Driving and Cranking
Meat Purveyors guitarist Bill Anderson is not expecting an invitation from the Sons of Bill Monroe anytime soon. Quite the opposite. "A bluegrass purist would probably vomit if he saw me playing guitar," he says. "I don't see how we could be a totally traditional bluegrass band in this day and age with who we are. I would feel really fake."
"None of our audience really relates to the rural message of earlier bluegrass," the group's mandolinist Pete Stiles adds. "We play in cities and rock clubs."
"We like the music," says Anderson, "but we're not going to try and write lyrics that are about living in the holler."
Instead, on their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Cows, the Meat Purveyors stake their lyrical territory around life in the Austin holler, themes such as 16-ounce cans of Lone Star ("Tallboy"), recreational pharmacology ("Little White Pills"), beer goggles and partying into the wee hours ("Morning After"), and just in case folks still don't get the point, covers of Daniel Johnston's "Museum of Love" and the Pocket FishRmen's "We Kill Evil" for good measure. This doesn't preclude their also including Monroe's "Can't You Hear Me Callin'" and the traditional "Working on a Building," but not without a little sleight of hand.
"We do some gospel stuff that's like old, traditional gospel songs," singer Jo Walston says. "And none of us are particularly religious, to say the least. I'm not religious, I just love the Lord."
"I guess we fall right in that crack," Anderson offers. "There's a big crack between traditional and not traditional, and we're in the crack."
"Over on one side of the chasm, you've got really weird, and on the other side of the chasm you have totally fucked up," adds Stiles. "We fall right in the middle of that."
All this talk about cracks and chasms. How unseemly. Pigeonholing the Meat Purveyors is a dangerous undertaking, and the band is rightly uncooperative about playing along with such categorical charades.
"We won't be drawn into this argument," states Anderson. "We just do what we do."
"Suffice it to say that it doesn't really cross our minds when we're playing music, or arranging songs, or writing songs," Stiles says.
The Chronicle's recent article about bluegrass in Austin ["Hill Country Breakdown," Vol. 18, No. 40], and the degree of purity some within Austin's tight-knit mountain-music community demand from its players, stands as a prime example of how the Purveyors don't have time for other people's labels.
"I think it's silly to consider things bluegrass only if it has the exact same instrumentation as Bill Monroe's band of 1940," says Stiles, who claims he didn't read the story.
"I don't see why bluegrass has to be this super-strict thing," argues Anderson. "Every other kind of music has become pretty wide-open. I know the Bad Livers always say, 'We don't play bluegrass.' I think they feel like they respect it too much to say what they play is bluegrass, but I don't really buy that."
"That's what Mark Rubin said in the article, and I didn't buy it either," Stiles continues, revealing he apparently does read the Chronicle at least once in a while. "It sounded insincere to me. Really, it's like, no one's gonna say you're not a punk band unless you have the exact same instrumentation as the Sex Pistols."
"[Bluegrass] is just a shortcut for something to call it," asserts Anderson. "I don't see why it has to be one thing."
"Is it driving acoustic music with harmonies?" Stiles asks.
"Right," says Anderson. "Two-four [time], 'Hmm ... sounds kind of like bluegrass.'"
"I know," rejoins Stiles. "I think it's absurd not to call it bluegrass. I mean, we always add a disclaimer so that the traditional people don't get totally freaked out when they see it, but it's still bluegrass to me."
"I feel sorry for other people when they have to put it into a category," injects Walston. "Or maybe I'm feeling sorry for myself."
As if all this bluegrass business weren't enough to make the Meat Purveyors want to wrap their instruments around the nearest available pine tree, the band found themselves embroiled in yet another categorical back-and-forth almost from day one. Their traditional sound and nontraditional subject matter, coupled with an eventual affiliation with Chicago's alt.country indie Bloodshot Records, placed the four-piece firmly in the center of the ongoing No Depression debate, the latest shorthand for the offspring of rural music and urban (sometimes suburban) angst. The phrase arose when people got tired of saying "roots-rock" just around the time Uncle Tupelo was inspiring as many young musicians to start bands as the Velvet Underground once did. Once again, the Meat Purveyors were in the position of having a category superimposed upon their sound rather than flying the flag themselves, and again they couldn't have cared less. They do find the company somewhat more relaxed than traditional bluegrass circles, certainly.
