An Interview with Bloodshot Records' Nan Warshaw
Bloodshot Records is currently celebrating the release of their 100th record, Making Singles, Drinking Doubles, a fantastic collection of 18 out-of-print singles and previously unreleased tracks. Highlights include Madonna covers by the Meat Purveyors, rare Ryan Adams acoustic gems, and stabs at Loretta Lynn songs by both Neko Case and Kelly Hogan. The collection comes highly recommended, either as an introduction to Bloodshot's terrific catalog or as a nice summary for those already initiated to their stellar brand of insurgent country. As Bloodshot enters into the new year with a long list of great releases on the way, label co-owner Nan Warshaw shares some thoughts with Dusted's Nathan Hogan about her label's past, present, and future.
First of all, huge congratulations on the 100th release milestone. Can you sketch out a brief history of how Bloodshot first got things rolling way back when?
It was the bar rag of destiny that swept us together in 1993 to form an indie label that straddles the fence dividing old-school country from underground rock and punk. My partner Rob and I felt that both country and punk were moribund. We noticed that there were a number of interesting and exciting bands, all informed by old-school country and punk, playing around town, Chicago that is, in the underground rock clubs. We began talking about the idea of releasing a compilation of these bands. After numerous barroom meetings and sleepless nights excitedly jotting down notes, we realized we had enough composite knowledge, and healthy contempt (more than enough) for the industry status quo to form our own label. Our first release came out in July of '94. It was "For a Life of Sin," a compilation snapshot of Chicago's underground country scene at the time. Since then, Bloodshot has been lauded/lambasted for being on the national forefront of the alternative country movement. The Spring of '99 saw the inaugural release of the Bloodshot Revival imprint allowing us to educate the young'uns that old country does not suck, as well as bring back some fond memories for the old folks. December of 2002 marks Bloodshot's 100th release, Making Singles, Drinking Doubles, a collection of out-of-print 7" singles and previously unreleased tracks.
Although your releases remain fairly eclectic there is undoubtedly that distinct Bloodshot sound that you've mentioned. What is the nature of the relationship between punk and country music?
Back when punk rock was fresh, energetic, intimate, and personal and political, there was a strong sense of community; if you fell in the mosh pit, someone reached down and picked you up. Then, alternative rock was co-oped by the major labels and every Nirvana rip-off was signed; mosh pits turned into brawls for weekend warriors who thought they'd be cool if they hit harder. Discovering bands playing insurgent country was like a new light being turned on. These bands were infusing new (to them) elements into their punk-informed rock. The music was socially relevant and often political. The bands were energetic and witty. I (not a large woman) could even slam again in an intimate pit – or two-step.
Was there ever a fear that the insurgent country scene, particularly in Chicago, would dissipate in favor of a different trend?
We assumed that the limited popularity of insurgent country would just be a (very underground) flavor of the month. I think the reason it has survived is because it has remained personal and intimate and therefore still meaningful, and the bands find new ways to reinvent the music.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with your label should know from the rancorous Mencken quote that graces your website, to your dead-accurate mass-media rants that Bloodshot is pretty militantly independent, and also that that isn't always an easy thing to pull off. Yet not very many indies make it to 100. What's your secret?
Our "secret" is luck: luck in timing, luck of location (we couldn't have done this outside of Chicago), and happenstance. We got into this racket because of our passion for a style and presentation of music. We want as little to do with the business side of music as possible. Of course as much as we'd like to be wholly independent, we're forced to work within commercial music retail and press in order to sell our records. We want to remain as independent as possible, but we also want to make our artists' releases widely available, which means having to get them into chain-stores.
Just in terms of running the label, what things have gotten smoother over the years and what things haven't?
Distribution is the bane of indie label existence. As we've become more established we've been able to work with more thorough and reliable distributors (that pay and pay on time!). But it's still truly depressing to see the Walmart-ization of America; there has been serious consolidation at retail. The cool little indie stores are being pushed out and the chain stores that do the shoving are moving to centralized buying with high minimum buys. Some of the chains now will only take a release if they think they can sell over 5,000 copies. In each mall store they'd rather stock 200 of Britney Spears record than 2 copies of each of our releases. That makes it much harder to sell the first couple thousand CDs and therefore creates a bigger gulf between the elite upper class of musicians and everyone else.
College radio is more supportive of our music today. I think college DJs are a little less afraid of the "C" word (i.e. "country") and usually judge our records based on the music; they've now heard many of our artists and know Bloodshot music has nothing to do with what's played on commercial country radio. Commercial radio (both rock and country formats) has become even more evil. It's controlled by a few faceless corporations that defer to their consultants, and that air play is dictated by a kind of modern-day payola.
Working with artists hasn't gotten any easier – some are a dream and others challenge our patience. That however, has nothing to do with their brilliant music.
