Bringing St. Louis the Meat

Punk and country are in the marrow of the Meat Purveyors

Apr 7, 2004 at 4:00 am
A band named after a slaughterhouse must know something of earthly pleasures. For Austin's acoustic oddity the Meat Purveyors, intoxication is a specialty -- so it's only logical that the group's favorite St. Louis venue is Frederick's Music Lounge, home of Fighting Cock bourbon and Stag beer.

"Fred's is a really bad place for shots," guitarist Bill Anderson semi-recalls. "Maybe not the last time but the time before that, we played and it got pretty out of hand. First of all was whiskey, and then they started sending us tequila. That's a bad mix. But it would [have been] rude to decline."

A familiar story. But little else about TMP is commonplace. The band occupies a space between bluegrass and punk, between country and pop -- and between sanity and lunacy, for that matter. Alt-country doesn't quite serve to describe TMP's approach, but then again neither do any of the dividers filling record-store shelves. The band -- Anderson, Pete Stiles, Cherilyn diMond and Jo Walston -- favors two- and three-part harmonies accompanied by mandolins, fiddles, banjos and the like, which causes TMP to list toward the bluegrass side of things. But the bandmates' sensibilities evince clear signs of Anderson's punk-rock roots (he hails from bands Poison 13 and the Hand of Glory).

"In some ways, it's a constant tug of war," says Anderson of TMP's diverse influences, "but that's probably why we sound the way we do. Musically, we never have any big disagreements. Everybody likes country music, and everyone likes bluegrass to some degree. Pete's the biggest bluegrass fan, and Jo's the biggest country fan. I'm the biggest blues fan. There's definitely a common ground."

None of this, however, reveals to an unsuspecting reader one of TMP's trademarks -- the well-chosen cover song. Beginning with a waltz-beat "Heartbreak Hotel" on the group's first album, Sweet in the Pants, Anderson's nuanced arrangements of familiar songs and Walston's and diMond's vocals ensure that the Meat Purveyors own a cover.

"Half the fun for us is picking the covers, though it's definitely walking a fine line between stupid and -- well, I would never pick a song that I didn't think had something good about it that I really liked. The same goes for everyone." But in the next breath, Anderson confesses, "I think probably some people think it's on the edge of goofy to do [Ratt's] 'Round and Round,' but I always thought the chorus of that song was so great. When we tried to learn it and looked at the verses, we thought, 'Oh my God, the song is so stupid.'"

Listening to the band offers some brilliant jolts of recognition, when you find yourself singing along without quite being able to place the tune. "Our covers can't be novelty songs," asserts Anderson. "There has to be a reason. Usually I think we all have a pretty good instinct. If one of us really hated it, we wouldn't do it." While TMP's Madonna Trilogy (in which they cover the Material Girl's "Lucky Star," "Burning Up" and "Like a Virgin") is an amazing feat, the band tackles traditional songs ("Working on a Building") and standards (Bill Monroe's "Can't You Hear Me Calling") with the same reckless fervor and precise timing.

The Meat Purveyors' originals blend seamlessly with their covers; ear-catching lyrics might lead curious listeners to the liner notes to see which country legend penned a particular ditty, only to discover that Anderson has written it -- and nearly half the songs on each release. The bluegrass influence can only take a city band so far, and singing about growing up down in the holler somehow doesn't resonate with TMP's experiences. "None of our audience relates to the rural message of earlier bluegrass; we play in the cities and rock clubs," explains Stiles.

What we can relate to are the drunken threats and psychotic rants that Walston spins so powerfully, but threats and rants present their own challenges for Anderson. "The hardest part when I write songs is getting everyone to learn them, getting Jo to agree to sing them. She's gotten a lot better about it. Until you hear a song recorded, it's this kind of abstraction." Such a revelation comes as a surprise given how completely Walston inhabits each song, working the lyrics over and selling every moment of the tune.

"I try to write songs that will sound good when Jo and Cherilyn sing them," Anderson says. "In fact, they are my muses. The song always sounds so much better when the band learns it and the other instruments and vocals are added. There are two songs on the new album that kind of took my breath away the first time I heard them recorded with the vocals; Jo was on fire. That's a good feeling: to hear your song with an element added that you could never add yourself."

Live, the Meat Purveyors spend the entire evening teetering on the verge of disaster without quite tipping over into pure camp. Their onstage exchanges increase in acerbity as the evening wears on, and you get the feeling that you've just barely missed the punch line of some long-standing inside joke. The bandmates' familiarity stems from their eight years of playing together in this incarnation (Walston and Anderson played together in Joan of Arkansas). That presence promises to come through loudly on the CD available at their shows this spring; Beans and Sweeping: Scraps from the Meat Locker compiles fourteen songs that die-hard fans will recognize, without the slick patina of studio glossing.

Bluegrass hybrids such as TMP raise inevitable questions of authenticity, but when asked about the issue, Anderson hems and haws uncomfortably. "I don't even know what that means," he says. "There's not going to be anyone like Ralph Stanley now; I'm not interested in trying to be like that or sound like that. I definitely think that the people who are playing [insurgent country] truly love and respect country music. And part of that is not doing it exactly, not trying to sound exactly like something out of a museum vault. That's not what the music is about at all, and it never was. I just think you have to put some of yourself into it. I even hesitate to call [the Meat Purveyors] a bluegrass band. There are purists out there who would tell us that what we're doing isn't bluegrass, and I wouldn't even argue with them. I'm just trying to do something that's fun and that I like."