"That's a weird thing," says Anderson. "It probably worked out really good for us, but as far as we're concerned, it's like a total coincidence -- a thing that somehow we fit into."
"I had never heard of Bloodshot Records," recalls Stiles. "I had never heard any bands on Bloodshot Records, I had never heard of the Old 97's, I had never listened to any of this stuff."
"Yeah, me neither," quips Walston.
"I didn't either," declares Anderson.
"I had heard of the Mekons," adds Walston, referring to Jon Langford's "other" band.
Langford, whose Cash-meets-Clash Waco Brothers are perhaps Bloodshot's most popular act, was instrumental in signing the Purveyors to the label. Now, after two releases on the renowned indie and innumerable tours with various labelmates (and non-Bloodshot bands of a similar bent), the Meat Purveyors are singing a different tune.
"Playing in this circle has turned us on to a bunch of cool bands that aren't necessarily on Bloodshot but that we might not have seen otherwise," explains Anderson.
"Like Split Lip Rayfield," Walston chimes in.
"Ex-Husbands," says Anderson.
"Handsome Family," injects Stiles.
"The Handsome Family is like my favorite band in the world now," states Anderson.
"The Blacks are awesome, Neko [Case] is awesome, the Wacos," lists Stiles. "Getting to tour and play with these bands is always so cool."
"I think it's just a coincidence that we happen to be playing this at a time when there's other bands who do it," posits Anderson. "Me and Jo were doing it eight, nine years ago, and decided to do this band again like three years ago. Meanwhile, there was this label going and everything.
"Like that thing at Yard Dog for South by Southwest -- all the Bloodshot bands. It was so good," he says, referring to the all-day, multi-band blast out back of the South Congress folk-art shop. "And then the Bloodshot showcase. All those bands have their own thing. It's not a comfortable little category."
Anderson cites Austin's Hickoids -- contemporaries of his, Walston's, and Pocket FishRman Brant Bingamon's earlier band Joan of Arkansas -- as an example of a group who plied alt.country before No Depression magazine, or whoever it was, even thought up the moniker.
"I would go see them all the time," he says, "but I think [now], people outside of Texas are like, 'Wow, the Hickoids. They were wild.' And they were, too."
"Definitely," agrees Walston.
"They could be the worst band in the world or the best band in the world, depending," says Anderson. "Sometimes they were both at the same time."
"Which is like us, except for the best band in the world part," laughs Stiles. "If you scratch that, it's just like us."
Plenty of people would dispute Stiles' assertion, especially after being stuffed like sardines into Hole in the Wall for one of the Purveyors' periodic blowouts. Onstage with slap bassist Cherilyn DiMond (who had to work and could not join the band for this interview) and guest fiddler Darcie Deaville, the band runs hotter than Texas in July, with mind-melting vigor and ear-splitting volume. That's the Austin in them, what the Hickoids had, what Pocket FishRmen, Sons of Hercules, Prescott Curlywolf, Solid Gold 40, and the Bulemics all have.
"I want this driving, totally teetering on the brink of disaster feel," says Stiles.
The Meat Purveyors walk that line like they've been pulled over by DPS, engaging their crowds in a game of chicken where they'll never swerve first. Eventually, audience members pull over to the sidelines for a smoke, but not the band. They blow right past you. And it doesn't matter if it's into Bill Monroe or Glass Eye's "Dempsey Nash," because the effect is the same: For that moment, they are the best band in the world simply because they are the only band in the world. All you can do is go to the bar for a refill and sniff the tire tracks.
The group, originally called the Texas Meat Purveyors, formed in the summer of 1996 at the behest of local banjo player Nora Floyd, once noted in these pages for her skills as a pugilist after she cold-cocked somebody at a Hole in the Wall Free for All. Floyd brought former Arkansans Walston and Anderson into the fold, along with her friend from San Diego, DiMond. Stiles appeared shortly thereafter, following a fortuitous visit to their practice space.
