Dean Schlabowske

I first learned about Dean Schlabowske via the Waco Brothers, of course. I’m pretty sure the first time that band came to my attention was via a Village Voice (R.I.P.) concert ad that read “WACO BROTHERS (feat. Jon Langford of the Mekons),” though somehow I didn’t run right out and see that show, instead waiting several months before I discovered Bloodshot Records, whose second full album release was the Wacos’ first album, and the whole country-punk nexus came into full focus.

But that’s the Wacos’ story, and this is Dean’s item, so we’ll get to that another time.

Dean was, from the beginning, The American. Despite being an “insurgent country” band that wore its Hank Williams and Johnny Cash influences on its sleeves, the Wacos then consisted mostly of Brits: Langford, mandolin player/singer Tracey Dear, bassist Alan Doughty, and drummer Steve Goulding. But there at the front, generally holding down the middle of the stage with guitar crunch and a sweet drawl while various lunacy exploded around him, was Deano, with his curly hair and Buddy Holly glasses, quietly churning out instant classics like “If You Don’t Change Your Mind” and “Red Brick Wall,” earworms with subtle political bite. In one of my favorites, “Lincoln Town Car,” Schlabowske sang of the eponymous vehicle rolling by with mirrored windows, bringing to mind both the workers who built it and its unreachable occupant with “angry, squinting eyes”:

Where we go, we go together
Some will pull, some will get dragged

Schlabowske was a child of the Midwest, a Milwaukee lifer who had been in a punk band called Wreck and ended up drawn into Langford’s Chicago orbit. He eventually started a spinoff band called Dollar Store to make use of the torrent of songs he was writing that wouldn’t fit on Wacos albums; I saw and enjoyed that group a couple of times at Bloodshot’s annual New York barbecues, where artists and fans could eat tacos and watch bands together for a long afternoon of music and rabble-rousing.

I didn’t really fully appreciate Deano, though, until he released Deano Waco Meets the Purveyors, a collaboration with The Meat Purveyors, another Bloodshot signee that had fast landed on my short list of bands that I would throw myself in front of a train for. When I say “released,” I mean that in large part euphemistically, as “Deano Meets the Purvs,” as it was sometimes known, was a free online download that wouldn’t take physical form outside of home-burned CDRs for years.

(This was in 2009, which was for me the year when the music industry got weird: My three favorite albums of that year were the Deano/Purvs record, a tribute to Paul McCartney’s RAM that was a WFMU fundraising premium, and a playlist of the original songs covered on Yo La Tengo’s Fakebook that was compiled and shared by fans, none of which were “albums” in any traditional sense. But I digress.)

This record, with Deano stepping out front and backed by TMP’s hot-wired punk-bluegrass devotees, was a revelation even for someone like me who was already a fan of everyone involved. The opening song, “Taken,” is a slide-guitar-drenched musing in the wake of a disaster, natural or otherwise, eventually leading up to the bone-chilling refrain: “I feel like the next wave is meant just for me.” Or take “Box Store” — which I’ll always think of as “08-Box-Store,” the name of the track as I received it in the homemade download — an exemplar of Dean’s particular view of America through the prism of its everyday victims:

I work (I work)
In a box store (in a box store)
Stand beside you on most days (on most days)
I love to hear you talk
I just can’t stand the things you say
If I could fly (if I could fly)
So high, and look down upon this place (upon this place)
I would blow out all the walls
And wake up feeling different each day

Flash forward to the year 2020, by which time Schlabowske had issued several more brilliant records to no particular commercial acclaim, including two in his mock-folk-troubadour persona, Ramblin’ Deano, plus another couple more with members of the Meat Purveyors, one of which trickled out only belatedly and turned out to be perhaps my favorite of any of his releases. When lockdown started, Dean started passing the time by airing daily live webcasts where, sometimes joined by Meat Purveyors singer Jo Walston — the two had married the year before — he chatted and told stories and sang: songs he’d recorded, songs he hadn’t yet recorded, songs by forgotten country stars and reggae legends and Amy Rigby and the Kinks and George Jones and more George Jones and everyone else in his voluminous record collection. Deano’s Coffee and a Song became a lifeline, where a handful of his friends and fans, usually no more than 20 of us at a time, gathered to listen and join in the Facebook chat and take a tour through American music and culture and politics that we hadn’t known we needed so badly.

When live shows resumed in 2021, one of my first trips out of the house was to see Dean play two shows in New Jersey, each a 25-plus-song-long extravaganza that still barely scratched the surface of his repertoire. Here in 2023 as I write this, Dean and Jo, newly transplanted to a house in Lafayette, Louisiana whose fix-up has its own Facebook group, just put out yet another great album, with cover art (by Langford) of their two dogs, and recently visited my neck of the woods for a terrific live show that was seen by a wildly appreciative audience of maybe 40 people.

Whenever I write about seeing a great musician like Dean (or Antietam, or Barbara Manning, or lots of others in my iTunes library) before way too small a crowd, I have mixed emotions. I know that Dean would love to sell more records and play to bigger audiences, and I would love that too — if nothing else, it would mean more money to record that insane backlog of songs that he showed off on his livestreams, not to mention more chances to see him (and Jo) live than an occasional weekend jaunt. But there’s also something special about being one of a few dozen people to be clued in to a hidden gem: It feels not just like a badge of honor, but less like mass consumption and more like a club of friends, especially when some of them literally greet you by name.

Which, given that much of what I love about Deano’s music is that it’s a trip through the secret corners of both everyday American life and musical history, is probably appropriate, if not entirely fair to his bank account. I’m not going to be able to resolve here all the mixed feelings about popularity and success that underlie so much of “indie” music fandom — entire books have been written about that — so the best I can do is appreciate it for what it can be in this particular commodity culture. So long as there are only two sides to the Town Car window, I know which one I’d rather be on.