By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Supergroup--it's rock and roll's greatest oxymoron, where the sum of one part is greater than the whole. It's a great theory that always backfires.
It's a term that dates back to 1969, when Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Steve Winwood crammed their talent and egos into Blind Faith, which would have been better named Deaf Faith for all its bloated and pointless jamming. 1968's Super Session album, featuring the combined talents of Al Kooper, Stephen Stills, and Michael Bloomfield, could have been the first supergroup, but none of those guys were genuine superstars, just million-dollar sessionmen; and the Million Dollar Quartet--Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins--never actually recorded together save for a sloppy and casual "demo" released decades after the fact.
Then there were those '70s and '80s circle-jerks featuring every guitarist who ever played with Journey, Montrose, or Jeff Beck. Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue was a supergroup, but since they were just a touring band, it doesn't count for much. The Traveling Wilburys--which Dylan "fronted" alongside George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty--counted for even less; sounding hollow and tired, they made music the way Keebler makes cookies and Nelson Rockefeller made money.
Yet the bane of the supergroups came not from the rock arena, but from the honky-tonk: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson called themselves The Highwaymen, but they never got off the service road. Over two records in the course of five years, the four hoarsemen nearly destroyed their own legends by proving you can't make music in a collective; they walked, sang, and shit all over each other in their race for the bank, only to find Kristofferson had emptied the account in 1978.
So it is surely with a wink and a smirk that the band known as Golden Smog dedicates its first full-length album, the just-released Down by the Old Mainstream, to the Highwaymen. After all, the Smog is something of a supergroup itself, its members hailing from such bands as Soul Asylum (Dan Murphy and Dave Pirner), Wilco (Jeff Tweedy), the now-defunct Jayhawks (Gary Louris and Marc Perlman), and Run Westy Run (Kraig Johnson), though the relative anonymity of most of these musicians makes them a supergroup in intent only. None of the boys in this band-that-isn't-really-a-band could be deemed a "super" star. If nothing else, the Smog transcends the pejorative label because it sounds like a real band that's been together forever, one in which the members never try to bury their identities by giving up and giving in to their partners.
This is a band consisting of old friends who have known each other for years, shared the stage countless times, influenced each other consciously and otherwise. These are the musicians at the forefront of the Rural Contemporary movement (especially Louris and Tweedy, having half-fronted the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo, respectively), young men raised on Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash and Exile on Mainstreet-era Rolling Stones but who grew up playing in the shadow of the Replacements and HYsker DY. Most importantly, they're comfortable enough with each other to have come together in a four-day period in early 1995 to write and record an entire record together--one that's perfectly imperfect in every way.
"One of the first times I ever played in St. Louis with Soul Asylum," Murphy recalls, "Jeff Tweedy was writing for a paper there and he interviewed the band. I kinda remembered him, even, and I used to go see Uncle Tupelo a lot, and I actually went to see a couple of their last shows in the Midwest before they broke up. And I'm a big fan of the Jayhawks--I've known those guys forever. I've probably seen Run Westy Run 115 times in the last eight years. And Gary [Louris] and I have been in 10 cover bands, I bet. We used to make our rent money throwing together a cover band and destroying Eagles songs and things like that."
Golden Smog actually began as a goof four years ago, a glorified bar band playing covers by the likes of Bread (which gives away the joke, even if it isn't that funny) and Bad Company. The band consisted of Louris and fellow Jayhawk Perlman, Run Westy Run's Johnson, and Murphy; when then-Replacements drummer Chris Mars joined in 1992, the band actually went into the studio and recorded a five-song EP (On Golden Smog) for the tiny St. Paul-based Crackpot Records label. Though it boasted a crack lineup of musicians, including Dave Pirner, the record came off sounding like nothing but a punch line in search of a set list, the covers ranging from obscure (the Rolling Stones' "Back Street Girl") to the obvious ("Cowboy Song" by Thin Lizzy, a band whose material was often maimed in concert by the Replacements).
"The EP was more of a joke, for fun," Louris says. "It was like, 'Someone wanted to have us record? Sure.' Then I listened to the EP and said, 'Oh, that's cool. We can kinda sound like the Stones. We can do a funny Three Dog Night song,' and some people like us like that. But we listened to it and said we kinda had a band chemistry going. The guitars kinda worked together easily, Dan and I played off each other nicely, and Perlman and Dan were tight.