Dazed, not confused

Mark Rubin is in the very stages of mixing and mastering his album, which has a release date only weeks away. He has guarded his record from its inception through its completion, selecting every song, arranging almost every note, and hiring almost every musician. Yet he is still frightened that something will go wrong at the last second--scared someone will kidnap his baby and raise it so it doesn't know its own father. That's what happens when a man who has created a career releasing his albums by himself or through independent labels suddenly finds himself releasing a record on a major label.

"I can't believe we've gotten this far," Rubin says, taking a break from mixing at Signet Soundeluxe studios in Los Angeles. "I can't believe it's going to be released." His voice rises as he speaks. You can hear the excitement, just as you can feel his fear.

At the end of March, the recently formed Sony Music Soundtrax division of the omnipotent Sony Music Corp. will indeed release the soundtrack to Richard Linklater's film The Newton Boys, with music written and performed by Rubin and Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers--the Austin band long revered in indie circles as the point where tradition meets tomorrow. (Steve Albini has been known to loan the Livers mikes during their home recording sessions.) And the Bad Livers, whose bluegrass-and-beyond albums have heretofore been available only on self-released cassettes or such indie labels as Quarterstick and Sugar Hill, will have their first major-label release...without actually having to sign away their lives to Sony, whose Epic Soundtrax subsidiary is slated to issue the record.

But the most remarkable fact is that Epic will actually release an album of ancient Dixieland and hot-jazz tunes performed by a cast of relative unknowns and long-dead legends. There will be no Inspired By above the title, no Jewel leftover or R.E.M. B-side stuck somewhere to boost album sales by a few million. There's no James Newton Howard or Hans Zimmer or some other Hollywood hack attached to the record, nor has Sony signed on the Squirrel Nut Zippers to recut Rubin's arrangements and Barnes' compositions.

No, in a few weeks, Epic will release a record featuring Erik Hokkanen on fiddle, Carl Sonny Leland on piano, Mike Maddux on accordion, Steve James on six-string banjo, and a hell of a lot of other people no one at Epic ever heard of before Richard Linklater hired Mark Rubin as his music director.

"This is going to be a soundtrack to a motion picture that doesn't have an inserted rock and roll name grafted onto it," Rubin says. "Of course, that's the problem: If you're not going to get Celine Dion to make the video, they don't really recognize it as viable. We're like, 'This soundtrack reminds us of those cool old soundtracks of 25 years ago, when you saw the music and loved the music and bought the record and it was there.'"

Rubin was initially hired by Linklater last year to scrounge up archival music for his film about a forgotten band of small-time bank- and train-robbers who shot their way into the footnotes of history during the early part of the century. (The film stars Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Skeet Ulrich, Dwight Yoakam, Matthew McConaughey, and Julianna Margulies.) Rubin, a bluegrass and klezmer fanatic, started rounding up old Jelly Roll Morton and Hoagy Carmichael and James P. Johnson tunes.

But Linklater also needed a band for a couple of key sequences, not to mention an original score to glue the movie together. Rubin suggested that his partner Barnes (who now lives in Seattle) write the score: Three Barnes instrumentals, performed with the Northwest Sinfonia, will appear on the record. Rubin then hired a group of Texas musicians to rerecord the archival music: The soundtrack features "Riverboat Shuffle," written by (among others) Irving Mills and Hoagy Carmichael; George Cobb and Jack Yellen's "Alabama Jubilee"; Wendell Hall's "LuLu Lou"; and Jesse Pickett's "Bulldyker's Dream," as performed by James P. Johnson. (The last track is a 1941 recording originally released on Mo Asch's Smithsonian Folkways label.) In addition to the band that the tuba-toting Rubin assembled and performs in, the album also features two contributions from the San Antonio-based Jim Cullum Jazz Band, perhaps the only band in America that doesn't treat Dixieland like music that ought to be played in a pizza parlor.

"One of the most satisfying aspects to making movies in Texas is the opportunity to work with people who might lack the industry credits, but are clearly better, more perfectly 'cast' than anyone you could find on either coast," Linklater writes in the still-to-be-finished liner notes. "Mark is such a person. He would bring us tapes to listen to that he made from his huge collection of records, some even from old 78s. Besides being an ace musicologist, Mark's worked with nearly every musician in Texas that plays the cool music from the era of this film, so it was only natural we get him to put together the tunes for us."

The mere existence of The Newton Boys soundtrack is cause for ceremony: It defies the trend of record companies using soundtracks to whore their latest pet project or the next hit single by a chart-topper. Indeed, Sony's Soundtrax division was responsible for last year's Men in Black soundtrack--which featured one song included in the movie, and even then it was Will Smith's title track, used over the film's end credits. But Men in Black was merely the end result of years of bastardization that began with the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack in the early 1980s, which carried the warning: "Contains additional songs that are not in the film." Studios long ago realized they could break up-and-comers by sticking them on blockbuster soundtracks, and they never looked back, spending millions of dollars to create soundtrack divisions geared toward finding just the right combination of hit singles.

Linklater has been the rare champion of movie music: The soundtrack to his debut Slacker featured a host of unknown Austin bands--the Bad Livers performed at the film's Austin debut in 1991--and the two albums spawned by his high-times nostalgia trip Dazed and Confused used '70s AOR hits as though they were written just for the movie. Yet perhaps the last time a major label released a soundtrack like Newton was in 1981, when Randy Newman scored Ragtime (not coincidentally, it's the sole Newman album not available on CD). The Newton Boys plays like a Folkways record without the scratches; it's authentic without playing down to the crowd, an interpretation of history but not an imitation.

"It's a very creative project in that we're not trying to get all the latest artists to do tracks," says Denise Louiso, associate director of soundtracks at Sony. "It is different. People aren't competing to do these songs. The music is so important to the film, and keeping in line with it, we wanted to make the soundtrack as real as possible."

Still, Rubin won't be satisfied till the album's in stores--and with good reason. He says that early on, an executive at 20th Century Fox, which is releasing the film, suggested bringing in such bands as Blues Traveler and Squirrel Nut Zippers to record some of the tunes. Rubin balked, though he did finally concede to using Arista artist and Austin resident Abra Moore on one song ("Milenberg Joys," which turned out to become one of the record's highlights, despite Rubin's initial fears) and A&M artist Patty Griffin on another.

"This could all teeter any moment," Rubin says with the mistrust common among any band that jumps from the minors to the majors before the end of spring training. "There's still this fear of the music-inspired-by tag. They've been pretty cool of it, but we're so far on the loop, who knows? I mean, early on, it was, 'Have you heard of this band Blues Traveler?'

"This is like a kickin', pumpin' record of good-time hot jazz, the kind of stuff Squirrel Nut Zippers wish they could do. This is going to be a Bad Livers album. Both me and Dan are in every one of those jazz bands [on the album]. It also furthers our agenda to be the acoustic Dust Brothers. We've been fighting this for a long time, actually thinking we're a band. But that's not true. We're banjo-wielding Dust Brothers.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky