In his 40 years of making music, Jon Langford has earned a reputation for not doing things by the book. That applies most notably to the Mekons, a band the Welsh native cofounded in Leeds in the late 70s, whose sound has evolved over the decades from rudimentary punk to a dark, strange melange of rock, folk, country, and even reggae. In 1984 they played a series of benefits for striking coal miners, whose communities were being starved by Margaret Thatcher’s decision to close many UK mines—a burst of activity that produced their early masterpiece Fear and Whiskey. When the Mekons went on their first U.S. tour in 1986, it was a a revelation for Langford. “Starting as a teenager, there was a longing for America and wanting to go there and wanting to find out things about it,” he says.
Langford found a lot to like about the States and quickly became fascinated with American country and folk. In the early 90s, he decided to become a U.S. citizen: in 1992 he moved to Chicago, where he lives to this day, and in 1994 he formed the Waco Brothers, who fuse country and punk more straightforwardly than the Mekons. Last year they released Going Down in History, their first studio album since 2005.
Langford remains prolific even when his bands aren’t, simply because he’s in so many of them. His larger-than-life personality, brimming with dry wit and wild stories, seem to make it easy for him to find collaborators. His newest project, called Four Lost Souls, covers some ground that’s new even for an inveterate genre hopper such as Langford. In the days following the 2016 presidential election, he and the other Lost Souls—guitarist John Szymanski, singer Bethany Thomas, and singer Tawny Newsome—traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which since the 1960s has helped shape American popular music by providing a place for soul, country, and gospel to intersect. (All four are longtime Chicagoans, though Newsome moved to LA a few years back.) There they recorded their self-titled debut, which came out last month on Bloodshot Records. They’ll celebrate its release on Wednesday, October 11, at the Hideout.
Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the session musicians known as the Nashville Cats planted the seeds for the project in Langford’s head. The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville had commissioned him to create illustrations for an exhibit on all three, which opened for a two-year run on March 27, 2015. Langford supported it by playing a show with the Cats.
It was there that he met Norbert Putnam, who as a 19-year-old in 1961 had become the bassist for the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios. “He was one of the few guys staying at the hotel, so I kept on bumping into him on the way to rehearsals,” says Langford. “After the performance, Norbert came up to me and said, ‘You sing like a pirate. You should come down to Muscle Shoals and make an album.'”
Langford knew that many influential hit records had come out of Muscle Shoals—its history is full of myths and legends. When he started researching it in earnest, he was astonished. “I didn’t know what an intense place had been created,” he says.
The culture around Muscle Shoals didn’t just efface genre lines but also defied racial divisions. It was also a place where musicians could play together freely no matter their race or status in society. FAME Studios hosted the likes of Percy Sledge, Duane Allman, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, while the nearby Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, founded by Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records with a group of session musicians nicknamed the Swampers, attracted artists such as Bob Dylan, Eddie Floyd, Paul Simon, Joe Tex, and the Rolling Stones.
Langford didn’t take the invitation too seriously at first—he thought Putnam asked everyone. But when he returned to the Country Music Hall of Fame a few months later as an artist in residence, Putnam invited him again. This time Langford took him up on it. “I had to think seriously about what a Welsh punk rocker would do in Muscle Shoals,” he says. “I had to think about songwriting and who I’d work with . . . I wanted whatever I did to reflect the history and strange diversity of that place in the 60s. There were white people and black people working together to make songs. There’s something going on at Muscle Shoals that’s certainly exciting.”
Putnam had suggested working with Muscle Shoals session players, but Langford preferred not to arrive alone. He didn’t have to look far for companions: He already knew Newsome from her contributions to his solo albums and Thomas from their work on Waco Brothers material. He told them he was writing songs for a new project and said he was hoping they could sing lead on some of them.
“[Bethany] had done a couple things with the Waco Brothers, like backing vocals. But I didn’t want it to be like that,” says Langford. “I wanted the songs to have different voices. . . . The idea was for it to not be a Jon Langford solo album, even though I was writing the songs.”
Thomas was excited for the opportunity. “The chemistry is great here because Jon Langford is Jon Langford. He’s just so cool. People just want to be his friend,” she says. “He has such good stories and is such a sweet, giving person. I know he told somebody he likes working with me because I like to boss him around a little bit. I don’t think I’m being that bossy. I’m going to let him take the wheel, because this is his business and I’m just figuring it out.”
Shortly after Langford, Thomas, and Newsome started demoing songs, Thomas introduced Langford to Szymanski, the guitarist in her backing band.
“I met him because Bethany took some of the songs away and worked them up with him,” says Langford. “The [demos] sounded like folk songs, and I was more interested in the idea of them fitting more into what might potentially happen at Muscle Shoals. I didn’t know who he was but really liked how he was playing guitar and seemed to have that feel already. He’s a very stripped-down but very percussive guitar player.”
To differentiate Four Lost Souls from his past work, Langford did more than invite other musicians to shape the songs. He also ditched writing on guitar in favor of piano. “I got a piano from a friend and moved it into the back room of my house to write songs on that, which I haven’t done for years,” he says. “I thought it would be a bit of a different way of writing songs too. I could get my guitar-rock thing out of the way altogether.”
