Country, soul-rock band
Chet Atkins Meets the Velvet Underground
Since their formation in 1993, Nashville outcasts Lambchop have been considered the strangest country-inspired outfit, with the arguable exception of Palace, to play a brand of country or country-rock music that aims for the hearts of alternative-rock listeners. But while most mid-1990s alternative country-rockers—namely Son Volt, Wilco, Freakwater, and Richard Buckner—draw directly from the roots of country music, Lambchop took a different route. Far from the back-to-basics blueprint of the increasingly popular alternative-country sub-genre, Lambchop by comparison made the smooth and sleepy Nashville style central to their songs. Nonetheless, one won’t find Lambchop sharing the stage with Music Row big shots—they instead toured regularly with alternative band Yo La Tengo and acoustic-folk singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt—and it seems doubtful that Garth Brooks fans would take to Lambchop’s sly tales of suicide, death, aging, alcoholism, deception, or faceless souls trying to survive another mundane day. Consider these lines from “The Old Gold Shoe,” a track off 1999’s Nixon: “Like painful Southern bliss the kids out in the street/poured upon like caramel take their toys and break them/and garnished with some crushed pecans look at them, then walk away.”
At Lambchop’s forefront stands singer/guitarist Kurt Wagner, the one mainstay member who writes nearly all of the band’s material and delivers his songs in warm, gentle tones that make no effort to conceal the emotional heart of the matter at hand, whether it be one of bitterness, lust, or spite. Although he prefers to classify his group as a country outfit, with pedal steel guitar and acoustic guitar being an important element of the group’s overall sound, Lambchop at times appears more akin to an improvisational jazz collective than a traditional country combo, complete with a horn section that provides Wagner’s songs with lush, often string-laden arrangements. The ever-changing and expanding lineup, which has numbered anywhere from 10 to 15 members and has boasted some of Nashville’s top session musicians, draws on Nashville’s “countrypolitan” period, when singers like Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves were provided with big-city accompaniment. Wagner and his crew likewise draw on the sounds of nearby Memphis, late-1960s rock-country-rhythm and blues fusion and the early-1970s soul of Al Green, and also make use of the dramatic “Philly soul” sound, a prominent style of the same era.
“It’s not the most practical idea, that’s for sure, but we’re trying to do it in a realistic way,” the singer/songwriter admitted to Independent writer Andy Gill, referring to Lambchop’s unwieldy lineup. “We’re all friends, a collective of people who enjoy each others’ company and just like doing things together. Members join and leave, but the line-up just seems to grow—I think when we hit 20 members, we can have our own union. It just takes a little give and take on everybody’s part. It helps that we’re more adults than little kids, and
Members include Kurt Wagner (born and raised in Nashville, TN; Education: Studied sculpture in college, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine art from the Memphis Academy of Arts and Montana State University, respectively; maintained a day job installing, sanding, and finishing hardwood floors), guitar, vocals, songwriting; various other (numbering from 10–15) Nashville-based musicians.
Wagner returned to Nashville after college and started playing informally with friends, c. early-1990s; signed with Merge Records, released debut album I Hope You’re Sitting Down, 1994; released more mainstream country album, How I Quit Smoking, 1996; released rock-driven album, Thriller, 1997; released What Another Man Spilled, collaborated with singer/songwriter/guitarist Vic Chesnutt for his album The Salesman and Bernadette, toured Europe with Chesnutt, 1998; released Nixon, toured with indie-rockers Yo La Tengo, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Merge Records, P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, phone: (919) 929–0711, fax: (919) 929–4291, e-mail: [email protected], website: http://www.mrg2000.com. Website —Official Lambchop Site, http://www.landlocked. net/lambchop.
5that everybody has a good foundation in their lives. I don’t want this to be a burden on anybody; I just want it to be something people can enjoy.”
Such diversions—spoken-word monologues and homemade instruments included—represent Wagner’s attempt to fix what he feels is wrong with modern-day country music. “There are so many things wrong with country music,” asserted Wagner with a don’t-get-me-started sigh, as quoted by Gill, “the main one being that it doesn’t reflect the time we’re living in. It reflects the world of commerce and the idea of formula… If the guys who wrote these songs actually wrote about what was happening in their lives, they’d be writing about doing too much coke, screwing around on their wife, about their four divorces and all the alimony, and how they’ve screwed up their lives. And,” he concluded with a smile. “country music would be much richer for it!”
Although born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Wagner growing up never gravitated toward the city’s rich musical heritage. “In Nashville, if you’re not just this incredibly gifted technician—be it a singer or guitar player or whatever—they really have trouble getting past that,” he explained to Washington Times writer Jim Patterson. “It really just bugs them. I think that’s one of the reasons I got into art instead of music.”
After high school, Wagner left Nashville to study sculpture, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine art from the Memphis Academy of Arts and Montana State University, respectively. With his artwork, Wagner focused mainly in environments, installations where all the walls and objects in a room would have writings or drawings added to them. Later on, when he started recording songs, the same approach carried over into his music, which often probes the different levels of perception. The concept of space and time, a technique Wagner learned while studying sculpture, was likewise applicable to music, he discovered. “It’s very much the same deal,” he told Gill. “I just tried to apply those same learnings, those teachings, into the things I do now. One way or another, I’m still talking about experience and life, and how you perceive that—and how it comes out of my twisted mind.”
