By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The members of Magnolia Electric Co. don't listen to a lot of music on the road. Relentlessly touring behind the two records they've released this year, What Comes After the Blues and the live Trials and Errors, the Midwestern quintet may spend a lot of time cooped up in a van, but trying to get that many hypercritical music lovers to agree on road music just isn't worth the trouble. The band does listen to the fan demos they receive on a nightly basis, but generally, there's only one genre they all agree on.
"We love terrible contemporary country music," singer-songwriter Jason Molina says. "Love it. We seek out the absolute worst songs and we memorize them, because first of all, it's not country music, and second of all, it's not music."
Formerly known as Songs:Ohia, Molina has been playing his slow and somber brand of country for over a decade, switching his band's name in 2003 after the release of Magnolia Electric Co., which saw him turning up the amps to deliver a set of working-class country-rock. Easily on par with the best work of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, MEC's music is about as far removed from slickly manufactured pop-country as you can get, which makes their obsession with it even more hilarious.
Even stranger, they've considered writing cheesy tunes to send to the hit-makers on Nashville's Music Row. "We'd probably get a hit," Molina says. "I think it's worth it just because I'd rather have some good, hard-workin' true country band or true rock 'n' roll band get the money than these fake stars." Amusingly, the band is convinced their future millions rest in a MEC-penned patriotic song--one so over the top it will bring tears to the eyes of every SUV-driving soccer mom in the land--but they're also afraid they may not be able to top Trace Adkins' calculated and formulaic smash hit ode to fallen soldiers, "We Made it to Arlington," which Molina can describe in disturbing detail.
All kidding aside, the success of contemporary country thoroughly confounds Molina. "I grew up listening to true country music; liking it for the quality of the song more than the images or the attitude," he says. "It's really funny to see how people are just getting taken. Gettin' taken, man!"
After all, Molina is a card-carrying member of the Willie Nelson Fan Club and has sent the country legend several demos in the hopes that he might record them or at least give them a listen. A chance meeting with his idol in Austin also inspired Magnolia Electric Co.'s upcoming Texas tour, which starts Friday in Denton before winding its way 1,800 miles through Austin, Lubbock and Houston, as well as unlikely stops like Odessa, Marfa and McAllen.
"We got the idea that we should just do a real, full-on Texas tour," Molina says, citing the relentless touring habits of Texas country musicians like Nelson and George Jones, who even in their heyday often hit out-of-the-way towns between big city stops.
Molina knows the inherent risks that come with such an endeavor--sure, his band may not play to a packed house every night, but if they convert one or two fans, shake a couple hands and line up another gig in the future, he says it's worth it. "A lot of bands like to say, 'Yeah, we play Texas,' but really, all that means is they've done SXSW," Molina says. "We could actually be one of those bands that has the ability to play other places than Austin right at the time when everybody's there."
While the rising price of gas has certainly become an issue for the band, their current record label, Secretly Canadian, tries to cover their fuel expenses up to a certain point for every stop. "You couldn't ask for more from a record label," Molina says, adding, "Magnolia is not a money-making band. We are a break-even band or sometimes-in-the-red band."
So what makes such a lengthy, exhaustive tour worth it? Well, besides the fans and the shows, Molina and his Midwestern brethren admit an insane fondness for Texas road food, which he says easily trumps most states' "sandwich in the gas station" version of highway cuisine. "We are a band that actually booked an entire tour around barbecue," he says. "We're nuts about barbecue. We know what we're talking about, because we hit it all the time and all over the country."
And as far as weird Texas roadside attractions are concerned, Molina isn't shy about wanting to see the famous Marfa Lights. "Hell yeah! Tell 'em to turn the lights on," he says. "We're gonna come and see 'em. Tell that old man that I'm sure is in charge, or tell the aliens not to worry about the gas for that night and come on down."
On a serious note, with the band's New Orleans gig obviously kaput, Molina plans on donating whatever proceeds he can eke out of the tour to the Red Cross, adding that despite the destruction, the rich musical community of New Orleans is "never gonna die." And despite whatever financial problems they might run into, it seems Magnolia Electric Co. won't die easily, either. With another Steve Albini-produced LP already in the can and an EP set for release in October, the Magnolia Electric Co. is running stronger than ever.
"We're not that kind of 'band of the minute' band," Molina says. "We've been around a long time, and we don't play any games. We just want to play some serious music and play for some good people." Amen to that.