In a career that spans 30 years, Britain's Jon Langford has turned from a punk rocker
to crafty country musician. He'll lead the Waco Brothers on Saturday night in the finale of Twangfest 12.
By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
June 5, 2008
When a British punk rocker rebels even against punk rock, and then turns to American country music, it's clear that he's following a distinct musical vision.
Over the past 30 years, Jon Langford's vision has led him from art college and punk rock in Leeds, to the punk-roots Mekons in the UK, to the punk-fueled, roots-country Waco Brothers in Chicago. Along the way, he has become an exhibited artist and a social activist for causes including the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois.
Langford and the Wacos will close Twangfest 12, which continues tonight through Saturday at various venues. It's an encore performance for the band, which played the first Twangfest in 1997 at Off Broadway and will return to that stage Saturday night.
"We keep going, but we don't very often tour," Langford says from his home in Chicago. "I think we play Texas and Chicago, basically. So this is quite unusual for us, to be out doing a week's touring and being in St. Louis."
Despite fine studio albums such as "Freedom and Weep" (2005) and "New Deal" (2002), the band is at its best onstage, Langford says. The new live album, "Waco Express: Live & Kickin' at Schuba's Tavern," bears him out.
"We often make a studio album with a lot of stuff that's written, but it's not necessarily stuff that we've gigged," he says. "The versions on the live album feel fully worked out, seem much better than the versions on the studio albums. Maybe we should only do live albums."
Langford says the Wacos aren't "very ambitious, but we like playing together." But the word "ambitious" is surely a relative term when applied to Langford. His output as a Mekon, a Pine Valley Cosmonaut, a Waco Brother and a solo artist totals about 36 albums since 1979 - and that doesn't include countless projects backing up other artists or contributing to and compiling anthologies.
"Yeah, there's been quite a lot when you think about it, says Langford, 50, a native of southern Wales. "I just had to plow on a lot, leave a trail of dead behind me."
The trail to country music branched off from punk, when Langford and his band mates got bored with that musical genre in the mid-'80s.
"Punk rock had become very much of a cul de sac," he says "We always thought it was this thing of being free to do whatever you wanted to do. But by that time, actually, the industry had gotten a lid on it, and decided it was the freedom to have a ridiculous Mohican and wear a leather jacket and do speeded-up heavy metal."
About that time, Langford discovered Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Cajun music, and then a friend in Chicago sent him a mix tape of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb and Hank Thompson.
"It was kind of a revelation, because I thought I hated country music," he says. "I suddenly realized at the grand old age of 26 or 27 that the stuff was actually speaking to me about my life, probably because I was drinking too much at the time."
The qualities that attracted Langford to punk applied equally to country.
"I think there's a realism to it," he says. "The best punk rock music and the best country and Western music share a simplicity of form and a real directness with the lyrics, and a willingness to address real-life, everyday issues, often with kind of dark humor thrown in. That just really appealed to me."
Langford is not referring to modern mainstream country, which he calls "a cowboy hat pop factory," but the country of Haggard, Jones and Johnny Cash, among others. Indeed, he had an art exhibit titled "The Death of Country Music" in Nashville, Tenn., in 1998, and thought he'd be run out of town.
Instead, "people just came down and were like winking at me - 'Yeah, we agree.' It's one of those things with an industry like that," he says. "You can exist within it and feel removed from it, and feel like, well, 'I'm not really the problem, it's those other guys that are doing it. I get it.' The system is choking the culture."
Langford's primitive art style is based on etching and printmaking, and his layered technique includes everything from acrylics, oils and pastels to "office supplies (such as) Wite-Out, tape and a lot of blades for scratching things up."
Occasionally, he gets to show his work to its subjects and, occasionally, there is an unexpected benefit. Before a show in 1990, he presented Johnny Cash with a painting of the Man in Black. Langford had his mother with him, and Cash kissed her.
"We presented (the artwork) to him backstage at this gig, and he was talking to my mum - he had much more to talk to my mother about than he had to talk to me about," Langford says. "As he was leaving he said, 'Excuse me, I have to go onstage now,' and he planted one right on her lips.
"It was fantastic, it was like he gave me a get out of jail free card. She never ever questioned what I was doing after that. In her mind, I totally made it."
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