Chet Atkins Meets the Velvet Underground
While in art school, Wagner like many of his peers played music, but never thought of it as much more than a side interest. Upon graduation, he returned to Nashville, following a brief stay in Chicago, and started inviting friends for informal get togethers to play music. Over time, the group progressed from making home tapes to recording singles and then CD’s, eventually landing them a recording contract with the independent, Chapel Hill, North Carolina label Merge Records. Lambchop’s debut album, I Hope You’re Sitting Down (also titled Jack’s Tulips), arrived in 1994, illustrating the band’s dedication—in the same vein as Chet Atkins—to the steel guitar and the string-laden sound of Nashville country. However, the band also drew from the well of post-punk irony, occasionally breaking from country arrangements with thrashing drums, Velvet Underground-like guitar lines, and shaking organ.
Two years later saw the release of How I Quit Smoking, an album owing more to mainstream country, drawing upon the glossy 1970s Nashville productions of Billy Sherrill, famous for his work with Charlie Rich, Tanya Tucker, and Tammy Wynette. The album also featured string arrangements by John Mock, known for his work with straight country singer Kathy Mattea. Nonetheless, Wagner’s obscure lyrics remained prominent, rendering song titles like “The Scary Caroler” and “Your Life as a Sequel”—not the stuff of Top 40 country radio. A more accessible outing, an EP entitled Hank recorded at various festivals during 1995, also arrived in 1996.
The group’s next full-length album, however, took obscurity a step further. More rock-inspired than its predecessors, 1997’s Thriller took subtle steps into the avant-garde. The record’s opening songs, “My Face, Your Ass” (the answer to the classic question “Got a Match?”) and “Your F***ing Sunny Day” (re-titled for the single release “Your Sucking Funny Day”), especially showed the more aggressive side of Lambchop. And Wagner, who maintains his day job in the construction industry among “hard-core” workers, sanding and finishing hardwood floors, made no apologies about his use of foul language. “It’s my personality; it’s not so much about shock value, I just speak the way I speak,” he said to Gill. “I feel bad about it, because I suppose I should have the command and presence of mind to find other words to use,” Wagner continued. “But what [straight] country music doesn’t reflect is the fact that these singers cuss like madmen, and for them to not put that in, yet at the same time claim they are the voice of the working man or whatever, is ridiculous— it’s more like the voice of the working man who’s having dinner at his mother-in-law’s house.”
Late 1998 saw the release of What Another Man Spilled, an album that continued with the country style. However, Lambchop added their own touches again, blending elements of jazz, tropicalia, and even soul—with intriguing, vivid renditions of Curtis May-field’s “Give Me Your Love” and Frederick Knight’s “I’ve Been Lonely for So Long”—with their traditional Nashville sound. What Another Man Spilled also featured guest vocals by singer/guitarist/songwriter Vic Chesnutt, whom Wagner had met some ten years prior at one of his shows. Lambchop, in turn, collaborated with Chesnutt for his 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette, and toured with the musician that year for 25 European shows. “I’m a big fan of Lambchop,” Chesnutt said to Boston Globe staff writer Jim Sullivan. “They’re a big band that can play quiet. Their older records were meandering dirges and they progressed into a soul band and I like both sides. This album was a complete collaboration, and sounds like a Lambchop record in a way. They’re friends, and I love ’em as people.”
In early 2000, the Nashville supergroup released Nixon, the title referring to an affinity for 1970s-era orchestral country and soul music rather than to the former United States president. Winning rave reviews as did their prior efforts, Nixon, wrote Dennis Lim of the Village Voice, is “intricate, and remarkable in its detail.” And Greg Kot of Rolling Stone called Wagner’s offbeat phrasing and doleful humor “profoundly Southern and affectionately universal.” Featuring songs such as the Philly soul “Grumpus” and the celebratory centerpiece song “Up With People,” alongside gloomier pieces like “Butcher Boy” and “The Petrified Forest,” Lambchop again covered several bases, from soul and country to indie-rock and Wagner’s own heartbreaking beatnik poetry.
While major labels often inquired about signing Lambchop, Wagner always insisted that his band is not up for sale. With all the members of Lambchop’s members having wives, children, and other jobs that must take precedence, regular touring—a music business priority—remains impossible. “They shouldn’t have to sacrifice the quality of their lives in order to just be a musician or to make music. I just think that concept is sort of ludicrous… You may not be ‘successful, ’ but you can certainly have a normal life—a house, a home, a family, dogs, a job—and make music,” Wagner explained to Patterson. “I’d rather not have to go out and grind floors everyday,” he added. “but is that a good enough reason to sacrifice the quality of what you think you’re doing musically? I don’t think so.”
I Hope You’re Sitting Down, Merge, 1994.
“The Man Who Loved Beer” (seven-inch single), City Slang, 1996.
How I Quit Smoking, Merge, 1996.
Hank (EP), Merge, 1996.
Thriller, Merge, 1997.
What Another Man Spills, Merge, 1998.
Nixon, Merge, 2000.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 7, 1995; December 18, 1998.
Boston Globe, April 23, 1999.
Independent, July 5, 1996, p. 11; September 13, 1997, p. 5; October 3, 1997, p. 17; September 5, 1998, p. 43; September 11, 1998, p. 16.
Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1999.
Melody Maker, September 12, 1998.
New York Times, January 12, 1999.
Rolling Stone, March 2, 2000; April 27, 2000.
Tampa Tribune, March 24, 2000, p. 19.
Village Voice, January 19, 1999; February 29, 2000.
Washington Post, February 25, 2000.
Washington Times, March 15, 2000, p. C4.
Merge Artist—Lambchop, http://www.mrg2000.com/merge/bio.html?id=lambchop (May 1, 2000).
Official Lambchop Site, http://www.landlocked.net/lambchop/ (May 1, 2000).
"Lambchop." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lambchop
"Lambchop." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lambchop
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