“One of the brightest homages I’ve heard in a long time…not a bad or boring track to be found”
Bob Townsend Stomp and Stammer
“Somewhere beyond the pearly gates, Bob Wills is streched out in a rocking chair, a cigar in his left hand, a glass of Jack Daniel’s in the other, tapping his foot and grinnin’ from ear to ear. With all the crap on the airwaves that tries to pass itself as country music these days, this new recording is blessed relief…19 songs all told, each executed with the wild abandon and excellent musicianship that characterized Wills and the Playboys.”
David Bennett San Antonio Current
“Damn, it’s good. [One highlight is] badass goofball Robbie Fulks, who knows better than most that country music needs a touch of Viet Cong attitude: Sometimes you’ve got to burn the village in order to save it. Good times are assured.”
Steve Dollar playboy.com
“The Cosmonauts play like it’s the last hoe-down and mentor Bob is just waiting in the wings, tapping his bow, ready to step in if needed. Just when country music is getting all serious about itself, a waft of bob Wills is just what the doctor ordered. the dance floor is swinging once again.”
John Sekerka Thrust Quarterly
“This disc stands alone as a new benchmark for a mcuh neglected genre. Each song is a testament, and the whole disc is a wonderful induction for the uninitiated. With 19 outstanding cuts, it’s hard to pick a favorite.”
Robert Gabella In The Mix
The indefatigable Jon Langford (of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers) started the Pine Valley Cosmonauts as a temporary outfit to pay tribute to country & western icon Johnny Cash, but the project has taken on a life of its own. He’s just one of eighteen singers (along with Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Brett Sparks, and Jane Baster Miller) on the group’s second record, a nineteen-song revue that celebrates the music of Texas bandleader Bob Wills. In the 1930s and ’40s Wills was the undisputed king of western swing, an amalgam of hillbilly fiddle tunes and big band music. The Cosmonauts’ simulations aren’t quite as brilliant as Wills’ best efforts, but they do capture the irrepressible joy and easy-going swing that make this music so irresistible.
Bill Meyer metromix This RAYGUN review is by Natalie Nichols:
“Maybe all you modern swing-lovers out there have heard of Bob Wills? Along with his band the Texas Playboys, he was probably the most popular purveyor of Western swing, the 1930s-40s pop style that fused the down-home twang of Western string groups with the jazzy horns of Dixieland and big bands for a nigh-on-irresistible, high-spirited groove.
So who better to revive this earthy-sophisticated stuff than those roots-loving alt-rockers from the Mekons and the Waco Brothers? On 19 Wills compositions, frontman Jon Langford, drummer Steve Goulding, standup bassist Tom Ray (Bottle Rockets), and the band deftly mingle cheeky brass charts with banjos, guitars, pedal-steel, and fiddles, enlisting an array of [mostly] qualified vocalists to wring out every celebratory, mournful, and drunken note.
The songs flow smoothly when talented crooners like Jimmie Dale Gilmore [“Trouble In Mind”], Dean Schlabowske [“Brain Cloudy Blues”], or Mekon Sally Timms [“Right Or Wrong”] are at the mike, and the band conjures up an almost magical aura of easy authenticity, never letting their deep respect for Wills get in the way of having a grand time.
It might be that very sense of fun, however, that lets them under- estimate the importance of using the finest vocals, which are key in limning the proper emotions–especially since it’s challenging to essay the more anachronistic numbers, like the absurd “Across The Alley From The Alamo,” without inadvertently turning them into parody. While such lesser singing talents as Langford [“Sweet Kind Of Love”] and Chris Mills [“Home In San Antone”] don’t exactly ruin the tunes, they do dilute the illusion.”
Here’s a review from the San Francisco Chronicle. They gave it 4 stars (“excellent”).
“Yet another side project spearheaded by the Mekons’ country-loving punk veteran Jon Langford, this tribute to “the king of Western swing” features guest vocals from some of insurgent country’s brightest talents. Robbie Fulks leads the band through the rousing skirt-twirler “Across the Alley >From the Alamo”; Austin’s Jimmie Dale Gilmore lends his distinctive nasal twang to “Trouble in Mind”; brooding Brooklyn chanteuse Edith Frost perks up for “My Window Faces the South.”