Once the band had gotten demos to their liking, they traveled to the NuttHouse Recording Studio, which is built into a one-story bank building in Sheffield, Alabama. Trump had just been declared president-elect, so they were all thankful for a chance to busy themselves with music.
Putnam acted as producer, and during the four days of sessions he invited several guest musicians to add depth to the songs, including Swampers David Hood (father of Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson) on bass and Randy McCormick on keys. “[David] had just broken his wrist on tour with the Waterboys,” says Langford. “This was one of the first sessions he’d done since his wrist had healed. He referred to the Guardian as the Manchester Guardian. It was funny for a guy in Alabama to refer to the Guardian as the Manchester Guardian. The last time I heard people refer to it as that were old communist guys in England from the 30s.”
Perhaps because Putnam’s original invitation had been to Langford, the band sometimes had to insist they were a collective. “When we got there, it was, ‘All right, we’re recording Jon Langford, and here are his backup singers,'” says Thomas. “And I said right off the bat, ‘Actually, we’re three lead singers. Jon should not be up in the mix. We should all be equal.’ We had to keep reminding people of that. That it wasn’t just Jon Langford’s project. It definitely was a group effort.”
Thankfully, Four Lost Souls didn’t also have to deal with post-election bad vibes during their time in Alabama. “I didn’t know what it would be like. There might be some Trump victory lap going down there,” says Langford. “Norbert was really fun and put me at ease. Whatever little bubble Muscle Shoals is in Alabama, we found that. It wasn’t a hostile environment. It was very friendly.”
Thomas and Newsome felt equally at ease. “Tawny and I are both women of color, and we were like, ‘OK, let’s drive around down here,'” says Thomas. “I don’t know what we thought it would be. We didn’t have any problems. They were wonderful people.”
In fact, the only trouble the band had was with Putnam’s southern accent—when he referred to the “Creative Grape,” a nearby wine bar, they initially misheard it as “Creative Grave.”
“We thought it was creative slang for a bar across the street—if you had a bad day at the studio, that you would then go to the Creative Grave,” says Langford. “But it had really nice wines and French cheeses. Our preconceptions of Alabama were slightly wrong.”
Part of what Langford wanted to accomplish with his songs for Four Lost Souls was to sort through those preconceptions and square them with the history of the region. “My idea was to write songs about the south in the way that I understood it,” he says. “It’s a very confusing place on a number of levels. The history is very raw. My experiences with traveling down south reconciled a lot of conflicting feelings and experiences. Nobody’s been anything other than friendly down there. Yet the legacy of the place is terrifying. Such great stuff came out of the south, but the history is so problematic that I wanted to try and think about those things.”
“Fish Out of Water” addresses the political powerlessness of the poor and disenfranchised. “The rural voter is left high and dry,” says Langford. “What’s My Name” is about Muhammad Ali, and about a young Langford’s struggle to grasp the importance of race. “When I was a kid I was really excited about Muhammad Ali. He was very popular in Britain,” he says. “We didn’t understand the racial element. It was hard for us to understand that.”
The music on the album combines punk, country, soul, and other styles. “I think it’s something that sounds like nothing any of us have made before,” says Thomas.
Langford says Putnam’s relaxed production style helped get everyone on the same page. “When he needed to step in, he was very fast and closed the gap between the session musicians and me and my people,” he says. “It was hard to meld the two ways of working together, but Norbert was really fast on speaking to people on the intercom and knowing how to translate between what they were used to and what I was trying to say.”
Thomas recalls that it caused some hubbub that Four Lost Souls wrote charts differently from the session musicians. “Every time we started a song, we had to translate the chart over,” she says. “Our guitarist, John, had to rewrite things with Randy. And John’s this quiet, shy guy and Randy’s barking stuff at him. There were some fun dynamics. I will not forget Randy McCormick.”
Thomas will also remember the dedication of the musicians. “Everyone we met down there was down to earth and really about the music and real passion for it,” she says. “No matter where you are and what level you’re working at, that feels so good to be around musicians like that.”
Langford agrees. “I had faith that it would all come together into something that anyone might want to listen to,” he says. “We just went in with these words and sang together live in a studio in Muscle Shoals. These songs we created were a dream come true, really.”
Four Lost Souls began their current tour earlier this month in Los Angeles, and they’ll wrap it up on October 28 in Austin, Texas. Their Wednesday date at the Hideout—a venue familiar to everyone in the band—falls not quite halfway through the trip. Langford, Thomas, Szymanski, and Newsome are accompanied by drummer Dan Massey, keyboardist John Fournier, pedal steel player Tom McGettrick, and bassist John Abbey.
“I’ve never been on tour with a band, so I’m excited,” Thomas says. “I would have never guessed that I would get to do it with some of my best friends, and have someone like Jon Langford figure out the logistics of it all. The fact that I get to ride on someone else’s coattails but also be a very integral part of the project—I’m not a backup singer—is really perfect for me. I get to do my favorite thing, which is perform.”