Bad Livers

Dust on the Bible


By Linda Ray

This summer the Nashville-based Gospel Music Association revamped its standards for the Dove Awards, the Christian recording industry’s equivalent of the Grammys. Previously the only prerequisite for nomination was that one’s record be sold in Christian music stores, but apparently the GMA was disturbed that some product distributed that way, while “inspirational and/or wholesome,” was not sufficiently Christian. From now on, it announced in July, gospel shall be considered music in any style whose lyric is “substantially based on historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible; and/or an expression of worship of God or praise for His works; and/or testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view.”

By that definition, the Bad Livers’ newly reissued Dust on the Bible–a recording of traditional gospel songs by the Austin punk-bluegrass-jazz band–might actually qualify. But most likely it will never come to the Dove committee’s attention: Quarterstick, the subsidiary of Chicago indie Touch and Go that released it, has no plans to promote it to the contemporary Christian market. Of course a label whose recent reissue program also includes most of the Naked Raygun catalog can hardly be faulted for wanting to steer clear of Bible thumpers. And while just about any genre tag is bound to annoy a band, the consequences of being labeled Christian are of an entirely different magnitude.

In his 1997 book, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, Bruce Bawer argues that fundamentalist Protestantism gives religion in general–and Christianity in particular–a bad name. He simplifies a distinction between true spiritualism and “legalistic” Christianity that was first made by Paul Tillich, who, when he died in 1965, was the John Nuveen Professor of Theology and Culture at the University of Chicago. In the anthology Theology of Culture, which collects 40 years’ worth of his ideas on the religious dimension in cultural activity, Tillich defines true spirituality as “ultimate concern,” and says it is “manifest in the aesthetic function of the human spirit.” The role of religion, he says, is to “open up the depth of spiritual life which is usually covered by the dust of our daily life and the noise of our secular work.”

Conversely, Tillich says, the “shame” of religion is that “it makes its myths and doctrines . . . into ultimates, and persecutes those who do not subject themselves to it.” He says such practices obscure the potential of spirituality to provide “creative courage to all functions of the human spirit.” In other words, “legalisms” like the Gospel Music Association’s new Dove guidelines can be thought of as something like dust on the Bible, separating people from their spirituality.

Where Bawer breaks new ground is in showing how legalists alienate other believers. He cites a sermon given by an Episcopalian minister he knows, during which the minister told the story of meeting a man who “rather quickly identified himself as a Christian.” The minister said the pointed introduction made him think of words like “bigot, arrogant, mindless, intolerant, rigid, meanspirited.” Masaki Liu, lead guitarist for the Christian rock band Dime Store Prophets, made a similar observation in the on-line gospel magazine Lighthouse a few years ago. He told a story about a nightclub owner who loved the band’s CD but hesitated to book them because a “Christian” band he’d previously booked had berated people at the bar for drinking. “If we ever got voted for a Dove award,” Liu said, “I don’t know if I’d be happy or sick.”

Still, it’s frustrating that the well-oiled machinery for moving millions of gospel units will never even encounter Dust on the Bible, while Touch and Go’s well-oiled machinery for delivering independent-minded rock music is as limited in its ability to reach gospel’s masses as Thrill Jockey is in its ability to make Freakwater into country-radio stars. Meanwhile, folks seeking good music with religious content could wander 40 years in the wilderness trying to find it.

Bad Livers songwriter and banjo player Danny Barnes is, in fact, a professed Christian. Exactly what that means to him is anybody’s guess (and really, no one else’s business), but Dust on the Bible started as a collection of songs he sang with his grandmother in church, augmented by others learned from elders in his hometown of Belton, Texas. Bassist and tuba player Mark Rubin, the other constant member of the band, is not Christian; in fact, he’s Jewish and plays the traditional music of his own ancestors in at least two klezmer bands. But as Barnes asked No Depression magazine’s Grant Alden a couple years ago, “Why do you have to be Christian to sing, or be involved in, gospel music?…So much of our music today doesn’t really help you out very much in terms of spirituality or philosophy, you know?”

The most predictable picks on Dust on the Bible are summed up in a medley: Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light,” A.P. Carter’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and Albert E. Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away.” The band’s characteristic good humor surfaces in the tuba-based oompah of “Farther Along” and the line “I ain’t no stranger, now / I ain’t no stranger than I’ve ever been,” from “Crying Holy Unto the Lord,” but overall Dust is a pretty straightforward record: there’s the eternally catchy “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap,” the charmingly anachronistic “Jesus Is on the Mainline,” which refers to telephone lines and not the main line Lou Reed was searching for, and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” which specifically references Matthew, chapter 25. It also includes Barnes’s original gospel song, a lost soul’s minor-key plea for mercy called “How Dark My Shadow’s Grown,” which appeared in slicker form on the band’s 1992 debut album, Delusions of Banjer. The music, while rustic, is inventive and well played, the familiar tunes freshened with the energy of a band that at the time was also covering Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.”

Dust on the Bible, though it wasn’t released as such, was the Bad Livers’ first album, made in 1991 on a rented four-track machine in a spare room of Barnes’s Austin home and mastered lightly by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers. It was intended only as a Christmas gift for close friends and family, but Rubin gave copies to a few music writers, and for a while it was all the band had to offer A and R types. The Bad Livers were, and continue to be, asked about it often. Quarterstick first released it on cassette and without promotion in 1994, the same year MCA reissued the 1959 country-gospel album of the same name by Kitty Wells.

The band’s two proper releases on Quarterstick, Delusions of Banjer and its 1994 follow-up, Horses in the Mines, were both well received. But in 1997 the band decided to put out its next album, Hogs on the Highway, on the North Carolina bluegrass label Sugar Hill. Barnes and Rubin continued to rhapsodize about the good people at Touch and Go but, as Barnes told the Austin Chronicle, “We wanted to be on a label that can sell banjo records….[Sugar Hill is] the Touch and Go of bluegrass.” Yet Hogs on the Highway, like its predecessors, is an improbably cohesive mix of bluegrass and just about everything else, including salsa. The band’s 1998 release, Industry and Thrift, strains the link even further by venturing into experiments with free jazz and house music. And neither record has sold significantly better than the Quarterstick releases. Now it’s Quarterstick that’s reissuing the most traditional record the Bad Livers ever made.

No tradition is more strongly established in bluegrass than gospel. In Bluegrass: A History, which many consider the bible of the genre, author Neil V. Rosenberg says early bluegrass records and songbooks contained about 30 percent religious songs, though a smaller proportion of such music was included in broadcasts and performances. He points out that Bill Monroe never failed to perform at least one gospel song, and that on Sundays he’d play an entire set of them at his country-music park in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Rosenberg suggests that bluegrass gospel provided migrant “hillbillies” (his term) who felt alienated in urban churches a link to the religion they practiced back home, where spirituality was highly individualistic. He quotes a minister who lived among the Appalachians as observing “a widespread feeling that every person is his or her own preacher.”

Chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians addresses individual relationships with God this way: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good….For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.”

In his liner notes to Dust on the Bible, Barnes concludes: “We hope you enjoy it in the spirit that it was intended.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photos.