My CD collection is organized alphabetically, but if I’d chosen to do it thematically instead, there would be at least a couple of shelves reserved for Bloodshot Records. I first discovered the label existed in 1997, when I was visiting my friend Michele in Ann Arbor on a trip to research the Detroit chapter of my stadium book; I’m pretty sure she took me to the record store and instructed me to buy albums by the Bad Livers and the Old 97’s, neither of whom ended up making much of a dent in my listening habits. But she also tipped me off to this new Chicago alt-country label that Jon Langford of the Mekons had done some recording for, both under his own name and with something called the Waco Brothers, who I’d spotted in New York newspaper listings a few months earlier but hadn’t gone to see because I didn’t known anything about them. That would soon change in a hurry.
One of the best things Bloodshot did from the start was put out compilation albums that showcased bands exemplifying what they called “insurgent country” — a Langfordism, I think, that defined the music not just as a namby-pamby alternative but as a would-be uprising. The first of these collections was a revelation, opening with Moonshine Willy’s “Way Out West” and introducing me to both Robbie Fulks (“Cigarette State”) and the Bottle Rockets (“Every Kind of Everything”), and the second was pretty excellent as well. But it was the two-disc Bloodshot 5th anniversary collection that was a true tour de force, with 40 terrific songs from start to finish by the likes of Alejandro Escovedo, Neko Case, Hazeldine, and Fulks and Langford and so many more.
And, ensconced somewhere in the middle of disc two, there was a band called Trailer Bride covering the early cowpunk band Gun Club’s “Ghost on the Highway,” with swooping slide guitar and yowling vocals courtesy of someone with the memorable name of Melissa Swingle. I don’t know that I decided to seek out more by Trailer Bride, but I certainly filed them away for future reference.
The other best thing that Bloodshot did was, during the annual CMJ music conference in New York, to host an afternoon of music and barbecue featuring Bloodshot artists and various friends. Starting out at Brownie’s in the East Village and later moving across the river to Union Pool in Williamsburg, these events were invariably welcoming and hilarious, and a terrific place to find out about bands you hadn’t heard of, in that pre-YouTube era.
I don’t actually remember if the first time I saw Trailer Bride was at a Bloodshot Barbecue; it could have been at a show opening for Neko Case, but since Neko was a friend of the Bloodshot family, it’s all pretty much the same thing. I don’t even remember how many times I saw Trailer Bride live, though I do remember Swingle always spent at least one song playing musical saw, and on one occasion griped loudly about the sound or something else, perhaps even storming offstage. (Not only were there a lot of barbecues over the years, but they were heavily beer-fueled, which has not helped the specificity of my recollections.) She always seemed combustible, in both the good and bad senses of the word, which was precisely the promise and the threat of her band’s music.
Eventually Trailer Bride broke up, and Swingle went on to form the Moaners, who I never saw at a Bloodshot show or bought any CDs by. But I kept on going to Bloodshot events, and buying records at them, collecting albums by the Sadies and the Blacks and Split Lip Rayfield and so many others. (Though CMJ and its festival are long gone, Bloodshot recently revived the barbecue, and I came home with excellent albums by Al Scorch and Cory Branan, neither of whom I’d so much as heard of before leaving the house that morning.) These all ended up sitting in my CD collection alongside Trailer Bride — or, really, a shelf or two away, unless they also started with T — some becoming favorites, while others just pop up every so often in iTunes, reminding me of the glorious variety of inventive music that challenges the dominant musical doctrines by drawing on both the future and the past. Friends, you might even call it an insurgency.