Clip: They might be Bloodshot, but not tired at all
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
Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.