Various Artists “Pandemophenia” (Bloodshot Records, 2020)

Mention the  Chicago music scene to anyone and the Southside blues of Muddy Waters may spring to mind, others may recall a vibrant soul scene which included the Impressions and Curtis Mayfield, the Chicago folk scene gave us Roger McGuinn, John Prine and Steve Goodman, but the Chicago country scene? It may surprise some readers that  Chicago was once the centre of the country music industry. The same economic factors that drove Southern blacks north from the Mississippi Delta, also influenced Appalachian and Southern whites which lead to a vibrant local scene supported by WAL-MS’s National Barn Dance radio show. Eventually the music wound down, with The Grand Ole Opry and Nashville taking precedence, however bluegrass continued to be popular from the ‘60s to the ‘90s as part of the folk scene with The Sundowners continuing to fly the local country flag. The Sundowners were a major influence on alt country’s Robbie Fulks.

It was out of the underground Chicago country scene of the ‘90s that Bloodshot Records emerged, founded by DJs Nan Warshaw and Dan Miller in 1994. The label built a connection with local artists and community and focused on roots music that inhabited the “nebulous cracks where punk, country, soul, pop, bluegrass, blues and rock n roll mix and mingle and mutate”. The label had significant success with Ryan Adams debut album before he moved to a major label. Robbie Fulks is a mainstay of the label.

With its DIY ethos, the label has a long history of issuing compilation albums. This time, they have trawled their tape library to produce a 17-track compilation of B-sides, out-takes, covers and unreleased tracks  representing the full range of their output. Bloodshot is positioning this as a thank you to fans and a support for artists during the coronavirus pandemic. There is a caveat to the label’s professed ethos, Lydia Loveless accused the label of not looking after her interests when she was emotionally and sexually harassed by Nan Warshaw’s partner. The label did accept they had failed Loveless, and Warshaw moved away from the label’s day to day management.

‘Pandemophenia’  is only available from Bandcamp as a digital-only download,  and it is a very enjoyable compilation with a number of what may become must-have tracks for fans of particular artists. While all tracks are at the very least interesting, highlights include Ruby Boot’s cover of the rare Tom Petty tune ‘Keep Me Alive’. Ruby Boot is Australian Bex Chilcott, and musicians backing this Texas recorded track include members of The Texas Gentlemen.  It is always nice to hear a Nick Lowe cover and Kelly Hogan manages to put her own stamp on ‘Homewrecker’ . Hogan is currently a member of Neko Case’s backing band and was previously a member of  Jody Grind.  Given the challenges America is currently facing, Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Our Land’ is very apt.

Chicago rock band Rookie deliver an acoustic version of ‘Hold On Tight’ which contrasts nicely with their foot to the floor, amps turned up to 10 version on their debut album. There is a swagger to Robbie Fulks ‘Seventies Jesus’ which looks back at the hippy Jesus freaks.  William Elliott Whitmore’s ‘New Skateboard’ and Freakwater’s ‘Frayed and Bare’ both feature banjo and vocals. The current generation of Southern rock bands is represented by the Banditos’ acoustic ‘Keep On Smiling’.  Welshman and founder member of The Mekons and current Waco Brother, Jon Langford, is featured on two tracks. The compilation is rounded out with tracks by Jason Hawk Harris, Murder By Death, Cory Branan, Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, Ha Ha Tonka and Scott H. Biram, not forgetting Colorado’s Yawpers and their version of ‘Ace of Spades’.

While ‘Pandemophenia’ will not win any Album of the Year awards, it is a fun and interesting look at the current Chicago country scene, and related artists,  and does justice to the city’s long tradition of country music.

An enjoyable compilation from the original capital of country music, Chicago
7/10

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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