The Shiners: Bonnie Blue

S. Renee Dechert
The Shiners

Bonnie Blue

Label: Planetary
US Release Date: 2002-01-15


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Down at the Devil's X

"People use words like 'dark', 'desperate', and 'gothic' and 'southern', obviously. I've heard all those descriptions, and compared to the last Dirtball record, this is a party record", says bass player Greg Harrup, of The Shiners' new album, Bonnie Blue.

"When we talk about desperation, we do it in a fun way", adds steel guitar player Travis Charbeneau.

He's got that right.

You may remember Dirtball as the mid-'90s offspring of the Richmond, Virginia, punk band Mudd Helmut. When lead singer Wes Freed and guitarist Steve Douglas worked with other local musicians (wife Jyl Freed, Jeff Liverman, Peter Headley, and Neal Ferguson) on acoustic, hillbilly versions of Mudd Helmut songs, Dirtball was the result. As David Goodman, author of Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory, describes the band, "Like Southern Culture on the Skids and the Drive-by Truckers, Dirtball's focus is on the 'white trash' lifestyle, especially drinking, carousing, and trouble".

Dirtball had released three albums, Hillbilly Soul (1994), The Well (1998), and Turn Up the Barn (1999), when the band disbanded rather suddenly because of "internal differences". (As Freed puts it, "Dirtball just kind of ground to a halt right when we'd put out our best record".) Further complicating matters were commitments Dirtball had made, commitments Wes and Jyl Freed struggled to meet, hence the creation of The Shiners (who originally went by "Dirtball Jr").

In a recent interview, The Shiners discussed, among other things, how they came to be -- in about a month. According to Freed, "I talked with Steve, our present guitar player who was also the manager of our record label that put out Dirtball records. After a little bit of a discussion, we decided what the hell? We'd put another band together and finish up the shows that were already scheduled". He continues, "That's how it started -- it kinda came out of the ashes, and we started writing our own new stuff and doing some of the old band's material that was covers and stuff".

Steve's wife, Terry, herself an accomplished musician as well as art director at Planetary, also signed on. What began as "We'll-play-a-few-shows-with-you-until-you-get-on-your-feet-and-get-a-few-guitar-players" evolved into something more. As she puts it: "We were having too much fun to leave".

"They learned about 20 songs in two weeks", Jyl says, "and considering that their band Log was pretty much punk rock and both of them worked on electronica at that point, it was a challenge for them, but they excelled". (It's worth noting that Terry not only pulled out her accordion but also picked up the banjo in a very short time. Jyl says, "Terry took to hillbilly music like a duck to water".)

Filling out The Shiners' roster are Greg Harrup (upright bass; Robert Gordon, The Cashmere Jungle Lords), Erin Snyder (fiddle; Deliberate Strangers), and Brian Larson (drums - he's also Planetary's promotions director). Listed as "Reinforcements" are Kirk Rundstrom (of Split-Lip Rayfield) who plays dobro and mandolin, and Travis Charbeneau on steel guitar.

Their name, "The Shiners," works on a couple of levels. First, it references a way of life forgotten in today's world of Budweiser six-packs picked up at the 7-11. "I think the references to moonshine, besides the gettin' drunk part, is more of an homage to old ways and craftsmanship, Southern pride and Southern rebellion", Jill explains. "In a way, it exemplifies all of the above, and has even carried over into modern times". Moonshine also plays a central role in Wes' distinctive visual art, a direct influence on the band's music. You may recognize his work from (most recently) The Drive-by Truckers' Southern Rock Opera or Dirtball's record covers. He's done paintings in addition to flyers and posters, though he's also known for his "Willard's Garage" comic book series which was featured in local 'zines for about eight years.

"In a nutshell", Jyl explains, "Wes has this alternate world, Crow Holler, in his head. It's been there since he was a kid. It's peopled with spooks and moonshiners and old witchy women and The Devil's X Roadhouse". She continues, "Crow Holler is a magical place -- most all of Wes's songs are about Crow Holler in some way".

