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Clip: They might be Bloodshot, but not tired at all

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  • Carl Zimring
    They might be Bloodshot, but not tired at all By Greg
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 30, 2004
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      They might be Bloodshot, but not tired at all

      By Greg Kot

      Chicago might have seemed like an odd place for a pair of former punk rock
      drummers to start a roots-country label a decade ago, but Nan Warshaw and
      Rob Miller knew better when they mapped out a business plan for Bloodshot
      Records on a bar napkin. The city was teeming with disenfranchised rockers
      drawn to the soul of Appalachian murder ballads and honky-tonk two-steps.
      With their former partner, Eric Babcock (who has since left the label to
      run his own imprint, Catamount Records, in Nashville), Miller and Warshaw
      helped put the notion of "alternative country" on the map with Bloodshot's
      first album, "For a Life of Sin," a compilation of local twang-punk
      stalwarts (Jon Langford, Handsome Family, Robbie Fulks, Freakwater)
      released in 1994.

      "For a Life of Sin" quickly sold out of its initial pressing of 1,000
      copies, and now--109 albums and singles later--Bloodshot is renowned as the
      home of "insurgent country," ground zero for a movement that prides itself
      on being the antithesis of everything Nashville's Music Row stands for.

      But as the label begins its 10th anniversary celebration with a concert
      Feb. 7 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Miller acknowledges that the
      "insurgent country" imprint has become a "straitjacket."

      "I know what I mean when I say country-influenced stuff, but not everybody
      else does," he says with a laugh. "If Creedence Clearwater Revival came out
      now, or [the Rolling Stones'] `Let It Bleed,' or Neil Young, they'd all be
      thrown into the alt-country ghetto. Our label has some stuff in the country
      tradition, but there are also the Waco Brothers, Bobby Bare Jr., Neko
      [Case], Alejandro [Escovedo] who are country-influenced, but not really
      country or even alt-country in the way most people think of it. We tried to
      control the message at the start by labeling the music, but now it's sort
      of irrelevant. We're not so narrowly defined anymore."

      The label has had a number of successes in recent years, both artistic and
      commercial. Bloodshot released The Pine Valley Cosmonauts' benefit CDs,
      "The Executioners' Last Songs," volumes 1-3, which helped pour money into
      the successful campaign to overturn the death penalty in Illinois; nurtured
      rising country-soul singer Neko Case; resurrected punk pioneer Alejandro
      Escovedo; and laid the groundwork for the Old 97's.

      But the label's watershed release remains Ryan Adams' first
      post-Whiskeytown solo album, "Heartbreaker," which came out in 2000. Its
      worldwide sales of 250,000 copies enabled the label to buy health insurance
      for its half-dozen employees and removed the cloud of financial doubt that
      had swirled around the label since its inception. Adams wanted $30,000 to
      make the record and Miller and Warshaw took out a private loan to make it

      "We didn't want to interfere with the daily operation of the label,"
      Warshaw says, "so we went into hock to make it. But it paid off: It still
      sells 600 to 1,000 copies a week."

      Though Adams' misadventures on and off the stage since then have been
      well-documented, the Bloodshot folks savor the idea that they released what
      remains the singer's finest album. "It's gratifying to know that record is
      not a flash in the pan, whatever shenanigans he's been involved in," Miller
      says. "That record still stands up over time."

      The same could be said for the label itself, which has become part of a
      rich Chicago tradition. With 50-year-old Delmark at the head of the class,
      the city has become an incubator for successful indies: Alligator, Touch &
      Go, Southport, Drag City, Thrill Jockey, Minty Fresh, Carrot Top and
      countless others. They specialize in different brands of music, but they
      share a common passion for music and a commitment to their artists that
      resembles a family more than a business. Bloodshot, for example, has earned
      a reputation for being scrupulous about paying its artists; Escovedo says
      Bloodshot was the first label ever to pay him a royalty check in his
      25-year career. It also allows its artists to record for other labels,
      rather than tying them down to exclusive deals.

      "The longer I do this, the more I abhor the music business in general,"
      Warshaw says. "It's like they lose sight of the fact that they exist to
      serve the artist, not the other way around."

      "My one piece of advice about starting a label has not changed since the
      first day I did this," Miller adds. "If you want to get into this to make
      money, you're an idiot. Do it only if you have absolutely unquenchable
      passion for the bands that you work with. Then you won't care if the rest
      of the world doesn't pick it up right away. You'll find a way, you'll build
      a grassroots network, you'll staple flyers to telephone poles, you'll get
      out there and build a Web site for your acts. All the business crap that
      you're forced to learn will change drastically, but the reason to do this
      never will."

      Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.
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