A Ruby Returns
It’s hard to remember a time when alternative country music in Chicago wasn’t synonymous with Bloodshot Records. The label stated its intentions (and kick started its run) in 1994 with an anthology called For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country. Among the 17 local groups featured were the Texas Rubies, the duo of Kelly Kessler and Jane Baxter Miller; formed in 1989, they were one of the first local acts to play some version of pre-rock country music. Contemporaries like Freakwater went on to make hay during the mid-90s alt-country boom, but the Rubies did not, breaking up the same year the comp was released.
“As we were folding, the whole alt-country thing was unfolding,” says Kessler today. The duo had started out playing subway stops for beer money, but before long they were playing clubs–primarily the eclectic Wrigleyville performance space Lower Links. Although their stripped-down, theatrical take on old-timey music seems to have little connection to the more rock-fueled side of the “insurgent” country scene, they unquestionably helped set the stage for Bloodshot by challenging the assumption that country was purely redneck music. “Jane and I were floored from the get-go that anyone wanted to listen to what we were doing, because country was so wildly unpopular when we started playing out,” Kessler says. But the Rubies had little success outside of Chicago, and by 1994 they felt they’d hit the wall.
Kessler performed on her own sporadically after the duo split, but she found it hard to gain momentum. “My sense of making music and performing were so tied to what I did with Jane that when we broke up it took me a long time to figure out how to do it on my own,” she says. In the summer of 1998 she proposed a bimonthly alt-country night, the “Honky-Tonk Living Room” series, to the owners of the Hideout, where at that point the only regular entertainment was a weekly set by Devil in a Woodpile. Besides giving the local alt-country scene a genuine locus, the series gave Kessler a way to tap more directly into what was happening.
Now, nearly four years later, she’s getting set to release her first recordings since the lone Texas Rubies album, Working Girl Blues, came out in 1993. Both The Salt of Your Skin, her solo debut, and Life of Regret, a four-song EP by her raucous honky-tonk quartet the Wichita Shut-Ins, will be released on May 9 on her own Melungeon Records, which she runs with the help of Shut-Ins singer and washboard player Lawrence Peters. Kessler says she hadn’t planned to start a label, but when she found no other takers for her work, the seed was planted. “When I was in the process of setting up the label it started to dawn on me that the foundations we were laying were big enough to support something bigger,” says Kessler. “I didn’t relish the idea of taking on all of the behind-the-scenes work on my own, but I’m finding that it’s not as intolerable as I thought it would be.”
Kessler has secured national distribution for the new records through the distro arm of the local Carrot Top label, and she’s in the process of setting up Melungeon as a not-for-profit operation. Although she’s not ready to give details yet, she hopes to issue a collection of previously unreleased recordings made in the Appalachians during the 20s. And in September she plans to release a new album jazz oboist Robbie Hunsinger recorded with bassist Tatsu Aoki and onetime Art Ensemble of Chicago reedist Joseph Jarman. (That trio, along with drummer Avreeayl Ra, will perform in Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center this Monday, March 18.) The Shut-Ins–a strangely configured group rounded out by Evelyn Weston on the musical saw and Hunsinger on reeds, percussion, and upright bass–play Bone Daddy on March 22. The quartet has begun to adapt the more refined singer-songwriter material from Kessler’s solo album for its rootsy and decidedly rural-sounding performances.
With Wilco’s excellent new Yankee Hotel Foxtrot due April 23 on Nonesuch Records, Jeff Tweedy’s past with Uncle Tupelo–the band he founded in 1987 with Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn–seems more distant than ever. But on Tuesday, March 19, Columbia/Legacy will release Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology, a 21-track collection that includes songs from the three albums the group made for the indie Rockville, parts of their sole Reprise album, Anodyne, and a handful of B-sides and rarities.
To my ears most of the band’s work has worn surprisingly poorly. Tracks from Anodyne–made when Farrar was peaking and Tweedy was emerging as a genuine songwriting voice–still sound fresh, but the bulk of the collection made me wonder how such an average band spawned an entire movement. Earlier, less celebrated country-rock bands like Jason & the Scorchers, the Long Ryders, and the Jayhawks exuded far more personality.
Schubas hosts a listening party for the Uncle Tupelo anthology next Friday, March 22, at 5 PM.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.