September 24, 2018
Released On October 31, 2006
Released By Horror High
Our story (more or less) begins in 2002 with a band called the Murderdolls. It’s the brainchild of Wednesday 13 (real name: Joseph Michael Poole) and notably includes former Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison. I discovered them through the weekly radio show hardDrive with Lou Brutus which I listened to religiously while in high school. Their first record, Beyond The Valley Of The Murderdolls, is a tongue-in-cheek take on horror punk. To give you an idea of Poole’s sense of (gallows) humor, the album’s best song is a love letter to Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist called “Love At First Fright” which contains lyrics like, “I’d love it if you’d spin your head for me / Or vomit a beautiful pea soup green / So beautifully”.
In between various horror punk projects, Poole made an outlaw country album. And, thus, we arrive at Highway To Hangovers. As to how exactly I stumbled across this record, I don’t clearly recall. It had something to do with Last.fm, but that’s about all I can find in the haze of my college years. Anyhow, from the first time I heard “Drink ‘Till You Ain’t Ugly,” I was in love with Bourbon Crow. The sheer absurdity of it all initially took me in. “I’m too drunk to dig this grave” is funny by itself, but to open a track with that is a stroke of comedic brilliance.
But what truly drew me into this album — indeed, the reason I continue to revisit this lovable farce — is the (surprisingly) great songwriting. The arrangements are smart, both on their own as clinics in efficiency and as a parody of genre. There’s just enough slide guitar and backing vocals and affected drawl to maintain the balancing act of strong songwriting and strong satire. Tongue-in-cheek works aren’t supposed to be this good on their own. I chortled at “Alcohol Express” the first time I heard it, but it was also stuck in my head after that initial listen. Hell, I still chortle at several lines (e.g., “If you don’t like it, you can suck my dixie,” and the idea of a $20 wedding ring ordered through the mail).
And I suppose it’s Poole’s zealous commitment to the material — the level of which, to my ear, approaches Sacha Baron Cohen — that ultimately sells it. Tone-perfect deadpan delivery of the (admittedly dark and uneasy) “A Bed In The Desert” and “Lord Put My Girl” somehow makes this stuff sillier and makes me smile every time as a result. Of course, that might have to do with my own sense of humor, which is pretty black. For reference, I find American Psycho to be a superb comedy, and Anthony Jeselnik to be the best pure joke writer right now in all of stand-up. I love the fearlessness of both to journey into the darkest of dark places and revel in its failures. I respect Conan O’Brien for the same reason: he has the mettle to wander into the foolish and the nonsensical so far that he’s sometimes on his own island.
So maybe that’s why I get so much enjoyment out of Highway To Hangovers: the sheer willingness to fully give yourself over to a joke as if it were an acting role, and the blind faith in the listener to follow behind even as things get uncomfortable. Or maybe it’s because losing a shoe due to drinking too much is a little too relatable. Either way.
Outlaw country with sinewy melodies & rugged songwriting through the lenses of dark humor & faint parody.
Photo credit: Matt Mitchell
At times, it can be hard to know if you’re hearing/watching/reading the thing itself, or the thing about the thing. There’s a famous example, and we don’t even have to leave the subgenre of outlaw country. I bet you’ve heard David Allan Coe sing “I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison” in “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” The line is intentionally over-the-top — part of an attempt by Steve Goodman and John Prine to write every country music cliché into a single song. Coe actually talks about their intent in his version of the tune; doesn’t get much more meta than that. But country drifts into maudlin territory so regularly, with one-liners that can feel like entries in a never-ending competition to plumb new and deeper emotional rock bottoms — how do you tell what’s satire and what’s heartfelt? If Highway To Hangovers is any indication, the area in between is precisely where Bourbon Crow likes to hang out. Their one-line zingers are as pointed and intentional as you’ll find, tact be damned. Some of them are right there in the song titles: “Suck My Dixie,” “A Bed In The Desert,” and “Drink ‘Till You Ain’t Ugly” all seem aimed at brazen absurdity. Then there’s the fatalism of “A Dead Body,” in which the narrator claims those two items are “everything that I need.” (I’d add good legal representation to that list, but that’s just me.) Here’s the big question: Is Highway To Hangovers the thing, or is it the thing about the thing? Maybe the answer is less about intent and more about how it makes you feel. Most folks these days would agree that “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” is both a send-up and a damn good country song. What is Bourbon Crow? You get to decide.
