Credit: Alison Green

In 1994, when major labels were still snapping up Chicago “alternative” bands in hopes of manufacturing another Seattle, music publicist Nan Warshaw, house painter and occasional drummer Rob Miller, and Flying Fish Records veteran Eric Babcock launched Bloodshot Records—which quickly became a rallying point for the burgeoning alt-­country scene. Bloodshot’s debut, the compilation For a Life of Sin, collected 17 tracks from acts including the Old 97’s, the Handsome Family, and Robbie Fulks. Mixing country and punk wasn’t new; the likes of Rank and File, the Jayhawks, and Charlie Pickett had been doing it for years. But Bloodshot coined the term “insurgent country” to describe that hybrid style, positioning it as a revolution against the mainstream treacle trickling out of Nashville.

That revolution may never have unseated country’s ruling class, but it succeeded in another way. The music that Bloodshot adopted as its calling card has become such an integral part of modern rock that it’s outgrown the label many times over—and in response, Warshaw and Miller (Babcock left three years after the label’s debut) have diversified their roster, adding straight-up rock, R&B, and singer-­songwriter fare. Over the past two decades, Bloodshot has introduced artists who continue to make records for large, loyal followings, some for the label and some elsewhere, including Fulks, the Old 97’s, Neko Case, Ryan Adams, Kelly Hogan, and Justin Townes Earle. It’s also provided a home for veterans who’d been chewed up and spit out by bigger operations, among them Alejandro Escovedo, the Bottle Rockets, Jon Langford, and Wayne Hancock.

For its 20th birthday the label has released the two-CD/three-LP comp While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, which features 38 diverse artists (Samantha Crain, Shakey Graves, Diarrhea Planet) covering songs from its back catalog. And on Saturday evening at Metro, Bloodshot celebrates with a concert featuring some of its most iconic artists, among them Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s, Bobby Bare Jr., Lydia Loveless, and Ben Kweller.

I sat down with Miller and Warshaw to talk about Bloodshot’s long history and future plans.

Peter Margasak: Did you ever think you’d still being doing this at this point?

Rob Miller: It’s the same answer as I gave you at our five-year, when we were sitting in Rosded. There has never been an expectation of longevity to this. It remains a constant surprise that we still found ways to go on. During the financial collapse of ’08, that was a rough time, and we thought, “This might be it.” It’s like, “Do I have the energy to keep doing this?” And then you see something or hear something and you find a way. We dragged along enough people to make it continue.

Do you ever regret putting the phrase “insurgent country” out into the world? Do you feel imprisoned by it?

Rob: I don’t regret putting it out at the time—we needed something to mollify the C” word a little bit. To mollify the people who were so adamantly against it.

Nan Warshaw: And there wasn’t critical language at the time around what we were doing. And so we needed to come up with our own term that we could define. But it became a straitjacket, that’s for sure. Afterwards.

Rob: One of the many downfalls of the Internet is that you just cannot escape certain things. I mean, it’s like that early porn film of mine. That just won’t go away!

Nan: We haven’t used it ourselves in over a decade.

But you probably still like confronting people, even if they don’t use that phrase, who are like, “How can you be putting out stuff like an Andre Williams record or JC Brooks or Firewater?”

Rob: Absolutely. Early on, that whole No Depression-­type community wanted us to keep putting out Old 97’s records ad infinitum, and even the Old 97’s didn’t want to keep putting out Old 97’s records ad infinitum. When we put out Robbie Fulks’s first record, we got somebody saying, “This doesn’t sound like a Bloodshot record.”

What, because it was too straight?

Rob: It was whatever people decided Bloodshot Records’ sound meant, frozen in amber at that particular time. We got the same thing with Alejandro and Neko Case.

Would you even proffer a description of the aesthetic of the label at this point?

Rob: It all makes sense to us, how it’s all connected together, and I think our longevity—and our constantly finding new things that interest us out there, not just putting out the same record over and over—it has allowed us to put out music that is more reflective of our personal record collections. I go through life assuming that everyone’s got Peggy Lee records next to Misfits records next to Howlin’ Wolf records next to Sun Records box sets, and, you know, that’s apparently not the case. So it all makes sense to me. Obviously somebody who is way into Robbie Fulks is not gonna be way into JC Brooks, potentially. Like in our early days, when you could kind of presume that everything we did would hit somebody in that sweet spot.

And do you think that’s just a matter of tastes developing and broadening? Your own? Or were you into all that stuff—

Rob: Oh yeah, I was way into all that stuff before. Our record collections are huge and diverse, but when we started we felt that we had to form an identity. There were so many things bubbling up during that era that in order to distinguish ourselves we had to keep some sort of sonic and aesthetic focus that was much more narrowly defined than it is now.

Was branching out a way to prevent yourself from getting boxed into something?

Nan: Well, I think it’s not so much other people boxing us in, it’s keeping ourselves engaged and excited and finding artists who use American roots forms in new and different ways. A lot of it is to keep us entertained so that we’re motivated to work that next record.

