Kelly Kessler and Jane Baxter Miller began their country career as the Texas Rubies in 1989 in a setting that couldn’t have been more urban: Chicago subway stations. Their favorite venues, though, were living rooms, and the biggest place that still felt like a living room to them was Club Lower Links, where the pair held forth as regulars.
In 1994, Bloodshot Records included a Texas Rubies tune on its first release, the Chicago-style country compilation For A Life Of Sin. By the time it was released, though, Club Lower Links had folded, the Texas Rubies CD Working Girl Blues had languished in limited interest, and the pair had stopped performing altogether. It was nearly five years before Kessler and Miller found a living room they liked well enough to play again for an audience, reuniting for long set of pent-up music as part of the Honky Tonk Living Room series at the Hideout.
The Hideout, an ages-old, working-class bar, is tucked between a bus maintenance facility and a steel fabricator in an unfashionable factory district on Chicago’s west side. It was purchased less than two years ago by a regular’s daughter and her husband, both fresh from Austin. Occasionally tending bar under the new regime was Anastasia Davies, who for years booked Chicago’s premier alt-country venue, Schubas, and now books the suburban Chicago’s top twang purveyor, FitzGerald’s. In the Hideout, Kessler felt she could recapture an ambience she had long missed: a setting for kicking back, drinking beer and listening to country music.
Kessler staked out the second and fourth Thursday of each month on the Hideout’s calendar to create the Honky Tonk Living Room, each a night of country and related music punctuated by Opry-like comic banter, contests and special attractions such as performance artists, old movies and “soundies” (pre-MTV promotional videos), and even a pie auction.
Kessler’s original following, combined with a new audience comprising fans of more recent developments in alternative country, have made the Honky Tonk Living Room a hit. It seemed fitting, then, that the series’ maiden year concluded with the Texas Rubies reunion, long-awaited by fans old and new. Also on the bill was Edith Frost, emerging momentarily from her indie-rock world to revisit her honky-tonk and rockabilly influences. An added attraction was the real Bob Wills, via soundies from the collection of cartoonist Heather McAdams and her musician husband Chris Ligon, owners of Record Roundup, a vinyl-only country music store and fun junque shop.
Kessler opened the show, as she does every event in the series, and in honor of the season performed the theme from “The Beverly Hillbillies” with original lyrics for Hannukah, retitled “The Ballad of Judah Maccabee”. You had to be there.
Frost’s solo acoustic set applied her signature drawling, bass-heavy strumming and cliff-dangling vocals to covers of songs recorded mostly by country women: Janice Martin, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, the Maddox Brothers & Rose, and Patsy Montana. Amid the inevitably informal setting that included a six-foot stuffed blue marlin as the backdrop, an ancient red replica of a persian rug as the dance floor, and the owners’ golden retriever cruising for pats on the head, Frost decorated her occasional goof-ups with the sort of giggles common among family and friends.
The Texas Rubies took the stage with their a cappella, doo-wop, righteous feminist reading of Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues”, followed by their own “Baby Mine”, sung faster than a speeding bullet. Their rap take on Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes” was as hilarious as their harmonies on Jean Ritchie’s “Blue Diamond Mines” were hair-raising. Respect and affection for old American music is manifest in their selection and rendering of covers, and while many of their originals are somewhat weaker, others, such as “Your Darlin’ Ain’t Done Shit Today”, are remarkably articulate expressions of underexplored moods and circumstances.
An actress, Miller fills a room with a song, but her fellow native comedian Kessler provides a robust ballast of down-home heart, and somehow is never upstaged. The pair’s easy humor is as much fun as their singing; their performance never lags.
The pinnacle of the Texas Rubies reunion was overtaken by a January event based on cartoonist McAdams’ sixth annual Heather’s Li’l Country Calendar. Sold only through the Record Roundup, it features 12 cartoon portraits and dozens of sketches strewn over 365 densely annotated days, including the birthdays, anniversaries and other life events of country artists both legendary and obscure, as well as such other notables as Telly Savalas, Johnny Rotten and Timothy Leary. A parade of Chicago musicians brought the country calendar to life by playing the songs of each artist featured in the cartoon portraits.
Opening the show was Anastasia Davies, revealing a lovely voice no one knew she had with a cover of “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton. Sweet and subtle, her interpretation redeemed this song from its recent hock to Whitney Houston. Anna Fermin stunned the crowd by singing Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” as a heartbroken ballad; then the Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks all but melted the remnants of Chicago’s biggest blizzard in 30 years with his warm, baritone cover of the Louvin Brothers’ chilling “Katy Dear”.
Kelly Hogan and Jon Langford tackled Tammy Wynette and George Jones in a duo that musically emphasized the frequent disharmony between the famous couple. Langford exercised his developing acoustic guitar skills in the aggressive manner he’s trademarked with the Mekons and Waco Brothers.
Having combed the Internet for styling tips, the Texas Rubies covered bluegrass luminary Jimmy Martin in their best approximation of beehive hairdos.
Chicago Reader staff writer Neil Pollack, the event’s emcee, said the only calendar musician who’d posed a problem for Kessler was Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle, because she couldn’t think who might know his music. The answer lay in the encyclopedic repertoire of Robbie Fulks, who, in a duet with his actress wife Donna, performed Carlisle’s ode to voyeurism, “Knot Hole”. In a command encore, he sang an impromptu “Mr. Heartache” by Johnny Paycheck.
The format — acoustic solos and duos — emphasized the songs themselves, as was illustrated particularly, if in the negative, by Moonshine Willy’s Kim Docter and Mike Luke, who covered Wanda Jackson. Meant for dancing, Jackson’s songs can be monotonous when delivered so simply, as Docter pointed out mid-medley when she jokingly alerted the crowd, “These are all different songs, you know.”
Closing the show, though, Pollack spoke for everyone present when he said, “I feel like I’m at country music fantasy camp!”