In terms of the size of your roster and your prolific rate of releasing really superlative stuff, are you satisfied with how things stand currently?
I'm tickled. I never could have imagined we'd get to work with so many artists I love and respect. However, it's still a struggle to get every band the attention they deserve.
How much communication and cooperation is there between your label and others, particularly in Chicago? Is there any sort of support network there, and do people just starting out ever come begging for advice?
Bloodshot couldn't have thrived in any other city. There's an amazing sense of community within Chicago's diverse music scene. Neko Case and Kelly Hogan moved here because they could stand on a street corner and someone would ask them to sing on their record. Chicago indie labels don't compete, instead we believe a stronger indie community benefits us all. I regularly get asked for advice and gladly give it whenever I can. We owe a lot to this city.
You maintain an outward appreciation of some of the pioneers of country through your Revival Reissue Series. How did the acetates for these releases fall into your hands, how have you gone about choosing what to release, and what was the idea in doing so?
We were approached by Soundies (a re-issue label) with the idea of jointly making old country, un-released transcription recordings. They have access to huge amounts of this stuff, so we started Bloodshot Revival so we could jump at the opportunity.
People often argue about who was the first to really realize the punk/country/rock combination in full. In your opinion, what are some classic releases (that may or may not pre-date Bloodshot) that any good cow-punk should covet?
There's plenty of classic country music, with its murder ballads and themes of everyday working life, that set up a transition to cow-punk. Then bands like Jason & The Scorchers, Steve Earle, and Dwight Yoakam, Joe Ely, Emmylou Harris, Killbilly, and The Bad Livers paved the road for Bloodshot bands. Covet: Buck Owens, Johnny Paycheck's Darling Years, Jean Shepard, Wynn Stewart, early Replacements, X Wild Gift, The Pogues, Cramps, Iggy. OK, I'm reaching, but not that far. Of course Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
I know it's hard, and probably in the end unnecessary, to choose amongst your children, but looking over 100 releases is there any one or two that – for any reason – are particularly close to your heart?
If there's one quintessential Bloodshot release it's the Waco Brothers Cowboy In Flames. It's one of my all time faves; it's personal, social-political, loud and at times energetically in-your-face, immediate yet comfy as your living room, and unapologetically fun. Their new CD New Deal is climbing close on that favorites ladder.
I really love New Deal. Speaking of the Waco Brothers, the extended Mekons family (Jon Langford, Sally Timms, Rico Bell, etc.) appear on a pretty hefty percentage of the Bloodshot releases. Could you talk a bit about your history with all of them?
When we were putting together our first release, For A Life Of Sin; Insurgent Chicago Country, we approached Jon Langford and asked him to contribute a song. At the time he had a thrown together a band that was playing country covers in bars (not clubs) around town. He said, "Guess I'd better write a song." The first time we heard the song "Over The Cliff" it brought tears to our eyes; Jon knew what Bloodshot was about better than we did. A while later we asked "the band" (they changed their name for every show) if they wanted do an album, and so they decided to write a bunch of original material and keep the band name The Waco Brothers which they were using that week. A year later Jonny said something to the effect, "My mate Rico has some great songs. I could help him make a record for Bloodshot." Then Sally Timms came to us with most of an EP already recorded. It was dead easy and fun, a huge honor for us to work with members of the Mekons, and we were virtually handed excellent records. We wouldn't be celebrating our 100th release, or get half the respect we do, if it wasn't for Mekons side projects.
Okay, just because I'm really curious, do you know when we can expect a new Kelly Hogan record?
I wish I could say soon, but I don't know – it's all up to Miss Hogan.
Your lone Volebeats single resurfaces on the 100th release compilation. Has there ever been talk of releasing more material from them, possibly a full-length?
There are a number of bands that are a part of the Bloodshot extended family. These are bands that give us compilation tracks and/or whose CDs we sell through our catalog, but where it doesn't make sense for us to release their albums. Some of these bands are on other labels, some don't tour, others aren't exactly what we're about. Plus we don't have the time or resources to release them all.
Finally, what can we expect from Bloodshot in 2003?
Hopefully a scrappy indie label that continues to release great music. The first couple releases in winter will be Jon Langford & His Sadies Mayors Of The Moon and The Slaughter Rule Soundtrack (which features a lush, dark score by Jay Farrar and new songs by The Pernice Brothers, Blood Oranges, Freakwater, Vic Chesnutt, Malcolm Holcombe and a rare Uncle Tupelo song). Throughout the rest of the year, look for new releases by Sally Timms, Wayne Hancock, Bottle Rockets, Trailer Bride, Alejandro Escovedo, The Yayhoos, Split Lip Rayfield. Plus, there will be Vol. II of The Pine Valley Cosmonauts' "Executioners Last Songs" along with many guests, and a tribute to Wanda Jackson.
By Nathan Hogan