville), Bloodshot Records has embarked upon an ambitious mission: to return Country music to its roots -- one based in community interests and expression, rather than consumer fetishism and conformity. Here is a Country label that remembers and reveres the humanity that once defined folk music forms past and present, and that recognizes the traditional values of Country music as being couched in social connectedness, community service, and honesty to the realities of country life. For the last decade, Bloodshot Records has dedicated itself to representing and releasing the best of what Country music has been, as well as the best of what it can become in the hands of today's innovators.

The brief history of Bloodshot Records provides an inspiring counter-narrative to the dynasty of modern-day, Nashville-harnessed "big" Country. From the alternative rock venues of early 1990's Chicago, three music industry bit-players, Rob Miller, Nan Warshaw, and Eric Babcock -- like many -- bemoaned the staid state of rock music in the post-Grunge period. However, they also noticed that around the clubs there were a number of small acts performing traditional Country music with a punk-fuelled urban spirit. This disparate scene was spearheaded by Jon Langford, Mekons lead singer and veteran of the first wave of British punk. With his splinter band, The Waco Brothers, Langford fused honky tonk to Clash-style stomp, creating an energized Country-Punk cocktail. It soon became apparent to Miller et al that The Waco's had like-minded contemporaries, and that a new traditionalism was sweeping across the Chicago clubs, its Country tentacles reaching out beyond honky tonk -- to bluegrass, folk, polka, lounge, and torch.

Jon Langford

These styles were each being imbibed with a raunchy spirit and unchecked adventurism reminiscent of early punk rock. Soon, our three amigos realized that they were not alone in appreciating these new-old acts; intrigued punters everywhere were coming out of the woodwork to see something both authentic and innovative, enjoying this breath of fresh air blowing through the barren musical landscape. Pooling their collective music industry savvy and limited business skills, Miller et al set up to capture this lightning in a bottle, swiftly gathering songs from these new acts, who (most unsigned) were grateful for the opportunity to record and be released. The result was the debut Bloodshot Records imprint in 1994, For a Life of Sin: a Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country.

As the Chicago scene grew, so did the interest of the local media, who soon coined descriptive tags to describe what was going on: alt-country, cowpunk, twangcore, honky-skronk, y'alternative. However, with its own moniker, "insurgent country", Bloodshot captured both a style and a broader purpose. There was uprising implicit in the spirit of its bands, suggesting a metaphoric revolt against what Country music had become. The "insurgent country" appellation gave definition to the label, to the music, and to the (intended) constituency of supporters, just as Motown had done 35 years prior with "The Sound of Young America" and "Hitsville U.S.A." Bloodshot further underscored its intents with a series of mission statements via media outlets and its own web site. Through the latter, Miller et al cajoled and provoked, raging against the state of the Country establishment with terse statements such as the following: "The music seems like an afterthought. It is just another way to cram a product down our throats".

As an epigram for its mission statement, Bloodshot quoted from radical American critic, H.L. Mencken: "There comes a time when every man feels the urge to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and start slitting throats." Clearly, what had started as a hobby for three disillusioned rock fans had become a social cause for industry insurgents, complete with agit-prop grenades and guided verbal missiles. The striking web site home page concludes with the call-to-action, "Help us fight the good fight", and some tongue-in-cheeky punk humor follow up: "Help us keep our steel-toed work boots firmly on the throats of the enemy".

From the outset, Bloodshot's founders were under no illusions about what they were up against; they knew full well that their impact on the monolithic Country industry would be negligible, and to be effective at all, that their tactics would need to be specific and strategic. Running on limited funds, experience, and manpower, Bloodshot carved out a very narrow niche, setting its sights low in order to maximize impact. Through its "insurgent country" sobriquet, mission statements and media missives, the label set the parameters of its world: it wanted "roots-inflected music" that cross-pollinated with "the spirit and sound of punk." Such specific scope had nothing to do with any intent to limit styles or interfere with artistic freedom; it came from the reasoned realization that with limited funds, one had to tighten the focus of marketing and distribution.

Miller et al soon recognized that within the music industry, no man is an island. Though their ideology was clearly counter-cultural, they knew that, to an extent, they would inevitably be sleeping with some enemies. They would have to work with distribution companies, work with radio stations, work with chain record stores; either that, or disappear into isolationist obscurity. Of course, the balance between retaining the integrity of one's ideals with the realities of capitalist confinement creates a dilemma not new or unique to Bloodshot. However, the over-riding priority has been to produce and survive, to serve the larger ideal of giving outlet to the music. Nan Warshaw explained: "We didn't get into this racket to get rich, but to have the opportunity to work with artists whom we respect, and then attempt to gain exposure they deserve". Ten years after their first release, Bloodshot can boast of a past that once nurtured the youthful talents of Ryan Adams and the Old 97's, continues to release the works of stalwarts such as The Waco Brothers and Neko Case, and currently plays host to over 30 other aspiring and inspiring acts.

One consistent characteristic of Bloodshot since the label's formation has been its lack of a star system. New bands are given the same push as more established ones, and all labor and create without artistic obligations or directions; however, just as an artist has the freedom to create as he/she sees fit, so does the label have the option to release--or not -- the final product. With limited resources comes a limited scope of operations. That said, the loyalty shown by most of the artists is borne of the respect, risk-taking, and latitude Bloodshot affords them. It is refreshingly anomalous in the cut-throat climate of our times to hear a C.E.O. of a company proclaim -- as Rob Miller does: "We work for the artists.... They're entrusting us with their art". This is the same co-operative mood that helped spawn the rich and diverse independent label boom of the late 1970s post-punk period. The symbiotic relationship of artist to label that Bloodshot fosters can only work to inspire the best creative efforts.