The Brit-accented Langford takes the lead twice, including a duet on the Wills signature “San Antonio Rose” with Alejandro Escovedo. There’s plenty here to offer: It’s punk in spirit and faithful in arrangement to the fiddlin’ bandleader Wills, and Paul Mertens’ frisky clarinet and saxophone solos help emphasize the “swing” element of this classic music.”
And here’s the review from the Sept/Oct issue of NO DEPRESSION, written by David Menconi:
“The problem with tribute records–well, one problem with tribute records–is consistency. You get a bunch of different acts and maybe they mesh (with the material as well as with each other), but more often they don’t.
This drop-dead fabulous tribute to the late king of Western swing gets around that problem by having the same core group on every track. Mekons/Waco Brothers guitarist Jon Langford is master of ceremonies, augmented by his regular drummer Steve Goulding, ex-Bottle Rocket Tom Ray and a horn section of Poi Dog Pondering Members Paul Mertens and Dave Crawford. The variety comes from the different singers, including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alejandro Escovedo, Edith Frost and Neko Case.
SALUTE THE MAJESTY OF BOB WILLS works because the consistent backup group creates a more unified feel than on most such tribute records, and also because there’s no deference paid and no one is afraid to let themselves go. It’s difficult to imagine just what Wills would think of Robbie Fulks’ over-the-top braying on “Across The Alley From The Alamo” (on which he sounds as if he’s coming unglued, one verse at a time), but that doesn’t seem to concern any of the participants in the least. Everybody’s too busy pumpin’ away to worry.
Other highlights in clude Gilmore’s smooth takedown of “Trouble In Mind,” Sally Timms’ sultry “Right Or Wrong,” and the damn near heartstopping Langford/Escovedo duet on “San Antonio Rose.” Since Escovedo is a San Antonio native, that song is as fitting as it is perfect–guaranteed to get the joint hoppin’ at your next house party.
Really, though, there isn’t a bum moment anywhere. Loose-limbed where it has to be yet tight in all the right places, SALUTE THE MAJESTY OF BOB WILLS is more a conjuring than mere homage. And now that swing music is suddenly hot again, the time is ripe for a Bob Wills resurgence. The Pine Valley Cosmonauts seem like just the folks to take Wills to the people.” From: http://www.dallasobserver.com/1998/current/music3.html
Country and Midwestern
The best of the alt-country lot salute the majesty of the past — while defining the future
By Mark Athitakis
Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut No Depression was a lousy way to start a musical revolution. Taking everything they’d learned from their beloved Gram Parsons and Replacements records, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy strived to create a country-rock synthesis and wound up just making a mess. For all its youthful exuberance, the record was sick with sloppy hooks, clichés, and tentative vocals. The first-album mistakes were forgivable; by 1993’s swan song Anodyne, the St. Louis band had molded its sound into something richer and truer to both honky-tonk and post-punk. Despite obvious shortcomings, No Depression deserves a bit of slack. Not even its makers could have known that it would become a talisman for a genre that would grow from an AOL discussion folder to a magazine to a cult to a full-blown culture. Not that Uncle Tupelo invented country-rock; the relationship was there ever since Buck Owens and Merle Haggard started playing electric guitar. But Uncle Tupelo was one of the first modern bands to proudly acknowledge the interrelationship. Until then, country’s presence in rock was limited to the one-off experiment (Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, R.E.M.’s “[Don’t Go Back to] Rockville”), the great album ignored in its own time (The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin), or anesthetized adult-contemporary pop with a slight twang (the entire Eagles catalog). No Depression, if nothing else, was an admission of how much rock and country owed each other. The record opened the floodgates for alt-country true believers who were weaned on post-punk. They didn’t grow up in Nashville, Texas, or Bakersfield, but in Uncle Tupelo’s urban and suburban Midwest. That the bands found a haven in Chicago, Minneapolis, and St. Louis isn’t that surprising, really. They were some of the last urban centers left that were unburdened by a deep country history. There were no Buck Owenses or Lefty Frizzells lurking in the past; most musicians in the late ’80s just wanted to avoid playing like yet another damned Hüsker Dü knockoff. There was no ossified country music establishment either: “Fuck this town,” Chicagoan Robbie Fulks sang of Nashville on last year’s South Mouth, proclaiming it the center of a “moron market” concerned more with moving units than preserving the traditions of honky-tonk or Western swing.
