If the chat around the cooler is to be believed, we are in the throes of another æsthetic shift. That is, we have already moved past post-modernism, which near as I understand mostly amounted to cleverly chewing the past into new bits; reconstituted culture. (It’s all about packaging.) The fancy new kid’s called deconstruction, which seems to be a highly decorative and utterly dysfunctional movement bent on chewing the past, the present, and the future into utterly unrecognizable and impersonal bytes. Computer-assisted dada, if you will.
Which is probably a long-winded way of saying we’re lost.
Adrift and afraid, gasping for substance like fish on the dock.
Or, as the Sex Pistols had it 20 years back, No Future, except this time it’s for a failure of imagination, not hope.
This, in part, explains the fond glances we’ve been taking toward our cultural past: the glorious ’50s kitsch (sorry: art moderne) which graces so many hip homes and secondhand stores, old metal cars (a British friend thinks his 1974 Plymouth Duster is some kind of classic), BR5-49′s wardrobe. I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch.
Now, believe me, I know that’s a lot of trash to throw at three early-middle-aged guys who live in Austin and play banjo, fiddle, bass, tuba, accordion, guitar, whatever, and squirm audibly even at the suggestion they might be a bluegrass band: the Bad Livers, who don’t drink. A trio given equally to heartfelt gospel and Surfer-esque chaos. Songwriter Danny Barnes (banjo, primarily) will identify himself as a Christian, though his Jewish comrade Mark Rubin (bass and tuba), who punctuates the conversation with “amen” and no irony, is quick to point out that Danny also practices tai-chi and meditates.
Straight lines rarely happen in nature, and it’s the colliding arcs that are responsible for most of what’s worth looking at or listening to.
Anyway, that’s what good music does: It sweeps you off somewhere and drops you, unexpected, splat in the middle of an idea you didn’t know you had. And that’s what the Bad Livers — Danny and Mark and Ralph White (fiddle and accordion) — have been up to these last seven years, which amounts to 1,500-plus shows and four full-length releases.
Not without a price, that. There’s a new CD, Hogs on the Highway, a new label (Sugar Hill), and a new member. “Last fall, when the Bad Livers were out doing some shows,” Barnes wrote in an e-mail update, “Ralph woke up one morning and indicated to Mark and I that he was wore out on touring.…It was a moment of realization for all of us. Mark and I realized that we were enjoying what we were doing more than ever. And we felt positive about our business and where we were going. Ralph, on the other hand, felt that the rigors of touring and ‘the business’ had taken a serious toll on his attitude.”
The upshot is that, while Ralph and Danny may continue to write together, Bob Grant, an old friend who picks mandolin and guitar and presently lives in New York City, has joined the band.
Beginnings. Pick any spot to start, but mostly it’s called living. Rubin began off a tuba player, back in Oklahoma. “It’s been a long, strange journey for me,” he says over the phone, while Danny chimes in from the receiver on the fax machine. “I was setting myself up for a career as a classical musician when I was in high school, by being a tuba player. Right about my senior year of high school my father passed away, and that just knocked the stilts out of a lot of the plans that I had made.
“At the same time I was getting really involved with punk rock music, and I’d stopped playing tuba and got an electric bass, and hung around the punk rock scene up in Oklahoma City; bands like the Flaming Lips came out of that little bag. I guess I moved down to Dallas in ’84, and just kicked around.
“That was about the time I felt that all the promises that were made by the Minutemen and Black Flag and bands like that had pretty much gone to hell. Dallas was a good place to be, because there was a lot of great music going on, and I used to go see this band Killbilly play. I bought a string bass and joined them. Simple as that.”
Simple, but Mark still had to relearn to play the bass. “It’s a new instrument entirely,” he says. “I had been playing electric bass, and I pretty much well-versed myself in a lot of different styles — country-western and blues, and I did two years in a reggae band up in Oklahoma City. With the upright bass you have to totally relearn the instrument from the ground up, and I’ll let you know, honestly, the way I play bass is a lot different than, I’d say, 99 percent of the bluegrass players out there. I play a lot more percussively because we have a trio, and everybody’s got to work extra hard live.”
Barnes, raised in Texas, also comes from slightly off the bluegrass track. “My mom and dad’s folks are from Alabama and Tennessee,” he says. “Even though we grew up in Texas, I was always inundated from a very early age with Grand Ole Opry acts. Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, all those kind of guys.”
Danny and Mark ended up in Killbilly together, Mark in what Danny describes as the band’s first serious incarnation, and Danny for a few tours. Later, they both ended up in Austin, where Ralph White was a neighbor. “I met Ralph at a little restaurant by my house,” Barnes recalls. “They had a little jam session down there on Sundays, and he played fiddle and accordion. We got to playing — we’d meet on Sundays and play at this little jam — and I just hit it off with him. We got to talking, he liked fishin’ and huntin’ and stuff like that, and we became good friends and it just snowballed into this little deal we’ve got now.”
That would be the Bad Livers, who began dangerously near to a novelty punk-bluegrass fusion. Which is what happens when you live in Austin and all your friends are in punk rock bands. Indeed, the first single was a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”, but they grew out of that quickly enough into whatever it is they’ve become. That part is a bit touchy.
“I used to tell interviewers a long time ago that I have way too much respect for bluegrass music to say that we have anything to do with it,” Barnes offers.