Just as a paucity of funds has factored into decision-making regarding Bloodshot's identity and operations, so has geography. Working out of a small office in Chicago, Miller et al have kept their recruiting close to home, with most bands being local and a few drawn from other Mid-West metropolitan areas such as Minneapolis and Kansas City. A practical financial decision, this strategy has also given regional identity to the label and the music, as it did for Motown with Detroit in the 1960s and Factory with Manchester in the 1970s and '80s.

Bloodshot music itself plays within parameters of aesthetics as much as styles. In an era when the playing of traditional music is often done with a nod and a wink, Bloodshot Records eschew lyrical irony and deconstruction. Certainly, humor features strongly in many of the acts, but it is invariably a hearty or pointed wit that serves candid, emotional songs. The kind of satirical treatment of Country music one witnesses in Pavement and Ween are noticeably absent in Bloodshot bands. Instead, the label harbors unpretentious working bands (i.e. most have day jobs) interested in capturing the spirit of traditional folk music, but who further inject it with a raw irreverence. Rob Miller describes this vision of new traditionalism: "I never want to be a label that just does strictly revivalist type music. I want our artists to bring something new to the table."

Split Lip Rayfield, from Wichita, Kansas, are a prototypical Bloodshot band. Their bluegrass style bears all the hallmarks of traditional Country, such as the conventional instrumentation (guitar, stand-up bass, mandolin, and banjo), four-part harmony vocals, and lyrical tales of loss and woe. However, they are as far from Bill Monroe as The Ramones were from the Shangri-Las. The accelerated speed and intensity of their delivery evokes punk at its most frenetic. This is nowhere more evident than in their live performances, which showcase blistering displays of, what Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield once called, "Unkempt Country Punk". With veins popping and strums moving faster than the eye can see, Split Lip Rayfield generate a sweat-soaked scene rarely achieved by a band playing acoustic instruments. At a recent show I witnessed, the band introduced a guest singer of Middle Eastern descent, and then proceeded to perform a rousing song that one could only describe as "Arabic Punk Bluegrass". Besides its pre-political sentiments of ethnic unity, and its implicit recognition of the universality of global folk forms, the gesture spoke volumes about the attitude of Split Lip (and Bloodshot) to Country music: this music is only limited by the limitations imposed upon it.

Such spirit of mutation and innovation pulses through the roster of Bloodshot. One artist, Rico Bell, manages to combine his Irish pub-song style with both polka and Merseybeat. And it sounds great!

True to their communitarian ethic, Bloodshot Records has been instrumental and actively engaged in social concerns, particularly local ones. With the release of The Executioner's Last Song compilation in 2002, the label-mates put their politics where their mouths had been, lending support to the Illinois moratorium on state-sponsored executions. Drawing in artists opposed to the death penalty (including out-of-label sympathizers in Steve Earle and Freakwater), the album showcased a collection of "murder ballads," some original, some standard. The label's public service philosophy has even extended to the release of a children's Country album, The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides (2002), featuring cool-kid-Country songs intended to have Barney running for cover.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Bloodshot Records' operations has been its recent addition of the "Bloodshot Revival" series. The Soundies Radio Transcriptions, a huge catalogue of acetates of unreleased Country music recorded for radio stations during the 1940s and '50s, have been gathering dust for decades. Never released or sold until now, Bloodshot recently partnered with Soundies to correct that. Spanning musical genres from Cowboy to Polka to Western Swing to Honky Tonk to Torch, traditional Country fans -- old and new -- can now hear the likes of two-time Louisiana Governor, Jimmie Davis, Hank-sound-alike (and name-alike), Hank Thompson, and (subsequent) convicted murderer, Spade Cooley. At one level, the "Bloodshot Revival" series provides an archive service to American cultural heritage; at another, it speaks to Bloodshot's traditionalist ideology: a reminder of Country's roots and that these foundations serve as a continuum, connecting generations and legacies. As the Bloodshot web site (somewhat) wryly quips: "We are just trying to do our part to bring the generations together.... Dig in and learn some history".

Gramscian historian, Jackson Lears, in No Place of Grace, assesses how the rise in the Crafts movement at the end of the nineteenth century represented an anti-modernist reaction to anxieties over the rapid industrialization of America. Perhaps Bloodshot's nostalgic retrieval of past folk music can be seen as a comparable trend, one yearning for the sensibility of the pre-technological epoch: a rural recreation of working-class Country authenticity. However, this is not to discount the real counter-hegemony at the heart of such movements. Bloodshot's mission is ultimately, and perhaps ironically, rooted in the conservatism of traditionalism; it is a reactionary stance against the mainstream common sense of "progress", where publicists, radio stations, record companies, music stores, and TV/video outlets work in tandem to expand their coffers with little-to-no concern for the interests of the community. Lears saw in the Arts and Crafts movement of a century ago, "that the most profound radicalism is often the most profound conservatism." Such radical conservatism can be perceived in the alternative practices Bloodshot maintains and in its tactical resistance to the corporate music industry.

Bloodshot has revived the most fundamental calling of folk music: to reflect and bind the interests, anxieties, and spirits of alienated and subaltern cultures. Through their methods, a natural democracy of Country music is retrieved, providing a therapeutic service to artists disillusioned by the Nashville process, and to audiences taken for granted by it. In leading the insurgence of new traditionalism in Country, Bloodshot Records has shown itself to be as much a cause for the concerned as an independent music label.





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