My friend Jason and his girlfriend at the time were coming over for a visit. Earlier in the day he’d been a fully bearded man, but when he showed up at my door he’d shaved the beard and left only the most unsettling and creepiest moustache. It seemed as though he’d gone out of his way to mold it into something recognizably unsettling and I was unsure how to react. I wanted to ask him if he was serious. I wanted to laugh, but instead I oped to be polite and quiet. I tried to be supportive. Maybe he was trying something new? Maybe he was experimenting? It’s hard to know what drives someone to inch closer to something so visibly and obviously askew from expectation. And yet, just as he was leaving, and I was internally congratulating myself for having the strength to let it go unchallenged, he stopped and turned to me with anger in his eyes. “Really, man?! You’re not going to say anything? You’re going to let me just walk out of here with this pedophile ‘stache disgracing my face?” I burst out laughing. It had been a joke from the beginning and his expectation was that I would laugh out loud as soon as I opened the door. When I hadn’t, we both entered into an awkward social contract where he was living a lie to see how long I would go, and I pretended not to notice. At one point, he said, he worried he might forget he’d done it. Somehow, a trust had been damaged. As I listen to Bourbon Crow’s Highway To Hangover, I hear a bunch of guys making the record equivalent of my friend’s moustache. It’s there and it’s a joke and it’s cleverly executed to test my resolve to take it seriously. The lyrics are cleverly written plays on the cliches of redneck culture, love, and alcohol consumption while the songs and arrangements are surprisingly well-executed rock ‘n roll in the vain of Elvis Presley or early Wille Nelson. Nobody has ever heard the band talk as though it were a joke. They also don’t insist that it isn’t. Despite vocalist Wednesday 13’s background in horror-themed and theatrical musical projects, nobody has every suggested that this was anything other than a serious outlaw country act. Even with titles such as “Suck My Dixie” and “Drink ‘Till You Ain’t Ugly,” they clearly take the songs very seriously. I’ve never heard them on the country music awards, nor have I heard of any other country artist paying homage to inspiration that was Highway To Hangovers. And yet, like anything which you stare at or listen to long enough, it starts to lose its comedy. You become numb to the absurdity more tuned to the simple joys of mindless country music. At that point, it just becomes a country record — and a fun one. I don’t know if Bourbon Crow are serious about country and I am not sure it matters. But until they break the social contract first, I choose to treat them as though it didn’t.
The brainchild of the intently prolific Wednesday 13, a theatrical musician well-versed in the world of horror punk & glam metal.
There’s a time, a place, and a mood for the kind of music Bourbon Crow turned out with Highway To Hangovers. I’d say: late at night, in the privacy of your home, with whomever’s company you keep that doesn’t mind rough cut, outlaw, and “give no damns” kind of southern rock. The good that comes through on a record like this, is in the sonic flavor that ties together each track. Joseph Michael Poole, known better as Wednesday 13, fronts the band with a voice and a vocalist’s attitude that feels distinctly reminiscent of Johnny Cash or Charlie Daniels but with an undeniably darker edge. (A very unique line of description I’ve similarly felt with UK alternative country band, Curse Of Lono.) The instrumentation, which boasts moments of classic bluegrass and country twang, is an aspect that’s very easy to grasp onto and enjoy, as it’s a style that crosses compositional lines from rugged southern style music like this, to the traditional but lighter-minded fare of artists like Miranda Lambert (specifically her earlier, first couple of albums) and the fireside tunes led by Dan Tyminski with Alison Krauss and Union Station. It’s impossible of course, not to acknowledge the very self-aware obsession with alcohol on this album, which, isn’t always framed in a badass way that’s looking for a fight. In fact, the sheer straightforwardness of some of the song titles, like “Alcohol Is Awesome” and “Drink ‘Till You Ain’t Ugly” sound like they are right out of the playbook of alcohol fueled, party-hardy, garage punk band, FIDLAR. Unfortunately, the crassness of this particular slice of outlaw country, (see, “Suck My Dixie,” and the socially questionable lyrics in “A Bed In The Desert“) makes it a pretty niche listen, despite its crowd-leaning level of energy. But, as I stated right up top, in the privacy of your own home or car, hanging with friends, and exploring a past record, Highway To Hangovers has some spunk that, at the very least musically, injects some immediate vigor into and behind whatever setting and whatever activity you’re doing while it’s playing.
