Hailing from Austin, Texas, the Bad Livers are on a mission--to bring the tradition of bluegrass to the general public. “We feel that we are providing a service,” Mark Rubin, bassist and tuba player, said just before a March 1997 show at a Detroit pool hall. And they are. The crowd at that show sported cowboy hats, pierced eyebrows, ripped leather, and retro suits. Not your typical bluegrass crowd, but then the Bad Livers are not your typical bluegrass band. Drawing on an eclectic range of influences, from bluegrass legends Flatt & Scruggs to jazz greats Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker to punk artists the Misfits and Iggy Pop, they have crafted their own form of bluegrass—“Bad Livers music,” as the band calls it. The diversity of their audience is due in part to their early penchant for covering punk rock classics.
Music critics quickly labeled them “bluegrass-thrash.” Though this moniker resulted in wider exposure for the band, it also threatened to exile them to the land of kitsch. The Bad Livers would have none of it. “We remembered what John Hartford once said. ‘Don’t get famous doing something you hate’” said Rubin. So they stopped the covers and focused on the music. Their audience, initially drawn by the novelty, stayed, drawn to the top-notch musicianship, the lightening-fast playing, and the old-time bluegrass soul pulsating through each song.
The Bad Livers’ story begins in 1990. Danny Barnes, banjo madman and long-time Austin music scene staple, enlisted Rubin and fiddler/accordionist Ralph White to form the Danny Barnes Trio. Barnes, a native Texan who began banjo picking at the age of ten, brought the band a reverence for bluegrass. Rubin, a former roadie for The Flaming Lips, brought a punk sensibility honed by listening to college radio in Norman, Oklahoma. White, a tree-cutter by trade, brought a no-nonsense love of traditional music and a burning desire to play. Together the three of them set out to make some good music.
They soon landed a regular gig at a local bar. Saddled with the task of performing four one-hour sets a night, the band, having been together less than a year and with little original music, turned to covers. They applied their bluegrass twist to everyone from Miles Davis to Johnny Cash to Motorhead. During this time they coalesced as a group—getting tighter, playing stronger—and somewhere in the midst of it all the Bad Livers were born.
Word began to spread about this little bluegrass trio that did outrageous covers of punk classics. They became the band to see in Austin—not a small feat considering that there is quality original music coming out of every corner bar in town. Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, another Austin export, was hooked. In June of 1991, he produced the bands first recording—a 7-inch cover of “Lust for Life,” Iggy Pop’s classic punk anthem—in his living room. Soon after, the Bad Livers toured with the Butthole Surfers, playing for young alternative fans across the nation. Critics, at a loss to describe the band, labeled them “bluegrass-thrash” or “punk-bluegrass.” At first the band let this reputation ride. Barnes told New Country Magazine in a 1994 interview, “People whoaren’t familiar with the kind of music we can play, bluegrass, don’t hear it. But if you play something they already know and whap it, then you’ve got their attention. That’s what we did with the crazy covers. It’s kind of a sad comment on the music-listening public, but it worked.”
It worked well enough to get the attention of record label executives. Leery of being signed as a novelty act, they carefully reviewed each offer and eventually signed with Quarterstick, a division of Touch and Go Records, a Chicago-based indie-rock label. “They were the only label willing to give us absolute freedom to do our own thing,” said Rubin. This collaboration, while giving the band artistic freedom and helping to expose bluegrass to a wider audience, would also reinforce the punk connection in the eyes of the public.
In September of 1992, their first album, Delusions of Banjer, was released. Produced by Leary, the album received widespread acclaim, both with the indie-fans
For the Record…
Members include Danny Barnes (born December 21, 1961, Temple, TX), bango, guitar, and vocals; Bob Grant (born March 11, 1966, Astoria-Queens, NY), mandolin, banjo and guitar; Mark Rubin (born August 18, 1966, Stillwater, OK), upright bass and tuba; Ralph White (left group 1996), fiddle and accordion.
Group formed in Austin, Texas, c. 1990; released 7 inch Lust for Life cover on Cargo Records, 1991; signed with Touch and Go’s Quarterstick label and released Delusions of Banjer, 1992. Quarterstick re-issued Dust on the Bible on cassette, 1994. Released Horses in the Mines, 1994. Signed to Sugar Hill Records and released Hogs on the Highway, 1997’.
Addresses: Agent —Davis McLarty, P.O. Box 3156, Austin, TX, 78764. Record company —Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300. Website —http://www.hyperweb.com/badlivers/ and http://www.southern.com/southern/band/BADLV/biog.html. E-mail —[email protected]
and, to a lesser extent, the bluegrass purists. The album consisted almost entirely of Barnes’ original compositions. Songs like “Git Them Pretty Girls” and “I Know You’re Married” pass as bluegrass music pure and simple, but the cover of Leary’s “The Adventures of Pee Pee the Sailor” reminds you that this is Bad Livers bluegrass, after all.
Quarterstick’s commitment to the band was reiterated in 1994, when the label re-released Dust on the Bible, a tape the band had self-produced in 1991. Originally intended as a Christmas gift for family and friends, the tape, recorded in Barnes’ living room, consisted of classic bluegrass spirituals. Songs like “Workin’ on a Building (for my Lord)” and “Crying Holy Unto the Lord” resonate with a down-home pureness that recalls Sunday afternoon church picnics. “It doesn’t get more noncommercial than gospel music,” Rubin told CMJs Dawn Sutter in 1994. Like Delusions of Banjer, the tape was praised by music critics, but garnered little financial gain. Still, the label kept their faith in the band and soon financed a second album.
