There once, briefly, lived a Midwestern band called The Starkweathers, a country-conscious outfit who wrote and sang songs about small-town despair, capital punishment, and - fittingly, for a band named after one of the US's most infamous spree killers - murder. However, and again this fits in The Starkweathers' introspective world, their murders were committed in the name of infidelity, not merely for thrills. Richard Smith was the main songwriter and vocalist for the band, but my favorite song from their limited but impressive catalog remains the death penalty tale "Danny Taylor" (a first cousin to Steve Earle's "Billy Austin" in theme, but a bit more upbeat musically), which was written by the group's bassist Mike Ireland. It tells a compelling story, it root-rocks at just the right speed, and it makes you think - a rare triple. (Not to mention that it stirs in a few lines from Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" long before that wonderful song was co-opted by a car company.)
After roughly three years, one EP, a couple singles, and a few compilation appearances, Smith left the band, and I was afraid that might be the last we heard from any of The Starkweathers. It turns out that I wasn't the only pessimistic one.
"I figured the whole thing was done, thought of it as kind of a wash," confesses affable and humble "Danny Taylor" author Mike Ireland from his home in Kansas City, MO, as he remembers the end of The Starkweathers. It turned out that the band's last act was to record a single for Sub Pop. "I felt bad about it: we made a single, you're gonna put it out, and we're not a band so we can't tour to support it. So I figured they wouldn't be happy about it." Apparently, no one was too perturbed because the next thing Ireland knew, Sub Pop was asking him to come aboard, along with Starkweather mates the Brothers Lemons, guitarist/mandolinist Michael and drummer Paul. After many, sometimes painful, auditions, rhythm guitarist/surprise harmony vocalist Dan Mesh signed on, and the newly christened Mike Ireland and Holler began recording the 12 songs that compose their debut LEARNING HOW TO LIVE, which hit the streets in early '98.
Okay, second chances are great - especially well-deserved ones - but Sub Pop is a label that not many people associate with country music. Yeah, they've put out a pair of one-off singles curiously pairing metaphysical Texas crooner Jimmie Dale Gilmore with Mudhoney and Steve Earle with the Supersuckers, worked with narco-twangers the Scud Mountain Boys, and recently released the mountain-swing debut from western North Carolina's Blue Rags, but this is a different story. "Yeah, I think we're definitely the first pure country band they've dealt with," says Ireland. "But I'm not really worried. . . .They were very up-front: 'Well, this is the first country record we have, and there's a lot of things we don't know how to do', which seemed like a good starting point."
And to perhaps further complicate things, the music of Mike Ireland and Holler isn't alternative-country or anything-hyphen-country, preconceived notions aside. According to Ireland, they have gotten the "alt-country" tag: "We're on Sub Pop, we make country music, so we must be alternative country. Well, I guess. Maybe we are the alternative to something, but it's certainly not my intention." What they do have is the sound of '60s and '70s country - you know, for better or worse, your parents' country. (At least it was theirs first, although a new generation has rediscovered it during some of the archaeological digs associated with the latest root-rock resurgence.)
However, Ireland's not a guy who's had a lifelong love affair with country music. In fact, in the press release for LEARNING HOW TO LIVE, he's quoted as saying "I grew up hating country music" - an admission that brings a laugh when I spring it on him. What happened? "I wish there was a great story or great moment: 'in the midst of the darkest night, I finally put on a George Jones record or heard it in a bar, and went Oh My God, this is it.' It was a really slow evolution... My theory is that life experience kind of catches up with you, and you start understanding the music a little more, making more sense out of the things they're singing about. They seem a little less maudlin or contrived. It's like, I guess lives do fall apart like that. He wasn't making that up; it's for real."
Yep, reality trots in, attitudes change, and you start buying different records. For Ireland, it's reached the point where "if I buy a record that's not at least 20 years old, it's a red letter day." And interestingly, one of his favorite styles, the string-sweetened pop-country known as countrypolitan (Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors," with the characteristic touch of producer Billy Sherrill, is the example I always use), is also one of the most frequently maligned. "I had some encyclopedic book, THE BIG BOOK OF COUNTRY MUSIC or THE OFFICIAL GUIDE TO COUNTRY MUSIC," Ireland recounts with a chuckle in his voice. "It was pretty thick, and this guy knew his stuff. But everybody I liked, according to this guy, was one of the people who killed country music. You'd look up Owen Bradley: 'Well, Owen Bradley was really talented, but he killed country music.'"
Detractors be damned, Ireland and crew incorporate strings on four of LEARNING HOW TO LIVE's cuts, including a lovely seasonal song called "Christmas Past." Another, the opener "House of Secrets," recalls the Tom T. Hall-penned, Jeannie C. Riley-sung hit "Harper Valley P.T.A." (a song Holler covers live) in sound, but there's something much more sinister afoot here than a showdown with some hypocrites. "Worst of All" is countrypolitan exhibit A, and it even sounds a little like "Behind Closed Doors." A well-executed cover of the classic murder ballad "The Banks of the Ohio" (according to Ireland, twenty-five different copyright credits exist for the song) and the sprightly "Some Things You Lose," which sounds like something from Hall's story-telling songbook ("there's an old t-shirt on a rusty post/flappin' in the wind like a short-sleeve ghost"), are also fine, as is the album-capping title track.
But it's funny how sometimes small moments on an album ultimately close the sale. On two songs, "Headed for a Fall" and "Cold, Cold Comfort," there's a just barely perceptible drop-off in the backing that clears the way for Ireland's emotive voice to really step up, a move he pulls off without a hitch showing him to be either a born-again country music true believer or an extremely accomplished fake. After talking with Mike Ireland and listening repeatedly to LEARNING HOW TO LIVE, I'm betting the farm on the former.
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)