Fulks has earned his right to complain. Across two albums on the Chicago “insurgent country” label Bloodshot, he’s proved himself a brilliant songwriter, a master of both the genre’s irony and dark humor. Employing a brash, resonant voice that hearkens back to flattop-era George Jones, songs such as “She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)” and “The Buck Starts Here” are carefully crafted tales of loss and frustration. It’s a talent that even a blind and deaf music establishment couldn’t ignore forever, so it’s a sort of poetic justice that his third album, Let’s Kill Saturday Night, was recorded in Nashville for a major label. And, as if to thwart the assumptions of the company men who contracted him, it’s also his first album to step away from the stylistic conventions he’d used earlier in his career; his songs now employ volume feedback nearly as much as the twang and lyrical craft he got hired for.
It’s a balance he’s comfortable striking. The excellent title track, so powerful a response to Jones’ “I’ve Got Five Dollars and It’s Saturday Night” that New York’s Five Chinese Brothers covered it a year before Fulks recorded it himself, blasts out its broke-but-fun-loving frustrations passionately. And Fulks’ amplified songs, such as “Little King” and “She Must Think I Like Poetry,” are dense, punkish howls. His genius is still in the slow, acoustic lament, exemplified by the tale of religious conflict in “God Isn’t Real” or the bluesy stomp of “Pretty Little Poison,” a duet with Lucinda Williams, another songwriter who clawed her way to Nashville. The sense of doom and foreboding reaches its peak in “Night Accident,” where Fulks takes on the role of a car crash survivor: Sitting in the passenger side of a vehicle flipped onto the railroad tracks, he speaks to his dead friend in the driver’s seat. With just enough time before the train comes, he confesses sleeping with his friend’s wife, his agony looming “as vengeful as hands on a crippled man’s throat, silently tightening their hold / As sure as the path of the 5:19, as down through the valley it rolls.”
If Fulks’ own album is shot through with a chilly feeling of dread, his vocals on Bob Wills’ “Across the Alley From the Alamo” are beautifully carefree; that howl of his that’s usually in the service of death and misery works just as well when singing guileless hidey-hos. The song appears on Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, a country-tribute group founded by Chicago-based Mekon Jon Langford, who since 1985’s alt-country touchstone Fear and Whiskey has moved further away from his British punk roots into a country-music re-education program. The Cosmonauts are his attempt to recover Wills & His Texas Playboys from the dustbin of history, with a core group built on members drawn from fellow Mekons, Langford’s cowpunk side project the Waco Brothers, and groove-rockers Poi Dog Pondering.
The vocals are handled by a wide array of singers, who function as object lessons in the commingling of punk and country: Alejandro Escovedo, former guitarist in Austin’s True Believers (“San Antonio Rose”), Lubbock-bred Flatlander Jimmie Dale Gilmore (“Trouble in Mind”), and the Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks, whose joking vocal tone works perfectly on “Roly-Poly.” Unlike the Cosmonauts’ highly interpretive album of Johnny Cash covers released last year, the Wills record stays close to the sound and spirit of the originals; the musicians seem so in awe of Wills that very little is embellished, and none of the vocalists dares to try one of his trademark “Ahh-haa!” introductions. It’s an honorable record, its songs covered humbly and honestly, capturing the joy and enthusiasm that pervade Wills’ music.