Usually I prefer to teach a film inside my college composition courses. The idea that a text can be broader than a novel or story can be a mind-bending experience for my students, so I choose with care what road I take them down. A few years ago a class convinced me to teach The Help, that honey covered story of the subjugation of African-American nannies and maids in small town 1960’s Mississippi. Seeing it as a potentially good platform for discussion, I faced a roomful of primarily African-American women at the film’s end and was shocked at how much they liked the movie. Protesting my view of the story as the white woman’s hijacking of these African-American stories, the class insisted that it was okay because it was set in the 1960’s when “they didn’t know any better.” “Sure,” I said, trying to navigate the tricky waters of what felt like whitesplaining this story to these women, “but it was written in 2009, made in 2011, and we definitely know better now.” Queuing up Highway To Hangovers, the tribute album from Bourbon Crow aimed at Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, the gritty Confederate flag gave me pause, but I pushed past the cover to see how that imagery made sense with the album, thinking it was, after all, produced in 2006. To these born and bred Alabamian ears, the guitar and progressions felt like a red clay, sunburnt grass home. Drunk tales spun out by a campfire, sung by a jean clad cowboy reeking of whiskey touch deep down in my roots. Buck Bourbon’s smooth vocals would call up Cash even without the overt tribute, and often on the album that voice could sing me to sleep under a starlit sky. Thematically, though, the album falls down, not in overtly racist tones as the cover might suggest, but specifically in its treatment of women. In really listening, though, it seems as every mention of women is a degrading remark about their looks or character, with entire songs dedicated to drinking until she isn’t “ugly anymore” or how he’s leaving her dishonest and lazy self at the altar while he jets out of town. The one unlucky bastard who is actually married sings an ode to putting his wife in a grave because she drags across his nerves so badly. If idolizing Cash and the subgenre of outlaw country was the primary focus, Bourbon Crow would have had plenty of fodder without incorporating some of the genre’s worst attributes. Though there are 12 years between the album’s production and my listening, it feels, especially in terms of a civil rights issue, to be but a moment ago. Unwilling to align myself with the lyrical portrayal of the kind of proud Southern heritage that clashes with my own, I found a space inside the musicality as Bourbon Crow successfully picks up the reigns, dusting off those familiarly twangy and straightforward melodies to give them a modern perspective.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Okay, we’ve got to get creative this week. I want you to imagine your drinking buddies. Yes, you can include that guy you work with who keeps saying you should hangout sometime. Now, dress them and you up like a goth version of The Dukes Of Hazzard and put on your beer goggles. Okay, you should be thinking something like, “wow, this is the coolest we’ve ever looked” even though you know you’ll probably never be cool, but moving on. I need you to imagine a mysterious charismatic drifter with a great Johnny Cash impression — he’s your new leader. Highway To Hangovers by Bourbon Crow is the album you make together when you inexplicably stumble into a recording studio. At the time, you thought it was badass and profound, but in the sober light of day you’re delighted to hear that it’s still surprisingly catchy with a good sense of humor. Sounds great, right? Well, Highway To Hangovers is great, but I wouldn’t recommend you go out and start your own band with your drinking buddies. Leave it to Bourbon Crow, who seems to have the collective ability to drink anyone under the table and still melt faces with nimble guitar licks and intricate rhythms. If you’ve got the urge to build an Americana drinking playlist, start here and maybe you can finally start looking cool.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
Drown out the vocals & this is music that could harmoniously slide right in next to classics from Cash & Jennings.
After ODU’s (my alma mater) historic win over Virginia Tech last night in football, a love letter to alcohol is the last thing on my mind. Let me just say that I personally have zero issues with this album or its subject matter. This is an Eminem album, but nobody will say it. “Lord Put My Girl” is a pretty little letter to God, asking him to kill our subject’s wife. “Suck My Dixie” is every bit irreverent and rebellious as NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.” It’s a middle finger to the law, and anyone else who would prevent us from living free. “Headed For The Altar” is basically “Bitches Ain’t Shit” without a parental advisory sticker. The point is, there has always been a sever double standard when it comes to rap music concerning content, let alone the merits of the entire genre as “music.” Again, I wasn’t the slightest bit offended by anything that Bourbon Crow have to say, and I found myself smiling for most of it. I just think that we should afford our hip hop artists the same artistic freedom. And stop skimming just for the curse words!
I’ve longed championed for people to take the quality of parody music seriously. In fact, I wrote an effusive blurb about it for a 2013 year-end retrospective after becoming infatuated with just how sonically good Ylvis and The Lonely Island were that year. Bourbon Crow is no different in this vein — the music they craft is genuinely good and rises well above the mean of most outlaw country records, specifically those made in the last quarter century. Reduce it to just the instrumentation and this is music that everyone could get behind — strong melodies, fun guitar licks, well-rounded arrangements, and a feverish energy that’s palpable through all the tempo and tonal changes. Earworms abound, this is a record that should get stuck in your head if listening to it on long highway drive, a brisk evening run, or a relaxing couch breather. Lyrically though, this is not something everyone could get behind. Released today, it’d be a record championed by edgelords worldwide, though I’m sure the creators would probably cringe at that association. In its original context of 2006, in a year where a funny, but socially disparate movie like Borat ruled the roast, it fits in more. You might not laugh at every bit or scenario, but there’s true humor in here, with the tongue placed so firmly in its cheek that it almost violently pops out the other side in a scenario that frontman Wednesday 13’s other project, the horror punk band Murderdolls, would gleefully eulogize. But for those less inclined to enjoy the world of black comedy, this will be an uncomfortable listen to say the least. Even for those fans of black comedy though, the incessant subject matter of violence and degradation begins to wear thin after a few songs. To me, this comes off due to the lyrics romanticizing the subject matter, rather than plodding through the idiocy of it all. The band’s clear that this is an alcoholic narrator, but a narrator whose behavior lives out twisted fantasies many people actually have. Say what you will about how cool Sascha Baron Cohen and The Lonely Island are, no one really wants to nakedly brawl through a hallway or prematurely ejaculate in their pants so there’s a level of self-deprecation there that just not present here. Good or bad, Bourbon Crow fully commits here, laying bare the problems within classic country music, outlaw or not, but also spotlighting how pleasing and euphonic the music can be. Wednesday 13 has built a career on shock and awe, but listening to this surprisingly skillful take on a classic sound reveals a musician whose talent lies far outside our own comprehension.
Gotta Be Gold by The Sally Rose Band
Chosen By Laura Burroughs