Forgotten Artists – Bad Livers

In this latest article in our FORGOTTEN ARTISTS series regular contributor Clint West is back to remind us of a particularly innovative band that really pushed the boundaries of the Americana genre.

Formed in 1990 in Austin, Texas, Bad Livers were without question one of the most original and unique bands of that decade. Defying any kind of classification they blended traditional American musical forms such as folk, gospel, blues country and most notably bluegrass, with the energy and attitude of rock music and punk. Indeed, their first single was a bluegrass cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. For want of anything better Rolling Stone later described their sound as “thrash-grass”. However, that is a very crude and simplistic label, Bad Livers were far more than that; they were musical virtuosos with a modern, energetic and innovative take on the American folk tradition. When asked for a description of their music the band simply referred to it as “Bad Livers music”.

The band’s guitar and banjo player, principal songwriter and driving force was Danny Barnes. A one-time brief member of the legendry Dallas band Killbilly, Barnes left and moved to Austin where he formed The Barnburners which also featured J.D. Foster and Rich Brotherton. He then formed the Danny Barnes Trio with his former Killbilly colleague, the classically trained upright bass and tuba player Mark Rubin, and fiddler/accordionist Ralph White III. This line-up then became Bad Livers.

Performing regularly around the Austin clubs, Bad Livers garnered a growing reputation that brought them to the attention of Paul Leary from The Butthole Surfers. He then financed and produced the band’s debut album, ‘Delusions of Banjer’ which was released in 1992 on Quarterstick Records. The record received wide critical acclaim for Barnes’ strong, if sometimes quirky songwriting and the band’s melting pot of sounds. The high quality of its musicianship was also noted.

The band toured relentlessly and continued to enhance their renown as a superb live band. It was 1994 therefore before the release of ‘Horses in the Mines’, the band’s second album, also on Quarterstick. Produced by Barnes, it was recorded live on analogue equipment in a log cabin. Once again, the band won many critical plaudits with the Austin Chronicle describing the record as “fresh, vital and original”. However, Bad Livers’ innovatory approach brought them into conflict with bluegrass traditionalists who often loathed them, leaving them trying to project to a more progressively-minded crossover rock audience and to avoid being seen as a novelty act.

A move to Sugar Hill Records brought a third release in 1997 with ‘Hogs on the Highway’, which also marked the last appearance of Ralph White with the band, as he left soon after the album was completed. The album itself was a more earnest affair, being something of a concept album that honoured the roots of American music. Featuring a broad range of musical styles, Barnes’s songs continued to grow and mature whilst the quality of the musicianship was more clearly apparent than on the more primal sound of the two Quarterstick albums. The tour that accompanied the album saw White replaced by multi-instrumentalist Bob Grant and the band clock up their 1600th date in seven years.

Bob Grant then also departed at the end of the year. Barnes moved to Port Hadlock in Washington state but continued to carry on the band with Rubin. Together the two of them recorded ‘Industry and Thrift’, which was produced by Lloyd Maines and released in 1998. The album expanded the band’s sound in new directions. The old bluegrass base was still present but with newly added ingredients of soul, funk and blues. Barnes’ songwriting had matured too; the old humour and frivolity had not entirely disappeared, but increasingly his lyrics were more literate and more artfully crafted. One contemporary critic even suggested that the album marked the transition from “Barnes the comedian to Barnes the songwriter”. The album again received incredibly positive reviews, with US music critic and author David Goodman describing it as “a truly amazing piece of Americana”.  However, in terms of sales Barnes commented that it “fell off the face of the earth”.

The band’s final album ‘Blood and Mood’ appeared in 2000. It was the band’s most leftfield effort yet, introducing sampling and electronica. Traditionalists decried it as the final betrayal of the band’s bluegrass roots whilst others hailed it as a masterpiece. As with so many aspects of life, it was the conservatives who got it terribly wrong. Despite the band website’s deadpan comment that it was “to date the worst-selling title in the catalogue” it was a brave and artistic triumph. The band called it a day soon after, leaving observers to wonder if that decision had already been taken before the album was made, thus freeing Barnes and Rubin to put aside all commercial considerations and experiment. Whatever the circumstances the album was a fitting swansong that divided opinions, but then that’s exactly what the Bad Livers had been doing for a decade.

Despite their 2007 induction into the Austin Music Hall of Fame, the Bad Livers were never famous in the real sense of the word. What they did do though, was to challenge and redefine the boundaries of American music in a way that inspired and influenced many others. Following the band’s demise, Mark Rubin moved into writing film scores whilst also pursuing a career as a session player and touring musician. Danny Barnes went on to compose music for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, as well as releasing a series of back-to-basics banjo albums. Occasionally since, they have got together for the odd reunion gig but there has never been any suggestion that they might record or tour together again, despite interest in the band being revived following the use of their song ‘Death Trip’  in the TV series ‘True Blood’.

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