Wills himself makes for an interesting alt-country figurehead. A sort of country radical during his band’s World War II-era heyday (and onetime owner of the Longhorn Ballroom on Industrial Boulevard), Wills was a relentless experimenter who drew heavily from the brass horns of jazz and Texas border-radio mariachi, and he was the first country act who dared to place a drum kit at the Grand Ole Opry. If a lust for rewriting the genre’s rules is the hallmark of alt-country, then you couldn’t ask for a better mentor. Fooling around with tradition too much is a dangerous thing, though, and Son Volt’s third album, Wide Swing Tremolo, falls victim to it; frontman Jay Farrar is now flailing away at tradition so randomly, he’s making the same mistakes he did early on with Uncle Tupelo, trying on so many influences at once, he’s having trouble corralling them.
On Son Volt’s 1995 debut masterpiece Trace, the quartet jumped into the dark truths and soulfulness of country and came up with a blissful, hooky, and deeply sincere record. Last year’s Straightaways started showing some creative cracks, which become patently obvious on Tremolo: The band’s stabs at Southern rock (“Straightface,” “Flow”) and bluegrass-styled muttering (“Carry You Down”) sound forced and unconvincing, while odd, nearly psychedelic instrumental throwaways such as “Jodel” (nearly atonal harmonica) and “Chanty” (processed acoustic guitar, played backward at points) only add to the confusion. There are moments that come close to the strengths of Trace, particularly the gentle feedback fuzz that graces “Strands,” or the quietly dramatic lament “Streets That Time Walks,” but where once Farrar sounded tragically worn, now he simply sounds sleepy. Worse, Farrar’s greatest asset was as a storyteller, singing about the fears and passions of modern living, but he’s now become nearly inscrutable. “Say hello to the blue side hanging around / Didn’t think it’d matter, just force of habit,” he sings. Well, um, howdy.
Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman and Farrar’s foil in Uncle Tupelo, has no such concerns. As part of Golden Smog, his occasional side-project collaboration with Gary Louris and Marc Perlman of Minneapolis’ Jayhawks, he finds a place to kick his feet up and relax, having focused his serious work with Wilco and his magnificent collaboration with Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie’s ghost on Mermaid Avenue. A sort of Midwestern country-rock supergroup that once featured the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, the lineup now includes Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, and the music they make on Weird Tales is the very definition of repose.
Tweedy’s own contributions are the charming, breezy rock of “I Can’t Keep From Talking” and the folk-tinged epistle “Please Tell My Brother,” but Louris is the only one who seems to have saved truly great songs for the sessions, particularly the lonesome plea of “Jane” and the heartbreaking, piano-laced closer “Jennifer Save Me”; sounding precariously close in phrasing to the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” “Jennifer” is also the moment where the band’s punk influences become apparent. That’s traditional for alt-country, though: It’s about bands coming to terms with their youth, looking at what came well before them, and trying to make it mean something in the present, even if they fall flat on their face in the process. It’s a story of successes and failures, but always a constant searching. Precisely the kind of story you can wrap a country song around.
Those winter nights get long and lonely, and there’s only so many times you can paint your toenails watching that tape of Brad Pitt on Oprah. So why not pop in this tribute to Western swing pioneer Bob Wills and blast your seasonal affective disorder out the chimney. The ringmaster is the Mekons’ Jon Langford, with his band the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and an elite corps of country-punk rowdies taking turns on the mike. Bob Wills was one of country’s all-time classic songwriters, mixing up Texas jive and jazz, and his tunes inspire festive, rocking performances all round. Top-shelf indie songbirds like Edith Frost, Neko Case and Kelly Hogan ride their blazing saddles through the Wills songbook, while Mekon punk-marm Sally Timms teaches us all a lesson in “Right or Wrong.” No irony or art-slumming here, just great tunes roughed up in the liquor-store parking lot. If you can’t get your guests shaking ass to The Majesty of Bob Wills, consider joining a monastery.
