All this typing is futile, but we both know that. Somewhere there’s a stack of clippings as thick as my head that pretty much all said what pretty much anybody with ears knew: that Mike Ireland made one hell of a record in 1998, called it Learning How To Live.
Well, maybe it’s true that nobody reads. Certainly, precious few critics may be trusted, but trust me. (Hah!) Precious few albums last more than a few weeks, but that one…that one will still be vital in twenty years. Anyway, Learning How To Live was good enough to sit Ireland in a chair next to Gary Chapman on TNN’s “Prime Time Country”, and good enough to get him invited to the Grand Ole Opry. It just didn’t sell, not hardly at all.
Maybe it cost too much.
This is the story of what Learning How To Live cost, condensed version. First off, there was this English composition instructor named Mike Ireland who played bass in a pretty happening Kansas City band called the Starkweathers, named after the thrill killer who inspired Springsteen’s Nebraska. People liked the Starkweathers; they cut a couple singles and an EP. Bloodshot placed one of their songs (“Little White Trash Boy”) between tracks from Robbie Fulks and the Bottle Rockets on their second insurgent country compilation, 1995′s Hell-Bent. Sub Pop, the grunge-fueled Seattle trendsetters, signed ‘em. Ireland quit his teaching job.
And then his wife left with his lead singer.
That last part is pretty much what Learning How To Live was about, at least emotionally. Musically it was about 1963, maybe later, encapsulating the best impulses of Nashville’s storied sound without hinting at a retro fetish, nor dressing funny.
But the point, at least where they hand out money and fame, is that nobody bought the damn record, and hot new country radio wouldn’t play it. So now Ireland’s manager is shopping his new songs to new labels. Still, Learning How To Live is a great album, and SoundScan says almost 2,500 people shared enough of that belief to spend money on it.
“Maybe,” Mike says, drawing a third syllable out of the word, “people didn’t want to hear that record.”
For the rest, he is unfailingly polite. He’s even said in print — long after writing a stunning song in which his fictional protagonist burned their house down — that he hopes his ex-wife finds happiness. So he’s not about to dwell on the failures of a record label.
“I don’t know if they had done everything that they could — or everything that I thought made sense, which would be more like it — if it would have changed anything,” he says. “I mean, who knows? People like to hear some things, and they don’t like to hear others.”
Might be — and this is mostly Ireland’s suggestion — the record buying public simply has no appetite for unironic, bluntly emotional songs these days. Maybe fake is where it’s at. But, it says here, irony is not a substitute for sophistication, and if pop music no longer has the capacity to be honest, we are in deep trouble.
“[Some] people are very, very earnest about their love of country music,” Ireland says carefully, “but a lot of the stuff that winds up in the No Depression sort of field seems to me to find the whole thing rather amusing, or that it’s quaint in some way. Even when the subject matter might be serious, there’s this level at which you’re protected, because we’re not too serious about it. There’s a little bit of a wink and a nod, a little bit of a joke to the whole thing. It just irritates me. It seems to actually insult the thing these people are seeming to love.
“I don’t really understand it, except that it seems very rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s kind of where rock ‘n’ roll is right now. A lot of artists have this ironic distance to their art, and because of that they can never be held accountable for their art. You know, if it’s just a joke, then even if it sucks you’re not really responsible.
“It seems to me there’s no risk. You are not on the line with this art. So if it sucks, ha ha, who cares, it was just a lark. This makes me sound like I’m 70 years old or something, but that’s just so gutless to me, I don’t have any interest in that approach to making art.”
Art without irony may be a dangerous construct these days; equally subversive, Ireland insists country music — regardless of and including its present incarnation — is also art. (If true, this would be bad news to several accounting departments.) “The bad stuff’s art. The good stuff’s art. It’s all art,” he says. “It’s people trying to express something. Even if you express something badly, or obviously, or stupidly, or ironically, you’re still attempting to make this expression, to connect with people. In my mind, that makes it art.”
But art typically struggles to find its audience. Signed to Sub Pop, Mike Ireland & Holler found themselves playing in a variety of settings, from punk rock clubs to a cocktail lounge residency in Nashville, to a couple nights opening for the next big thing.
“We played a club not very far from Nashville,” Ireland says, “this hot new country sort of club. We were playing on a trailer bed inside a building, and we played with this up-and-coming hot new country kind of guy, and this audience was all prepared to hear country music. They were polite, they would clap after the songs, but they just kind of looked at us with very strange expressions, like they weren’t quite sure what it was we were doing.
“I think we could have been, like, very accomplished mimes, and they would have gone, ‘Oh, that takes a little skill,’ and they would have politely clapped, and been thinking, ‘Why are mimes coming on now?’ And you knew they just weren’t getting it. I guess if I had been buff and taken my shirt off it might have helped. The other guy did.”