Southern Accents: The Waco Brothers and Caleb Travers bring their stories to Twangfest

As the leader of Leeds, England's Mekons, Jon Langford helped construct the outlines for punk rock by fusing art-school smarts and political indignation. Now based in Chicago, Langford splits his time between the Mekons and the Waco Brothers, a group of country-loving musicians made from the ashes of such disparate bands as Jesus Jones, Graham Parker's the Rumour and KMFDM. Initially begun as a one-off band, the Waco Brothers remain one of the flagship artists on Chicago's alt-country label Bloodshot Records, while the recently released Waco Express: Live and Kickin' at Schubas Tavern, Chicago is a testament to the bash-'em-up energy of the band's live shows.

The Waco Brothers played the first Twangfest, performing a legendary show that reportedly got the group banned from Off Broadway. That ban gets lifted as the Wacos return to the scene of the crime to play the closing night of Twangfest 12. Langford offered his memories of that historic performance, his relationship with country music and state of American politics.

B-Sides: Do you remember playing the very first Twangfest?

Waco Brothers: country-lovin' punks.
Waco Brothers: country-lovin' punks.
Caleb Travers: A little bit country.
Courtesy of Caleb Travers
Caleb Travers: A little bit country.

Jon Langford: I think we played a good gig, but we were surprised that the management said we could never come back there again. There was some fuzzy diplomacy at the end of the night. It was nice of Twangfest to have us back. I don't think they were quite ready for us yet.

Where does your music stand in relation to country music?

We take country music seriously, not like some straw-in-your-hair, blacken-your-teeth bands — I find that really insulting. I think of Merle Haggard and Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams — they were great songwriters singing white blues. It speaks directly to people about their lives. The simplicity of the form was like punk rock, where I came out of — the excitement, the immediacy, the platform.

How do your political views come out in your songs?

I had an idea that country was right-ring conservative music, but loads of people have used country to talk about social conditions and inequity. [Johnny] Cash and Haggard songs describe people's lives so beautifully, and that's more important than writing a song that's gonna save the rainforest. You have to know your limitations.

Are you an American citizen?

I was about to become one, but the Bush years made me reconsider it. When he got re-elected I considered moving back to England. I think the Obama thing is really encouraging — the dark side of my personality prevents me from thinking we could have a young, black, forward-thinking president. This country is totally out of touch with the rest of the world, as most empires that are crumbling. So [at Waco Brothers' shows] we have that, then we have a steel guitar solo and then we all jump around. — Christian Schaefferr

9 p.m. Saturday, June 7. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $20. 314-773-3363.

Dreams So Real

Local singer-songwriter Caleb Travers has quickly made a name for himself around St. Louis by writing country-influenced story-songs and singing them in a deep, sonorous voice. His first album, Blue Weathered Dreams, came out earlier this year, but the 26-year-old has already begun tweaking his sound to include more rock and pop influences. Travers will be joined by Incurables leader and guitarist-about-town Jimmy Griffin for his upcoming performance at Twangfest, and he took some time to talk about his musical history, his ties to St. Louis and the difficulty of making a lasting statement through rock & roll.

B-Sides: Have you always been a solo performer, or did you start out playing in bands?

Caleb Travers: Growing up, I never had anyone to play with. I was a real avid metal guitarist and I traded in my Telecaster for a Dimebag Darrell-type shredder. I never got to play in a band until I got into church music around college, which was good since I had never done acoustic guitar and singing before. I started playing all this church music. It was a strange but valid intro to folk and stuff. I never have worked as a band, so this is totally new for me. I'm usually pretty teachable, more than I would like to lead on. Especially with [pedal-steel player] Scott Swartz — I was always looking to Scott, asking, "Is this too fast, is too much going on in the song?"

How did you and Scott meet up?

I was really influenced by all those Ryan Adams records he put out in 2005 with the Cardinals, and there was all this amazing steel playing on them. I put an ad for a steel player on Craigslist and [Swartz] got back to me. One day after he came to three or four practices, he said he'd really like to play with me full-time. I was totally blown away that he would want to be a part of the band.

You're not originally from St. Louis. What brought you here and why have you decided to stay?

I grew up in Paducah, Kentucky. I needed to go to college to transfer out of community college in Paducah. I just wanted to go to a larger city. I wanted to study music but ended up studying theology — I was really considering going into the ministry, and I ended up at Missouri Baptist College. Long story short, by the time I graduated I was engaged and my wife got a job here. It didn't take a lot to figure out that there is not a lot of work you have to do to get noticed a little bit in this town. It's pretty workable; you can pretty quickly find the people you need to go to get the press you need. There's not gonna be a talent scout checking out my dinner set, but it became evident that there is a good network for me to investigate. I never meant to start writing alt-country, but I just did. That was a super good form for me to come up in. That's been good for me to sink my teeth into roots and alt-country — it's given me a chance to get a great bit of exposure.

— Christian Schaeffer

9 p.m. Saturday, June 7. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $20. 314-773-3363.

 
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