How much vinyl are you doing these days?

Rob: Virtually every release now has a vinyl component to it.

Do you make money from that? Or is it more just to satisfy that niche?

Rob: The profit margins are narrower, and it’s more of a production hassle. And an unsold box of LPs is far more humiliating in size and weight than an unsold box of CDs. We can’t put unsold boxes of LPs in the basement like we can the CDs—they’re a bit more temperamental. They’re aesthetically more pleasing; they’re sonically more pleasing. It is a niche market, but we work hard to maintain relationships with the stores that are still around and the ones that are opening up and are operating and turning a profit on more of a curated model, like Laurie’s Planet of Sound.

Nan: And the serious fans who like vinyl, those are the fans we want to be engaged with. And we’re selling more direct vinyl to fans than ever before, by leaps and bounds.

A glimpse inside the lavishly appointed offices of a successful indie label
A glimpse inside the lavishly appointed offices of a successful indie labelCredit: Alison Green

Do you think that’s partly because there are less places to sell them? Or just that’s the kind of listener who’s more proactive about guaranteeing that they’re going to get what they want?

Rob: Well, if I had the answer to that, your microphone would be sitting on a much nicer table. It would be much warmer out, because we’d be somewhere in the south. It’s hard to say, because there was never a good record store in, you know, Casper, Wyoming. So now people who are proactive music fans have access to our music and can mail order.

And what percentage of your business would you say it is?

Rob: Twenty, 25 percent.

Has it always been that way?

Rob: No, it was always less than 10.

It’s probably easier than ever to do.

Rob: Yeah, it’s easier than ever. I went to school in Ann Arbor, and there were six or eight record stores that I would constantly be circling around and visiting every weekend. And now there’s none. Or there might be one left. There are towns of substance where you can’t buy music anymore. It’s not just the Casper, Wyomings, of the world—it’s Ann Arbor, it’s Indianapolis. It’s places like that.

Do you sell a lot of MP3s?

Rob: Our percentage of physical versus digital is probably much higher than industry standards, but it’s still teetering around 50 percent. You can’t argue with the convenience of it.

Do you guys use Spotify?

Rob: Yes. Well—that’s a discussion for another day, perhaps, but something is better than nothing. In some ways. But now we’re starting to wonder if that’s true. It’s pretty unsustainable.

The problem with Spotify, if I may go on a quick little mini rant, other than it being kind of a drab way to enjoy music, is that dedicated music fans are likely aware of the basic economics of this situation. So they don’t want to be labeled a pirate. But then they sign up for Spotify, and that kind of inoculates them. They’re thinking, “Oh, OK, I’m paying for music, all is good.” Not really, you know—

Nan: They’re thinking, “I’m using a perfectly legal service, so I’m not the problem.”

Rob: “Somebody is getting paid. I’m not committing piracy.” But it’s micropennies. So it’s weird to be sitting here in a position going, “Oh, the good old days of the iTunes launch.”

I read that you were considering not marking this anniversary with one of the collections you’ve put together every five years.

Nan: We’re pretty burnt out on assembling compilations, because it’s an extremely labor-intensive task. And then the staff came up with the idea of reaching out to lots of new bands and different bands and Bloodshot-friendly artists and artists who were fans of specific artists of ours and see if they wanted to cover a track. The response was overwhelming, and it was a great surprise how many people wanted to be involved—there were like 70 artists who wanted to be involved, but then out of that, the timing only worked for 38 tracks to be turned in. And so it was really great, how many of these up-and-coming bands—

Rob: And Mike fucking Watt!

Nan: Yeah, and these artists who we’ve respected for years and never thought we’d ever be working with.

Rob: We didn’t want to go the retrospective route. Personally, I don’t like the feeling of reaching into fans’ pockets too many times, like, “Oh, here’s another special reissue.”

So the staff came up with the idea. They all are superpassionate music fans, but they’re 20 years younger than us, 15 years younger than us, and they have completely different perspectives. One of them is like, “Oh, I loved [the 1996 Old 97’s album] Wreck Your Life in grade school,” and you know, it’s like, “Oh Jesus, really?” They’re the ones out at the Empty Bottle all the time. I thought, “Well, maybe we’ll get a few people interested and we can do a seven-inch series or something.” And then this totally unexpected wave of interest from artists hit us, and it was like, “Oh my God, this is really pretty cool.” And the level and diversity of talent on that was just really humbling. So all of a sudden it was a triple LP.

One-third of Bloodshot's 20th-anniversary compilation, <i>While No One Was Looking</i>
One-third of Bloodshot’s 20th-anniversary compilation, While No One Was LookingCredit: Alison Green

Everything was recorded for the anthology?

Rob: Yeah, and it all happened real quickly and organically and with great enthusiasm. People came to us with pretty distinct ideas of what they wanted to do, and some of them were completely oddball and surprising.