With the goal of producing an old-timey feel on the album, the band built a wooden shed to serve as the studio. There, they recorded the mostly original tunes on an eight-track analog recorder. The result was 1994’s Horse in the Mines. Background noise, idle chatter between songs, and Barnes’ barking dog, Judy, pepper the album throughout, evoking a sense of authenticity—music the way it was before technology got a hold of it. As Rubin told Sutter, “The idea was to make a more organic record.” The sixteen tracks feature traditional bluegrass instruments like the banjo, upright bass, fiddle, and mandolin, but, consistent with Bad Livers penchant for the unexpected, the tuba also figures prominently, most nicely on the Dixie-land tinged “Turpentine Willie.” Other highlights include the fiddle-driven “Old Folk’s Shuffle,” a lament on the realities of aging and the plaintive title track inspired by Emil Zola’s novel about a depressed French mining community. The one cover song, “Blue Ridge Express,” is a traditional bluegrass tune that Barnes first learned to play as a child.
The band and the critics were pleased with the album. Bluegrass aficionados, previously turned off by the band’s punk antics, embraced them. They received invitations to perform at bluegrass festivals, including the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival. However, because the album was on the Quarterstick label, itfound it’s way on to the editorial desks of thrash and metal reviewers who also raved about the band, prompting bookings at alternative venues. Wherever they performed, they quickly won over the audience with their furious playing and good-time attitude. Album sales, however, were dismal. “We knew something had to change,” said Rubin just before the Detroit show, “and it wasn’t the music.” Despite Quarterstick’s belief in the band, the label was not able to generate interest in the type of audience that would appreciate it. “It’s good to open the music to a new audience, but the crowd would request ’Lust for Life’ and then request it again, and we knew they weren’t hearing it. They didn’t understand.” Despite their musical inroads, they were unable to shake their quirky cover band reputation. Both the band and the label, realizing this, initiated an amicable break. Summing up the experience, Rubin said, “It was good thing and a bad thing. We got exposure, but if we died in a car wreck tomorrow, we’d be remembered as the band that did the wacky bluegrass covers.”
Following Horses in the Mine, the band toured heavily, racking up thousands of miles on their van’s odometer. They traveled alone—no roadies, no manager, no merchandisers—just three dedicated musicians with a truck-load of banjoes, fiddles, and guitars. (And of course Rubin’s trusty tuba.) When not on the road, they worked on other musical projects. Rubin also plays bass for conjunto accordionist Santiago Jimenez, Jr. Barnes produced an album for Texas mandolin player Steve James. And both players have been known to keep nimble by doing polka gigs. “It gives me a wider palette,” Rubin told Rolling Stone in 1994. During this time, the trio began to work on the material that would form their next album.
In 1996, the group signed with Sugar Hill Records, a label known for it’s bluegrass and country acts, and in 1997 released Hogs on the Highway. The album is straight-ahead bluegrass with the usual Bad Livers intensity. This time, however, there are no funky covers to draw attention away from the quality of the music. Chris Riemen-schneider, in a 1997 article in the Austin American-Statesman described the album and the band like this: “A deeper change has taken place… one where novelty has been left behind for maturity, modernization for traditionalism… they’re the same good ol’ boys, just with a more respectable twist.”
Hogs on the Highway is composed of songs drawn from the band’s touring experiences. The knee-slapping title track refers to the time their van was stuck behind a truckload of pigs. During the Detroit show, Barnes related the incident to the audience. “One pig in the back of the truck fixed his eye on me, and I knew, he knows where he’s goin’ and I know where I’m goin’.” “Shuff lin’ to Memphis” was based on their first out-of-town gig. “We werethis little band from Austin and they [the promoters] completely ripped us off,” recounted Barnes. “It was music-biz 101.” Other highlights of the album include “Counting theCrossties,” described by Riemenschneider as what “might well be the best Bad Livers composition ever, with richly wry lyrics complemented by Barnes’ warm-as-a-campfire, nasally drawl.”
Just prior to signing with Sugar Hill, Ralph White, tired of touring, decided to leave the band. Bob Grant, a mandolin and banjo player from New York City quickly took his place. It was anamicable split and White has remained close to the band. Both he and Grant appear on Hogs on the Highway. The new label and the band’s continuing commitment to bluegrass should help the Bad Livers’ finally break free of their punk past. “We are confident what we do is valid,” Rubin ventured. “We will find an audience because of the music. True music fans will seek us out.”
Lust for Life, 7 inch, Cargo Records, 1991.
Delusions of Banjer (includes “Git Them Pretty Girls,” “I Know You’re Married,” and “The Adventures of Pee Pee the Sailor”), Quarterstick, 1992.
Dust on the Bible (includes “Workin’ on a Building (for my Lord)” and “Crying Holy Unto the Lord”), Quarterstick, 1994, reissue.
Horses in the Mines (includes “Turpentine Willie,” “Old Folk’s Shuffle,” and “Blue Ridge Express”), Quarterstick Records,1994.
Hogs on the Highway (includes “Shufflin’ to Memphis” and “Counting the Crossties”), Sugar Hill Records, 1997.
Austin American-Statesman, January 1997.
Black and White Magazine, June 12, 1995.
CMJ, June 13, 1994.
Rolling Stone, February 1995.
New Country Magazine, June 1994.
Additional information was obtained from a March 1997 interview with Mark Rubin and materials from the Bad Livers sites on the World Wide Web (http://www.hyperweb.com/badlivers/).
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