Of all the bands that were tagged with the ‘alternative-country’ label, for Freakwater, more than any other, it fitted least well. Their music was set in the traditions of Appalachian folk, bluegrass and old-time country into which they injected a dose of modern energy and a healthy application of recalcitrance. The instrumentation was largely acoustic and, unlike the majority of the ‘alt-country’ bands that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, Freakwater were fronted by two women. Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin had been teenage friends in Louisville, Kentucky. Bean had been drumming in a garage band when she decided to put together a country outfit and roped in her old friend. Whilst other supporting members of the band have come and gone over the years, the Bean/Irwin partnership has always been the creative force and public face of the band.
The band’s self-titled 1989 debut and its 1991 follow-up ‘Dancing Under Water’ consisted largely of country and bluegrass standards but with a sprinkling of powerful originals. Their third LP ‘Keep on the Sunny Side’, a tribute to the Carter Family, was released in 1993. Also released that year was their first for renowned indie label Thrill Jockey. ‘Feels Like the Third Time’ began a run of outstanding albums released over the following six years. The song ‘My Old Drunk Friend’ taken from that album became one of their best known and a fans favourite after being included on Bloodshot Records first ‘Insurgent Country’ compilation. However, it was to be their 1995 album ‘Old Paint’ that brought them wider acclaim. The album was celebrated by the critics. The, mostly, original songs were often dark and challenging. The song ‘Hero/Heroine’ is uncomfortable listening. However, there is enough counterbalance, such as the amusing ‘Waitress Song’ to not overload the album with gloom.
Similar dark themes mark the 1998 follow-up ‘Springtime’. Drink, guns, religion and unemployment are amongst the subject matter. The album also continued the band’s signature minimalist, neo-folk music approach that had served them so well. That all changed the following year though with the 1999 release of ‘End Time’. On its release No Depression observed that “it might be hard to recognise End Time as a Freakwater album at all”. Gone were the acoustic guitars, banjos and fiddles, to be replaced by electric guitars, pedal steel, organ and drums. The result was a triumph. Inevitably some disapproved, but those with open ears and minds were ready to hear something new from Bean and Irwin. Although their music had always been rooted in traditional sounds, they had never been strict adherents to the rules of tradition, such as singing in tune. In fact, traditionalists largely hated them for this. A new approach was not really breaking the rules – they never followed any in the first place. The new record allowed them to explore new sounds and new ways of delivering their evocative songs. Sure, it took a bit of getting used to, but it was worth the effort.
Irwin and Bean both cut solo albums in 2003 and 2004 respectively, before the next Freakwater album appeared in 2005. Backed by members of Chicago experimental rock band Califone, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Freakwater were about to launch off in another new direction. In fact, that wasn’t the case at all. The instrumentation is sparse and subtle, with the pedal steel running through the album keeping the sound firmly rooted in country. The strength of the album, as ever, is in the songs and those included on ‘Thinking of You’ are once again of high calibre. The album seemed to mark an endpoint for the band as Bean and Irwin went their separate ways to work on other projects. Yet in 2016 a full 11 years after ‘Thinking of You’, a further Freakwater album appeared on Chicago’s Bloodshot label. The album ‘Scheherazade’ came about after Bean and Irwin started playing live together again in 2014 and wrote a couple of songs whilst doing so. This, in turn, lead to the decision to make a new album. The album, despite a few stylistic changes, is unmistakably Freakwater. The darkness of the songs, the idiosyncratic delivery and a sense of fun in many ways make the record a perfect fit for Bloodshot, a label that has always championed cranks and misfits. It also brought them back to the label that first brought them to wider attention.
Over a long time, Freakwater have defied conventions and ploughed their own glorious furrow. Despite the title of this series, I hope that they are not entirely forgotten, and I hope they never will be. If you are not familiar with their work, do yourself a favour and check them out. Those among you whose memories I have jogged, I hope you will also delve back into your music library and give them another listen.