Record No. 1
By Linda Ray
Record No. 1, the long-delayed debut album by the Mary Janes, begins with an ending: “Shooting Star,” the seven-minute opening opus, is a love song to main Mary Jane Janas Hoyt’s former band, the Vulgar Boatmen. Hoyt starts slowly, delicately, with her own tentative guitar and vocals, adding watercolor washes of cello, violin, piano, and more guitar, until the orchestration is as dense with ideas as it is spare in execution. She whispers, then stretches her voice thin to a rocky edge, then opens up into her clear pop contralto, and for all the longing inherent in the lyrics (“All of our old days / They fall away”) she closes with a triumphant expression of autonomy: “Days that came and went all the time we spent / I will make it last.”
Hoyt was the face of the Vulgar Boatmen for some 300 shows between 1992 and 1994. She wasn’t the front woman, but she was the lead personality, an energetic and animated harmony singer and percussionist whom fans often remember first when they recall the Boatmen’s live shows. The journey from that time to the release earlier this month of Record No. 1 has been a difficult one, detoured occasionally onto the mommy track and obstructed repeatedly by the best intentions of the recording studio where the album was made and the shoestring budget of the label that released it.
Hoyt made the Vulgar Boatmen her life at a time when she felt she’d lost her previous one. Single motherhood had required her to shelve her dreams of a singing career to pay the bills, but in 1990, in an awful twist of fate, her son went to live with his father in the northeast. Hoyt followed him, but before long, financial realities forced her back home to Bloomington, Indiana. (These travails are heartbreakingly hinted at on Record No. 1’s second track, “Wish I Could Fly.”) Upon her return a friend referred her to Dale Lawrence, leader of the Indiana-based touring version of the Vulgar Boatmen, who wrote songs by mail with Florida English professor Robert Ray. (Ray had a version of the band that played in Florida.) Lawrence was looking for a singer to go on the road in support of the band’s second release, Please Panic.
Despite the ragged character of their early shows, Lawrence’s Vulgar Boatmen had developed a large and devoted fan base that appreciated both their elegantly crafted and distinctively American-sounding midtempo rock originals and their astonishing array of covers. (Hoyt claims she had to learn 80, including Buck Owens’s “Tiger by the Tail,” the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” the Velvet Underground’s “Foggy Notion,” and Debbie Gibson’s “Only in My Dreams,” when she joined.) The band’s first record, You and Your Sister, was a hit in Chicago. WXRT had the cut “Drive Somewhere” in regular rotation, and according to Mark Linn, who was booking the band at the time, half the few thousand sold were bought here. Linn says the limitations of its tiny label, Record Collect–run by founding member (and Silos front man) Walter Salas-Humara–prevented the record from selling more. Linn, a native Chicagoan who now lives in Nashville, knows a thing or two about such limitations: he runs Delmore, the tiny label that released Record No. 1.
Please Panic was released on established indie Caroline in 1992, three years after You and Your Sister. By then the band was a touring leviathan, and more than 200 showsn were lined up, including a series in Europe. Almost as soon as Hoyt signed on, she was packing up her life to fit on a bus.
She says now that it was a rare show when a fan or critic didn’t ask whether she’d recorded anything of her own. The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that she had something to say, so she began secreting herself away with Lawrence’s guitar. She was daunted but inspired by his songwriting–he claims she hesitated even to call her efforts songs. Soon, though, she was imagining arrangements as well as melodies, and invited fellow distaff Boatman Kathy Kolata to play cello with her. The pair named their project the Mary Janes, after the opening track of You and Your Sister.
In May 1994, Delmore released a Mary Janes single (“Telescope” b/w “Baby Honey”), which attracted a fair amount of critical attention. Over the next year, Linn secured two enviable slots for the Mary Janes at Park West, one opening for Sam Phillips and another opening for Roseanne Cash. Hoyt says that for both shows her fingers shook too nervously to play guitar at first, so she opened the sets with an a cappella version of the standard “Since I Fell for You.”
While she was coming into her own musically, Hoyt fell in love with and married Rob Westcott, one of the Vulgar Boatmen’s most ardent followers. She retired from the band after its set at the 1994 Taste of Lincoln Avenue, and four months later she gave birth to her second son. Except for recording–in a bathroom–a track for Delmore’s Real: The Tom T. Hall Project, the Mary Janes retired as well. Hoyt occupied herself with the occasional studio job, including some backup singing for John Mellencamp–but otherwise stuck close to home and savored motherhood again.
By 1996, however, she was back to writing music, and at South by Southwest that year John Strohm, the Bloomington-based guitarist who’s played in the Blake Babies, the Lemonheads, Antenna, and Velo-Deluxe, approached Linn about producing a Mary Janes record for Delmore. Linn bought the idea with buttons: he admits he had no idea how he was going to pay for it, but as a longtime fan and supporter of Hoyt’s he wanted badly to be involved with the record. So did Echo Park Studios in Bloomington, which gave Hoyt a special rate, provided that the recording could be done in off hours. That and Westcott’s commitment to manage and promote a supporting tour persuaded Linn he could manage to finance the front end.
What Linn hadn’t anticipated was that Hoyt’s vision for the Mary Janes had grown substantially more ambitious. Working around her child-care schedule as well as possible to take advantage of available studio time, Hoyt was struggling to realize her music as she now heard it. Record No. 1 came to involve 12 musicians, including Hoyt, who herself plays electric and acoustic guitars, piano, and percussion. Nearly every track features accents, fills, and countermelodies by a string section comprising, variously, violins, viola, and cello. Dennis Scoville’s pedal steel and Strohm’s organ touchingly carry an enigmatic minute-and-a-half-long rendering of “What a Friend” (as in “…we have in Jesus”), in which Hoyt’s voice sounds as distant as heaven. Kurt Squire’s harmonica drives a rather happy-go-lucky “She Flies Away,” whose lyrics treat the qualified optimism of a woman striking out on her own after the domestic life fails her.
All the instruments were used with such economy that each one counted, but they also added up. At one point, despite the discount, recording was stymied until Linn could pay for what had already been done. A year and a half after the process began, there were only rough mixes, but those were impressive enough to land the Mary Janes a slot at South by Southwest in 1998, where they also performed their version of “I’m Not Ready Yet” for Delmore’s Tom T. Hall showcase. It would still be another six months until the final mixes were done, and more than a year until the record came out: In an effort to make amends for the fits and starts of the recording and to prevent a recurrence of the Vulgar Boatmen’s experience with You and Your Sister, Linn had negotiated a distribution deal with ADA through Steve Earle’s E-Squared label. But for all its potential, the deal cost Linn dearly for promotion, effectively postponing the record’s release until this month.
Now, as the Mary Janes hit the road to support the record–a four-piece version of the studio ensemble, with drums, bass, guitar, and violin, will play the Hideout this Friday– Hoyt is extricating herself from her Delmore contract, which obligates her to Linn for two more records. (Linn is letting her go amicably.)
Most of the music on Record No. 1 is now at least three years old, and she’s understandably reinvented it, trimming some arrangements and substituting new material for recorded songs like “Shooting Star” and “What a Friend,” which might lose their impact on a small scale. The confidence she gained with the Vulgar Boatmen now serves her own music, and the live shows I’ve seen rock with a force disciplined by her own good taste. At a recent show in downstate Belleville, she opened with “Telescope,” from the Mary Janes single. As she belted and cooed the oldest of her tunes, the robust addition of a pounding rhythm section brought the past in line with the present with the rush of what can only be called momentum. Record No. 2, according to www.themaryjanes.com, is due–somehow, somewhere–by the end of the year.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.