It seems like, with all the people that have come through the label and gotten big, you guys still have a very positive relationship with everyone. I mean, I’m sure there are probably a few exceptions, but it feels sort of familial with most people, would you say?

Rob: Oh, absolutely. When somebody leaves, more often than not it’s because they’re going on to a bigger label, and that’s a success for everyone. At our heart we remain naive music fans, you know—really excitable music fans. And so when that happens, a rising tide lifts all boats. But people like the Bottle Rockets or Langford or Alejandro, who’ve been through the major-label meat grinder, come back because they like the freedom. Our notion of a roster has always been very fluid.

Nan: Plenty of artists have moved on gracefully. We’re there to help them. If they do well in the future, it’s only gonna sell catalog.

How does coming into the office each morning feel versus 15 years ago?

Rob: I probably enjoy it more now than I did 15 years ago. I think I have a greater appreciation for how lucky I’ve been. I mean, I walk to work. I believe in what I do. I can show up in overalls and a clown hat if I want, and not everyone gets to do that. And I get to work with music all day long. It’s just this amazing job that I have. It’s not even a job; it’s a cause in a lot of ways.

There’s probably not too many people in this milieu who’ve been active during the label’s history that you haven’t worked with in some degree.

Rob: We’ve gotten to work with people who greatly influenced me in high school and college and through my adult life—it boggles my mind sometimes. One of the Mikes—I can’t remember which one, everyone on staff is named Mike now—came into my office and said, “Mike Watt wants to know if he can do something.” The fact that Mike Watt even knows we exist! That I get to work with Langford. One of the first times I heard [the Leon Payne song] “Lost Highway” was through the Mekons. That I get to work with Alejandro and Charlie Pickett and Wanda Jackson. I mean, you go down the list, and it’s deeply, deeply humbling that they allow us to take care of this stuff. And if selling 50,000 or whatever it was Justin Townes Earle records allows us to put out a Barrence Whitfield & the Savages record, then that’s a paying-it-back kind of thing.

You’re getting off on the fact that you get to work with all of these people, but I assume there’s got to be gratitude knowing that they clearly trust you.

Rob: Oh yeah, absolutely. That trust, we do not take that lightly. I mean, people with these careers that they’ve had and the body of work that they’ve produced—that they’re allowing us to be a part of it, that’s where the humbling part comes in.

Nan: And I think a lot of that is because we didn’t get into this to get rich.

Rob: Mission accomplished!

Nan: And it’s never been hit-driven. That’s allowed us to not compromise our ethics and be able to run this as a business but on our terms. I think Langford set a great example for how to do that—that hard work pays off, and you don’t have to compromise your beliefs.

How connected to Chicago do you feel? Because it’s still kind of amazing that Thrill Jockey and Drag City—you’re all the children of Touch and Go. The way they ran the business. I can’t think of too many cities anywhere that have had independents of that size and importance last that long.

Nan: I don’t think Bloodshot could’ve existed in any other city, and certainly Touch and Go was a model for us. A lot of labels are gone, or mostly gone, that were models, and that’s pretty shocking. When Touch and Go began dissolving, or whatever you want to call it, I was really freaked out. I was like, “If they can go away, we could go away overnight.”

Rob: Which is what I go to bed with every night.

But you guys and those other labels have adapted. You’re all fans, so it’s like you’re evolving. It’s openness—I think that’s the thing for the best Chicago labels.

Rob: Absolutely. The creative openness of that time allowed so many labels of so many different kinds of music to flourish, because everyone was doing it for the right reasons. Artists could feel free to create. Langford could go record for 15 different labels and no one would care; there wasn’t a sense of competition. The club owners were all fans. There was lots of retail, lots of radio, lots of great writers supporting it all. The people in Chicago should not take for granted what we have here, and continue to have to some degree. It’s a shame that the city hasn’t paid attention to it or embraced it the way that Austin and other cities have. This kind of organic, self-sustaining music and artistic community does not happen by accident.

Nan: I think that the landscape was right at the time and still is today.

Rob: It all grew up because we’re not on the coasts. People were free to create and incubate things and try things out on stages where it wasn’t a pay-to-play mentality, where the spotlight wasn’t on you. Everyone toured through here, so you were constantly being exposed to different scenes, different artists from all over the country. Neko moved here because she could sing with anyone, and you just don’t get that everywhere.

Nan: And the major labels didn’t have a strong hold here, like did they on the coasts and in Nashville. All of the pieces of the pie were in place, and still are—with supportive press and noncommercial radio and commercial radio that’s as good as it gets. Chicago has dozens of great venues where the owners are in it for the right reasons and treat the bands well. We still have a number of great record stores, and there are plenty of towns with none. The combination of all those things has enabled our music scene to thrive—and you can go out any night of the week in Chicago and see many great shows of all different genres.

Rob: But I’m too tired to now!