"I stopped in to see this friend of mine," he remembers, "and poked my head in the room, and there was Sherilyn, Jo, and Nora sitting around --"
"Naked," injects Walston.
"-- with a six-pack of Lone Star tallboys," continues Stiles, "and banjos, guitars, and upright bass scattered around. I quickly introduced myself and offered my services."
"He kinda macked his way into the band," explains Anderson.
Floyd played with the group about six months before skipping town. Once she was gone, her cohorts began looking for a replacement only to realize that the absence of banjo made it easier for the rest of them to hear their instruments. Today the Meat Purveyors' chances of breaking in a new guy (or girl) are pretty slim indeed.
"We've become so insular, it's hard to imagine there being a fifth person," says Anderson. "They would have to be very flexible."
"They would basically have to be a machine," adds Walston. "Like not a human."
Anything meaningful, except ground beef, is best raw. Emotion, passion, celery -- it's all the same. Music is no exception, especially in the hands of the Meat Purveyors. They're so raw that if they lived in New York, they could call themselves Russell Simmons' Def Bluegrass Jam. Don't get them wrong, though -- they have plenty of respect for the past. Like the Twenties and Thirties, when this music was being created amidst hard times aplenty.
"I think what gets people with a punk pedigree more interested in country music is going way back and listening to the really, really old stuff, because that was when it was really, really good," ventures Walston.
"When people hear that old shit, they think, 'Man, that's cool,'" says Anderson.
"You hear old Bill Monroe stuff and he's screaming in this crazy falsetto and the band is just cranking and driving," enthuses Stiles.
"Yeah," says Walston. "It's like punk rock."
"It's so punk rock," affirms Stiles. "That's what sucks about most new bluegrass -- that's totally been forgotten. I don't ever want to sound like, I don't know, Alison Krauss' band, where it just sounds like Nashville without the snare drum."
"All the edges are smoothed over," Anderson laments.
"There's gotta be some edge," says Walston.
The Meat Purveyors play music for those seeking release, those who aren't afraid to dangle their feet over that edge and maybe get their hands and minds dirty as well. Those who would rather play it safe shouldn't get too close. Not that the Meat Purveyors are out to make would-be fans throw up when they go see the band. They'd much rather they hurl the next morning, like in "The Morning After."
"It's all folk music, you know," says Stiles.
"Yeah, punk rock is totally folk music," Anderson agrees.
Even so, don't look for these folkies at too many of those Telluride-like folk and bluegrass festivals.
"It never feels good to play before the sun goes down," chuckles Anderson. "Maybe someday we'll try it."
"The smoke-free Cactus [Cafe] is odd enough, but when you actually have daylight and a sober audience, it gets really bizarre," says Stiles.
"I can't come up with the stage patter until I've had a couple of drinks," admits Anderson. "I don't want to get drunk at two in the afternoon."
The band realized this very thing early on.
"We played a couple of weddings," recalls Anderson. "We thought, 'We'll make money,' but it didn't."
"It's not worth it," says Walston.
"We need to be the center of attention," states Anderson.
"That's the only reason we're doing this," says Walston. "We're not doing this for the money, that's for damn sure."
The Meat Purveyors are trying to behave. They're struggling with the same demons and temptations that surface again and again in their songs. Walking the straight and narrow is not an easy thing for a band so full of inspired abandon. But they're trying. Really they are. They may not go to church, but they believe in George Jones.
"I think sin is wrong," declares Stiles. "I'd like to come out as absolutely against sin. I'm going to take a hard stand on this."
"Guilt is a really driving factor," Anderson adds. "Sin is nothing without the guilt."
"If you've got one without the other, something's clearly out of whack," asserts Stiles, "and you should probably either be institutionalized or go see a preacher."
"You know, George Jones was singing that song about sinners and saints," says Walston. "'Sinners and saints, sinners and saints, they're just the same but one is forgiven and the other one ain't.' Whatever's good enough for him is good enough for me, that's for sure."
"If getting wasted in your Lexus SUV and flipping it off a bridge and coming out of it alive is all right for George Jones," Stiles muses, "then it's all right for the Meat Purveyors."