By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
When Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller calls from a Chicago recording studio, where the band is recording the follow-up to last year's Hitchhike to Rhome, he cannot contain his enthusiasm. He speaks quickly and a little breathlessly, bursting with the news that labelmate (on the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records) and Windy City resident Jon Langford--revered as the leader of the Mekons, the best American rock and roll band that hails from Leeds, England--is upstairs laying down guest vocals and guitars on two tracks for the next Old 97's disc.
"It's so cool," Miller gushes.
Langford played guitar on the end of "Doreen," and he contributed vocals--well, one word, actually--to a cover of "Over the Cliff," originally written and recorded by Langford for a Bloodshot compilation. That one word is "asshole," which Langford screamed.
Langford, who hung around the studio with the band to have a few drinks once he had recorded his parts, says he was more than happy to accept the band's invitation.
"I went to a gig and they asked me to stick around and listen to the fifth song in the set," he recalls as he sits next to Miller. "I figured it would be a cover of a Mekons song, but it turned out to be 'Over the Cliff,' and it was amazing. I did my part on 'Over the Cliff' in one take, as well. And for 'Doreen,' I played a horrible guitar solo for an hour, till they made me stop. I was like, 'No, wait, give me another try. I can double it up like Thin Lizzy.'"
Langford says he met the Old 97's when his own "noisy country band" the Waco Brothers shared a few bills with the 97's around the Chicago area. At one show, the Waco Brothers were forced to share the Dallas band's equipment, and Langford was impressed with how "helpful and friendly" the Old 97's were.
The pairing of Langford (whether as a Waco Brother or as a Mekon) and the Old 97's couldn't be more appropriate: both share an affinity for country music but come at it from an affectionate distance. Rhett Miller started out as a teen-folkie singing in a vaguely affected British accent, then after briefly flirting with power-pop (as Rhett's Exploding and Sleepy Heroes), he and longtime partner Murry Hammond pledged themselves to the gospel of Uncle Tupelo and were born-again country-pop-folkies. (Which is much, much more appealing than that description would seem.)
The Mekons began as part of the British punk-art school scene of the late '70s in Leeds that also spawned Gang of Four and Delta 5. But by the time they recorded Fear and Whiskey in 1986 and The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll three years later, they had become a damned special (if not damned bizarre) country-rock band. They covered Gram Parsons and Merle Haggard but sounded like the Clash, they brought politics into the honky-tonk, and they drank like Bob Wills with a new liver. Sally Timms and Langford were the Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons of the '80s, and to say the Mekons were underrated would be implying they were regarded at all outside a small cadre of critics and fans. (When the band performed at 21st Amendment in Deep Ellum last year, they drew maybe 50 people--which Langford hardly noticed, he says, because "we were all lit.")
As critic Greil Marcus pointed out in his terrific 1986 essay on the band, titled "The Return of King Arthur," the Mekons were England's answer to The Band--a group of non-native Americans who took all that was good and forgotten about American music and brought it all back home. "The Mekons are a lot like The Band," Marcus wrote, "in their seamless melding of rock 'n' roll, old country music, and ancient British folk music." And like The Band (or fellow Canadians like Neil Young or Cowboy Junkies), the Mekons were always exiles in their own homeland--enamored of American music, unwilling to speak their own tongue.
Langford--who will be going to England in three weeks to begin recording the next Mekons CD, to be accompanied by the long-awaited band-written detective novel and a catalog of artwork done by members of the Mekons--says he finally moved to America because of his love for American music. He recently released a disc of Johnny Cash covers on a small Chicago label, and the Waco Brothers have just recorded their full-length country debut for Bloodshot.
"The Waco Brothers started doin' covers like George Jones and Merle Haggard," he says. "That's the attraction for me to America--the music. Of course, there's also a lot of detractions, but country music is the greatest. If you're going to play in a bar and drink beer, that seems the obvious thing to play. It turned into a bit of an obsession.
"People come around my house and say, 'Could you turn that country music off?' I don't know. I guess I've just sort of let it all come in, and I don't really use any sense of taste--I love it all. I just buy old country samplers and laugh at the shitty songs and sing along with the good ones."