In Crow Holler, with the exception of two "real" people, Dixie Butcher the Wrasslin' Waitress, and her biker girlfriend Bonnie Blue, the rest of the inhabitants are skeletons, pumpkin heads, hags, animals, and creatures from Celtic mythology.

The mythology continues in Bonnie Blue; indeed, it provides much of the album's thematic richness.

While The Shiners all collaborate on songs, Wes, in addition to lead vocals, assumes many of the primary songwriting duties, a point clear in the songs that cull from "Willard's Garage" (e.g., "Bonnie Blue", "Crow Holler", "Devil's X"). Like his paintings, the songs have compelling visual imagery, vivid colors, and unconventional characters.

As Steve puts it, "The extent to which there's a lot of feeling, a lot of honest emotion is drawn from a lot of visual imagery that comes along first. Wes' songs bring something to the table -- more than likely it came at the same time as a painting or from a painting". He continues, "I have one of his songs hanging in my room. His songs hang on the walls".

Which brings us to Bonnie Blue.

"Obviously the name comes from 'Bonnie Blue Flag'", Wes says, "but it was also the name of one of the comic book characters I had drawn, and I wrote the song about her. Then I did an illustration, and it was working".

Remember, too, there are lots of songs about Bonnie, a kind of "representative woman" (e.g., "My Bonnie Lass", "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean"). This Bonnie, however, with her CSA hat, looks you in the eye from the album cover, subversively holding up a Mason jar of moonshine in both invitation and warning.

The cover and title track foreshadow the album's lyric and musical themes. The song kicks off the record with an acoustic guitar and drum beat; when Terry's banjo settles in and Wes sings, "Bonnie, my sweet Bonnie, you're a jangle when you walk / Bonnie, my sweet Bonnie, I shiver when you talk / I can see by the eyes in the back of my mind you come from a place that knows cryin'", and Erin's fiddle enters the mix, there's no turning back.

The Shiners' music reflects a clear identification with the Southern rural working class -- in fact, it's apt to compare this to the folk music of the '60s and '70s that reacted against sappy, happy pop music. As country music becomes more homogenized pop, appealing to the largest possible demographic, The Shiners refuse to conform. Although they rely mostly on bluegrass instruments and a folk ethos, the driving sound owes as much to punk as it does to bluegrass, creating a heady mix.

It would be easy to compare The Shiners to a good batch of homebrew, the moonshine that recurs in Wes' art, but it's more than that. Wes' voice, raw and upfront, connects the South's past with the present, all filtered through the mythic world of Crow Holler. Jyl's tight harmonies, then, provide the voice of family, and the rest of The Shiners' sound is the complex, diverse roots of the South and its music.

Take, for example, "The Bridge", an album highlight written primarily by Steve and Terry. The song tells the story of a wounded soldier, high on laudanum, desperately trying to get home.

"It really came together when Erin started playing [fiddle] more", Steve says. "I wanted one that would really get that bluegrass fiddle. I worked on the riff for a long time, so I was trying to figure out the song and structure of it. And, literally, the way that it came about, the title, was because . . . I was working on the bridge part, and then these ideas came into my head". He continues, "We had the story -- it was something I could just see happening. I've seen movies with these soldiers trying just to get home. In any war, there are soldiers that are far from home and get tired of fighting and are ready to go and get back to their comfort -- and their comfort may not even be there waiting for them. . . . The lyrics fell into place".

He's referring to lines like "Now I'm on the run with my laudanum and my gun / Headed for the bridge that leads me home / Don't know if I'll die or make it to the other side / Will my homeland be the same", words sung by a soldier who's been shot while trying to cross the bridge that will bring him home.

"That was sort of a Shiners version of bluegrass and kicking a little harder. And to be very honest, it was inspired by Split Lip Rayfield -- that Midwestern desperation", Steve says.