(RS 804) ROB SHEFFIELD (3 1/2 stars)
Chicago Sun-Times December 13, 1998
The songs of the late, great Bob Wills are brought to glorious life on this musical roundup by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Another side project of the ubiquitous Jon Langford (Mekons/Waco Brothers/Skull Orchard), the Cosmonauts gather a group of guest vocalists (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alejandro Escovedo, Robbie Fulks, Neko Case, Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, et al.), who add their own personal touches to Wills’ magical songbook of country and western swing. The 19 songs here not only showcase Wills’ eloquent skills but also those of his modern-day counterparts, who each bring fresh interpretations to songs such as “Drunkard’s Blues” (Hogan), “Across the Alley from the Alamo” (Fulks), “Stay a Little Longer” (Case and Bob Boyd) and “Take Me Back to Tulsa” (the Meat Purveyors).
Mary Houlihan-Skilton It’s not often that you can point to a single figure in any field and say that’s the starting point. Bob Wills is such a person – ground zero for western swing. Armed with his fiddle, a white Stetson and a good cigar, Wills listened to the sounds echoing in his head, jazz and blues mixed with old-time fiddle tunes and formed the Lightcrust Doughboys and later the renowned Texas Playboys and played what he called jazz. And jazz it was- just with a fiddle and pedal steel instead of a horn section. The sound became known as “western swing”, and it was music formed and forged in the dancehalls and honky-tonks of Texas. It was music for working people, who would fill a roadhouse on a Saturday night looking to dance, cry and fight- and Bob Wills reigned supreme over the scene until his death after a coma in 1975. The body of work he left behind is firmly engraved in our musical souls- as much as any by Presley or Hank Williams. “Faded Love”, “Stay all Night (Stay a Little Longer)”, or “San Antonio Rose” will be in the jukeboxes of our hearts forever.
But Wills’ music wasn’t an overnight sensation- far from it. The first steps of pioneers are generally jeered and ignored, and Wills certainly took his lumps. Arriving in Tulsa in the mid-1930’s, his band having grown to contain a horn section and definitely playing “swing music”, the group applied for and were denied entrance to the musicians union, because, to the union’s way of thinking “What they played wasn’t music, thus they weren’t musicians”. To punk pioneer turned insurgent country artist Jon Langford this must have sounded familiar. A founding member of the Mekons and now additionally the leader of The Waco Brothers, I’m sure Langford has faced the blank stares and cool indifference of those who couldn’t understand his passion. It’s in this spirit, I suspect, that he recruited the alternative country scene’s finest to pay homage to one of America’s original punks, Bob Wills.
Langford has taken to his breast the championing of real, roots country music, the lost American art form. In fact the first Pine Valley Cosmonauts release celebrated the original Man in Black with “Misery Loves Company- JonBoy Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts explore the dark and lonely world of Johnny Cash”. Langford and crew feel that America has lost sight of the true genius that is country music- the Wills’, the Cashes and others that our culture has tossed away as dated and stale. Of course he’s correct- five minutes trapped in front of the CMA awards would convince you of that, but unlike others would only carp instead of acting, Langford does something about it, on this Bloodshot release.
From Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s take on “Trouble in Mind”, where his nasal twang sounds born to sing the song to Robbie Fulks honky tonk and horn raveup on “Across the Alley from the Alamo”, this record shines, mainly because the assembled crew have an evident love for the material- they all have a pint of Texas flowing in their veins. Standouts include Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Langford on “San Antonio Rose”, the new cowgirl and the old hoss pairing of Neko Case and Bob Boyd on “Stay all Night”. Kelly Hogan uses a smattering of the old Jody Grind sound to good use on “Drunkards Blues”, a sadly swinging next morning lament. This lady could sing the yellow off a lemon. Every track’s a keeper with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts (actually the Waco Brothers) providing an easy, swaying bed of accompaniment for the singers to do their particular magic over.
All in all, this is a fine salute to a man whose greatest tribute was knowing that somewhere, from a barroom in Texas to the stage of the Grand Old Opry, people took his music as their own, and used it as the soundtrack to their loves and heartbreaks. Jon Langford and his gang clearly have. So why not pour yourself a Lone Star, put on this record, and with a nod of the Stetson Texas way, “Stay all Night (Stay a Little Longer)”.
The writing of Charles Townsend was invaluable to this piece.
©1998 James Mann
Originally appeared in Miles of Music, Ink19
Thanks to Lori Wiemer for sending me reviews!