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Waco Brothers, 'Live and Kicking' in Chicago

In the song "Waco Express," Jon Langford sings in his Welsh twang that "Nobody wants to go out on a limb these days." He couches the composition as a love song — singing that, "The reason you don't tell me you love me is you're scared." But the song is really a metaphor for Langford's own great love, country music, which he firmly believes has been scared into timidity and blandness by the Nashville music-industry establishment. It's the mission of the Waco Brothers — a Chicago-based outfit that Langford started in the mid-'90s — to bring blood, sweat, and tears back into country music.

There are no blood brothers in the Waco Brothers; instead, there are former members of British acts such as The Mekons, Jesus Jones, and Graham Parker's old back-up band The Rumour. The so-called token American is guitarist Dean Schlabowske.

They have a rather romantic view of country music; I doubt that, this side of Merle Haggard, any American country act has written a furious hymn to organized labor like the song "Plenty Tough and Union Made."

But that's part of Langford's vision: This is country as it should be written and played, with a long memory for roadhouse honky-tonks rather than TV-ready music videos. He's written a blunt song about the commercialization of country — "The Death of Country Music" — that's a lot more fun than most angry broadsides.

Two years ago, Langford published a remarkable collection of paintings and etchings he'd made. They were portraits of old country-music stars based on vintage publicity stills: paintings of photographs, he called them. The stiff smiles that great artists like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, and others plastered on their faces to help sell records were rendered by Langford as something like death masks — the public faces they had to put on in between living the hard lives they and their audiences experienced.

The title of that collection is Nashville Radio: Art, Words and Music, and it's well worth seeking out for the way it captures the Waco Brothers' love of American music — music that stirs what Langford calls in his book, "our alienated, drunk, Commie souls." It's that dark yet exuberant tone that is also released to roam the country, wreaking jubilant havoc, on Waco Express.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.