"We Won't Break the Circle" addresses similar themes though the mood is different. Greg Harrup says of the song's inception, "Wes and I were working together -- we were painting, oil painting -- we were talking about our families and stuff. We're from rural areas". It's difficult to ignore echoes of The Carter Family's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" as The Shiners sing lines like "My granddaddy taught me how to live off the land, grandma took me to the church to pray / They told me one day I'd understand and when I did I'd find the way". But there is a political reality, a subversiveness, here that the Carters lack. As The Shiners put it, "We won't break the circle, we're just trying to get by".

Rounding out Bonnie Blue are songs like 'The Rodeo Clown", a waltz with some fine accordion work from Terry, as well as "Plowman's Song", "Los Gatos del Fuego", and "Conjureman", all magical with skeletons, coyotes, and a hoodoo man.

Bonnie Blue officially ends with "Devil's X". In true bluegrass tradition, each of The Shiners steps up to the microphone, creating another family circle. They tell of the Devil's X Roadhouse where Rev. Strawboss is preaching, though this clearly isn't the kind of church most Southern Baptists look for. But it's just right for The Shiners, who resolve rather neatly the "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning" conflict that has defined country music: Meeting in a bar, the band's enthusiasm reflects true joy as they, in call-and-response fashion ask, "What kinda church meets in a roadside bar? / The one that takes communion from a Mason jar!"

But to stop at "Devil's X" is to miss some of the most compelling material on Bonnie Blue: the hidden track of "I'm a Good Old Rebel", a song written in 1968 by Col. Innes Randolph, CSA.

The song found its way onto Bonnie Blue because of The Shiners' involvement with Jim Stramel's independent film The Thrillbillies -- in fact, band members appeared in the film and added material to its soundtrack. Stramel knew that he wanted "I'm a Good Old Rebel" to play over the closing credits and tried to get everyone on the soundtrack to record a version of the song. (In the end, four were able to contribute.) But The Shiners decided to add it to their record as well, including it as an unmarked track to keep from competing with the version on The Thrillbillies.

"The song carries a great deal of history", Wes says. "Keep in mind it's written by a man who's just spent four years fighting, defending his state and losing. And when we recorded it, we recorded it here at Steve and Terry's house, which is, like, a stone's throw away from the Hollywood Cemetery where there -- I don't know -- there are 15,000 or 17,000 unmarked Confederate graves". (It's worth adding the George Pickett, JEB Stuart, and Jefferson Davis are all buried there.)

Steve adds, "We recorded it right around Halloween, and it was like we were all possessed by it -- by Confederate ghosts. But the song wasn't necessarily our hearts; it's the way somebody else felt, and we can understand how he felt".

The Shiners recognized, however, that some folks might not understand the inclusion of this fight song with its slow military march cadence and resigned, almost funereal timbre.

"Of course, we were a little worried because as we were finishing up the recording, everyone decided to start putting American flags up because of what happened in New York. We were a little worried somebody might take it wrong", Steve says. "Some folks said maybe we shouldn't put it on there, and we thought about it, and we said, 'No, President Bush said you're supposed to go on with your life as you were going to do', so we went on and did what we were going to do originally".

So what's up next for The Shiners?

The band's already well into their second album, and they plan to finish by Halloween. "We've got a boatload of new songs coming in", Steve says. "We didn't rest on our laurels". In fact, during the interview, The Shiners were good enough to share part of a new song, "Bottle Full of Heaven", described as "hot off the press, typed 20 minutes ago" -- and it foreshadows a Shiners record to anticipate.

As Steve explains, though, the band's not in this to be rock stars: "We're having a good time with it because we really are all good friends that have a good time together. The underlying factor, and it may not show with all the darkness, is that we really are having fun".

"The gist of it", he concludes, "is that redneck girls love honky-tonk men".

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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