DANNY BARNES, TENNESSEE TWIN
Tractor Tavern, 789-3599, $7
9 p.m. Fri., Aug. 2
Ever since the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon started, it's become de rigueur to listen to bluegrass, hip to be able to sift out mandolins from fiddles, and swank as hard lemonade to fork out $75 to watch Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch (anyone catch her '97 show at the University Village Starbucks?) harmonize in high lonesome hockey arenas.
Austin's Meat Purveyors aren't latecomers hopping on the bluegrass bandwagon. In fact, they're driving the damned thing, and their honky-tonk road show has been anchored for a week of gigs in Ballard, culminating with a Friday night hoedown at the venerable Tractor Tavern.
The last few years have not been without stumbling blocks for the band. Following the release of 1999's More Songs About Buildings and Cows, the MP's took a break—rumored to be permanent at the time. But after the extended hiatus, the band has regrouped and returned with a new album, All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail (Bloodshot), a proud blend of heartfelt roots and harmonious folk, punchy rockabilly, and country purity.
At first glance, the sassy stage play and immaculate harmonies of singers Jo Walston and Cherilyn diMond call to mind an alt-country rendering of the B-52's Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson. With tongues planted firmly in cheek, the pair has a flair for turning cheesy cover choices—Abba's "S.O.S.," Elvis' "Burning Love," even Ratt's "Round and Round,"— into hair-raising gold, while doing justice to congenial choices like Stanley's "Love Me Darling," Nick Lowe's "Without Love," and "Dues" from the Nashville soundtrack.
But the MP's musical muscle comes from Texas heavyweights Pete Stiles and Bill Anderson and a relentless percussive pace that makes you forget this band is without drums. Stiles—a speed-of-light mandolin player—produced the new album, while the guitar-wielding Anderson is also the Purveyors' songwriting sovereign. Penning five of the new platter's baker's dozen, Anderson shows a knack for penetrating, intuitive lyrics and melodies that hook you from the start.
With instruments ablaze, the MP's sing of truckers' vitamins and circus clowns, staying out late and exorcising the devil, and coming clean on the age-old secret of mixing liquor and lust. "When I'm not drinking, I'm thinking about drinking," Walston and diMond coo on the aptly titled "Thinking About Drinking," a drunken love letter of brokenhearted booziness. "And when I'm not thinking, I'm drinking about you."
Thinking and drinking. High and lonesome. It's the kind of song and sentiment the Meat Purveyors have long specialized in. And it's the stuff that makes them one of the few groups that can honestly claim they were bluegrass before bluegrass was cool.