Art of country’s heroes skewers neo-Nashville
By Chris Morris
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – It’s an arresting image:
Hank Williams, wild-eyed and skeletal, pierced with arrows like
the Christian martyr St. Sebastian.
This astonishing graphic and dozens more like it are on
view in “Nashville Radio” (Verse Chorus Press), the first
collection of art works by Jon Langford, the prolific
vocalist-guitarist of the Mekons, the Waco Brothers and the
Pine Valley Cosmonauts.
The Wales-born Chicago resident says of his multiple
portraits of Hank-as-martyr: “The guy was just in agony his
whole life. . . . I think of Kurt Cobain and Hank Williams —
their careers are so parallel.”
Langford and the Mekons saw many parallels between their
brand of punk rock and traditional hard-edged country music,
and the band adopted, and adapted, the conventions of American
hillbilly music into their sound in the mid-’80s.
“They were simple three-chord songs about drinking in
bars,” Langford says. “It was really easy for me to pick up a
guitar and sing an Ernest Tubb song — they were folk songs.
Maybe it was arrogant on one level, but it made sense to me.”
Langford had studied art at Leeds University during the
Mekons’ formative years but had abandoned painting for music.
However, a 1988 trip to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville —
the Lower Broadway bar that was the dry Grand Ole Opry’s wet
“backstage” in the days when the show was broadcast from the
Ryman Auditorium — proved to be an artistic epiphany.
The musician was fascinated by the scarred, stained
photographs of country’s famous stars and unknown aspirants
that lined the walls of the saloon. “That was a ‘Eureka!’
moment,” Langford recalls. “It was as if this was the only
monument to this culture. . . . It was the graveyard for the
part of America I was interested in.”
He began to produce paintings and etchings, rendered in a
distinctively scuffed, manhandled style, that represented
country music’s history and heroes in a phantasmagoric, gothic
way. He says, “I tried to imitate what had happened to those
pictures (at Tootsie’s) — the nicotine, the tearing.”
The pages of “Nashville Radio” (which takes its name from a
haunted Langford song penned in Hank Williams’ voice) are
filled with unsettling portraits of Williams, Johnny Cash, Bob
Wills and other icons. Several of his works are devoted to the
stars of the “National Barn Dance,” the now little-remembered
Chicago radio show that gave the Opry a run for its money as a
showcase for country talent.
Langford’s fascination with the dark side of the music may
have culminated with “The Death of Country Music,” a 1998
Nashville exhibit of carved tombstones signifying the demise of
gutsy, meaningful country.
“I was walking with a mate down Milwaukee Avenue (in
Chicago),” Langford recalls, “and we went past a place where
they made monuments. I said, we should have Hank crucified on
one of those!”
He savors the ironic fact that Music Row attendees at the
exhibit — which basically thumbed its nose at the contemporary
country assembly line — not only loved the show, but it
resulted in a commission from a major label to produce the
cover for a Williams reissue.
Langford will appear at the South by Southwest Music
Conference & Festival in Austin, performing a show in support
of his new ROIR solo album “Gold Brick.” A show of his art will
be hanging at Yard Dog Gallery during the festival, and he will
sign copies of “Nashville Radio” there March 18.
(Chris Morris hosts “Watusi Rodeo” on Indie 103.1 in Los
Angeles from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. every Sunday.